What Are Some of the Different Rites that Make Up the Catholic Church?
“I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”
We say this phrase every Sunday at Mass, but oftentimes we do so without actually thinking about what it means.
For the vast majority of us, especially in the United States and the Western world, we often think of the “Catholic” church as being the Roman Catholic Church. If somebody asks us if we are Catholic we say yes, it is generally assumed, at least in the West, that we are Roman Catholic. In fact, it can be very difficult to find a Catholic Church that is not a Roman (also called Latin) Rite in the United States. However, other types of Catholic Churches do exist. But what are these other Catholic Churches? Where do they come from? What is our relationship to them? Can I go to one of their liturgies to fulfill my Sunday obligation? These are all good questions that will be answered here.
In all, there are several different self-governing, or "sui iuris" (Latin for "of one's own right"), churches all within the Catholic Church. These include the Roman Rite, the Alexandrian Rite, the East Syriac Rite, the West Syriac Rite, the Armenian Rite, and the Byzantine Rite. Let's take a closer look at a few of the major ones.
The largest group of churches found in the Catholic Church belongs to the Byzantine Rite. In 1054 the Great Schism split the Church into the East and West with the West being Roman Catholicism and the East becoming the various Orthodox Churches found around the world. Despite this large split, some of the various Orthodox Churches have since come back into union with the pope.
These groups are allowed to keep their liturgical traditions and even though these traditions may look very different from what you may be used to in the normal Roman Catholic parish in the United States, it is fully in union with the pope. Going to them will count towards fulfilling your Sunday Mass obligation and if you can find them, it is a great way to get to know the Catholic Church’s great diversity throughout the world.
Under the umbrella of Byzantine Catholics, you can find the Ruthenian Church, the Russian Greek Church, the Romanian Church, the Melkite Church, the Ukranian Greek Church, and depending on how it is counted, the Armenian Church (some people consider the Armenian Church to be separate or older than the Byzantines, but what is undisputed is that they are fully in union with the pope) along with several others.
Alexandrian Rite: Coptic, Eritrean, and Ethiopian Churches
A relatively "new" rite is the Coptic Church, whose members are primarily found in Egypt. Their liturgy is in Arabic and Coptic. Coptic Catholics are not to be confused with Coptic Christians -- those who we so often hear about being persecuted in Egypt and the Near East. Some members of the Coptic Church decided to come back into union with Rome in the mid-1700s while a majority remained separate from Rome. So, when somebody says they are Coptic, they might be a Coptic Catholic in union with the pope or they might be a Coptic Christian who is not in union with the pope. Regardless, their liturgies look remarkably similar, so it is important to figure out which group they are a part of before deciding to go to the liturgy to fulfill your Sunday obligation.
West Syriac Rite: Maronite, Syriac and Syro-Malankara Churches
On one end of the chronological spectrum is the West Syriac Rite. This rite includes the Maronite Church, whose liturgy comes originally from the country of Lebanon and uses Aramaic, which was the language that Jesus Christ spoke. This tradition was never separated from Rome and has been in union with the Pope for 2000 years. The majority of these churches are in the Middle East. However, they are also found in the United States and Canada, as well as parts of South America and Australia.
These examples show the two different ways in which these various rites came about. One way is that the rite was always in union with Rome, but their practices developed organically and seperately from the Roman Catholic liturgy. These ones are, and always have been, recognized as a valid expression of the Catholic Church. However, the majority of the other rites that are now recognized are the result of a split from Rome that have since been reunited. In the time while they were split their liturgical tradition did not cease and the liturgy developed, so when they came back into union with Rome they had a liturgy that was different from what had developed in Rome. In these cases, the pope often allowed them to keep their traditions, especially their liturgical practices and a new rite was granted.
Though not it's own rite, the Anglican Use is a new, distinct form of liturgy within the Roman Rite worth noting. This includes the Ordinariates of the Chair of Saint Peter in the United States, Our Lady of Walsingham in the United Kingdom and Our Lady of the Southern Cross in Australia. Despite the name, these people are not Anglican, but full members of the Roman Catholic Church. They maintain some of their Anglican traditions as converts. With a new bishop who oversees the parishes that belong to this Ordinariate, you will see a liturgy that developed through the Anglican tradition but is now back in union with the pope and the Roman Catholic Church.
If you have the opportunity to attend one of the liturgies of these different rites of the Catholic Church, I highly encourage it. You can see how our faith has manifested itself in the worship of the Mass throughout the world over the span of 2,000 years. One small caveat though: a number of these rites that are in union with the pope are formed from larger groups that did not come into union with the Pope, so it is good to do a little research before you attend one of these rites to make sure they are actually in union with what we believe as Roman Catholics.
While there are several other rites that are in union with Rome but not covered here, these are some of the major ones. Even if one of these rites is not available near you, you can certainly pray for all the members of the Catholic Church, especially every Sunday when we affirm our faith in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church".