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Why So Many Rites in the Church

And More on “Absolution” at Mass

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: What is the reason for the existence of so many Eucharistic rites present in the Church? Can you explain the origin of different rites, and why does the Church accept all the divisions of the Eucharistic celebration? — N.A., Bangaluru, Karnataka state, India
A: Although some people think that the Catholic Church is equivalent to the Latin or Roman rite, this is a misconception. The Roman rite is by far the largest and most widely diffused in the world, but the Catholic Church is composed of 23 distinct Churches or rites. According to the Annuario Pontificio, Eastern Catholics number about 16.3 million.
The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches defines “rite” as follows:
“Rite is the liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary heritage, distinguished according to peoples’ culture and historical circumstances, that finds expression in each autonomous church’s way of living the faith.”
Therefore, “rite” concerns not only a Church’s liturgy, but also its theology, spirituality and law. In some cases it might also involve ethnicity and language. Because of this, many members of these rites prefer to speak about Churches rather than rites. Others say that “Church” refers to the people, and “rite” to their spiritual and cultural heritage and patrimony.
Not all of the 23 Churches have a distinct liturgy or differ only in the language used or in local traditions. Traditionally there are six major liturgical families: the Latin, Alexandrian, Antiochian, Armenian, Chaldean and Constantinopolitan (sometimes called Byzantine).
The Latin rite is mostly formed by the Roman rite which is divided into an ordinary and extraordinary form. There are also some other Latin liturgical traditions such as the Ambrosian (habitually celebrated in the Archdiocese of Milan), the Mozarabic (celebrated in a more restricted manner in Toledo in Spain), and that of the city of Braga in Portugal which is permitted in that diocese but not widely used. Others, such as the rite of the Diocese of Lyon, in France, have fallen into disuse. The specific rites of some religious orders, such as the Order of Preachers, are apparently being used again after a hiatus of some years.
The Constantinopolitan, or Byzantine, liturgy is used by 14 Churches, the Alexandrian by three, the Antiochian by three, the Chaldean by two and the Armenian by one.
It would be arduous to trace the origin and history of each Church. In broad strokes we can say that the various rites were born from the effort of distinct peoples to express the one faith according to their own particular traits and traditions in language, music, literary and artistic styles.
It is somewhat similar to the fact that the four Evangelists present the same Christ but each one with particular nuances that together give a more complete picture. However, rather than each diocese having its own liturgy, various regions of the ancient world tended to coalesce around the liturgy of dioceses believed to be of apostolic origin. Thus Rome became the center of the Latin world. The Church in Alexandria in Egypt, traditionally founded by St. Mark, became the inspiration for Ethiopia. Antioch in Syria, the first see of St. Peter, had Greek- and Aramaic-speaking Christians.
Some went as missionaries to the East, and the liturgy developed from this tradition became the Chaldean and Syro-Malabar Rites. The Greek-speakers headed west, and their customs later blended with practices of the capital of the Byzantine Empire to form the Constantinopolitan liturgies. The Maronite and Armenian rites formed slightly later and synthesized several traditions as well as introducing many unique elements from their own heritage.
With respect to these Churches’ communion within the Catholic fold some have never been formally severed from communion with the Pope, although they were not in contact with him for centuries due to a lack of communication or even of knowledge of each other’s existence. Others returned to communion after a period of separation at various stages in history even as late as the early 20th century.
In this process of reunification, some people thought that a return to communion with Rome meant abandoning the ancient traditions and adopting the Latin rite. This was practically never official policy, and the popes generally saw the diversity as enhancing rather than endangering unity. The call for liturgical unity after the Council of Trent was above all centered on the Roman rite and did not affect the Eastern Churches.
The popes have frequently reiterated their appreciation of the specific gifts of the Eastern Churches and consider them as a true gift to the universal Church.
Thus Pope Benedict XIV in his encyclical Allatae Sunt in 1755 recalled some of the actions of his predecessors in favor of Eastern Christians:
“13. The Greek Manual, published at Benevento, contains two Constitutions of Popes Leo X and Clement VII which vigorously criticize Latins who abuse the Greeks for practices which the Council of Florence permitted them: in particular that they may offer the Sacrifice of the Mass with leavened bread, that they may take a wife before receiving Holy Orders and keep their wife after Ordination, and that they may offer the Eucharist under both species even to children. When Pius IV decreed that Greeks living in the Dioceses of Latins should be subject to the Latin bishops, he added that ‘by this decree, however, We do not purpose that the Greeks themselves should be drawn away from their Greek rite, or that they should be hindered in any way in other places by the local Ordinaries or others’ (veteris Bullarii, vol. 2, const. no. 75, Romanus Pontifex).
“14. The annals of Gregory XIII, written by Fr. Maffei and printed at Rome in 1742, relate several deeds of this pope which aimed at restoring the Copts and Armenians to the Catholic faith, though quite unsuccessfully. But of especial interest are his words concerning the foundation of three colleges in Rome which he had established for the education of Greek, Maronite, and Armenian students, in which he provided that they should continue in their oriental rites (in novo Bullario, vol. 4, pt. 3, const. 63, and pt. 4, const. 157 and 173).
“A solemn union of the Ruthenians with the Apostolic See was enacted in the time of Pope Clement VIII. The decree prepared by the Ruthenian archbishops and bishops for establishing union contains the following condition: ‘However, the ceremonies and rites of the divine liturgy and holy sacraments shall be preserved and fully observed in accordance with the custom of the oriental church; only those points shall be corrected which are a hindrance to union; everything shall be done in the ancient manner as they were long ago when the union was in existence.’
“Shortly afterwards a disturbance was caused by a widespread rumor that the union had put an end to all the old rites which the Ruthenians followed in the divine psalmody, the sacrifice of the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, and other holy ceremonies. Paul V in an apostolic brief written in 1615 and printed in the Greek Manual, solemnly declared his will in the following words: ‘Provided that they are not opposed to truth and the teaching of the Catholic faith, and they do not prevent communion with the Roman church, it was not and it is not the intention, understanding, or will of the Roman church to remove or destroy them by means of this union; and this could not and cannot be said or thought; instead these rites have been allowed and granted to the Ruthenian bishops and clergy by Apostolic kindness.’”
Later referring to Latin clergy who tried to oblige Eastern Catholics to adopt the Latin rite, the Pope is very severe:
“21. We have dealt with transferring from the Latin to the Greek rite. Transferrals in the opposite direction are not forbidden as strictly as the former. Still, a missionary who hopes for the return of a Greek or Oriental to the unity of the Catholic Church may not make him give up his own rite. This can cause great harm.
“Melkite Catholics used to transfer willingly from the Greek to the Latin rite, but they have been forbidden to do so. Missionaries have been warned not to urge them to transfer. Permission to do so has been reserved to the private decision of the Apostolic See. This is clear from Our Constitution Demandatam, 85, sect. 35 (Bullarium, vol. 1): ‘Moreover We expressly forbid henceforth all Melkite Catholics who observe the Greek rite to transfer to the Latin rite. We give strict orders to all missionaries not to encourage anyone rashly to transfer to the Latin from the Greek rite, nor even to allow them to do so if they want to without the permission of the Apostolic See, under the penalties which will be set out below and other penalties to be decided on by Us.'”
Among these penalties were:
“Any Latin rite missionary, whether of the secular or religious clergy, who induces with his advice or assistance any Eastern rite faithful to transfer to the Latin rite, will be deposed and excluded from his benefice in addition to the ipso facto suspension a divinis and other punishments that he will incur as imposed in the aforesaid Constitution Demandatam.”
Over a century later, in the apostolic constitution Orientalium Dignitas of 1894, Pope Leo XIII confirmed that these penalties were still in effect. He also expressed his appreciation for the Eastern Churches:
“The Churches of the East are worthy of the glory and reverence that they hold throughout the whole of Christendom in virtue of those extremely ancient, singular memorials that they have bequeathed to us. For it was in that part of the world that the first actions for the redemption of the human race began, in accord with the all-kind plan of God. They swiftly gave forth their yield: there flowered in first blush the glories of preaching the True Faith to the nations, of martyrdom, and of holiness. They gave us the first joys of the fruits of salvation. From them has come a wondrously grand and powerful flood of benefits upon the other peoples of the world, no matter how far-flung. When blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, intended to cast down the manifold wickedness of error and vice, in accord with the will of Heaven, he brought the light of divine Truth, the Gospel of peace, freedom in Christ to the metropolis of the Gentiles.”
He also declared:
“The maintenance in being of the Eastern rites is of more importance than might be imagined. The august antiquity, which lends dignity to these various rites is an adornment of the whole church and a witness to the divine unity of the Catholic faith. Perhaps nothing, in fact, better proves the note of Catholicity in the Church of God than the singular homage paid by these ceremonies which vary in form, which are celebrated in languages venerable by their antiquity, and which are still further hallowed by the use that has been made of them by the Apostles and Fathers of the Church.”
On occasion of the 15th centenary of St. John Chrysostom (407-1907), Pope St. Pius X presided at a solemn pontifical Mass in the Byzantine rite at the Vatican on February 12, 1908. In his letter promulgating this celebration he wrote: “May the Easterns separated from Us see and understand in what great and profound regard We hold all the rites alike.”
Pope Benedict XV asserted in the 1917 encyclical Dei Providentis: “The Church of Jesus Christ is neither Latin nor Greek nor Slav, but Catholic; accordingly she makes no difference between her children and Greeks, Latins, Slavs and members of all other nations are equal in the eyes of the Apostolic See.”
Pope Pius XI had a great respect for the Eastern rites and did much to strengthen them. In his November 1923 encyclical Ecclesiam Dei, published on the occasion of the third centenary of the martyr of Catholic unity, St. Josaphat, he wrote: “Then we shall see all peoples, brought together in this manner, in possession of the same rights, whatever may be their race, language or liturgy. The Roman Church has always scrupulously respected and maintained the various rites, and has at all times insisted on their preservation.”
Pope Pius celebrated the 15th centenary of St. Cyril of Alexandria in the encyclical Orientalis Ecclesiae in 1944. He states:
“Each and every nation of Oriental rite must have its own rightful freedom in all that is bound up with its own history and its own genius and character, saving always the truth and integrity of the doctrine of Jesus Christ. … They will never be forced to abandon their own legitimate rites or to exchange their own venerable or traditional customs for Latin rites and customs. All these are to be held in equal esteem and honor, for they adorn the common Mother Church with a royal garment of many colors. Indeed this variety of rites and customs, preserving inviolate what is most ancient and most valuable in each, presents no obstacle to a true and genuine unity.”
The Second Vatican Council in the document Orientalium Ecclesiarum directed that that the traditions of Eastern Catholic Churches should be maintained. It declared that:
“[I]t is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should retain its traditions whole and entire and likewise that it should adapt its way of life to the different needs of time and place,” and that they should all “preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life, and … these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement.”
Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, deals with Eastern Catholic Churches in paragraph 23, stating:
“By divine providence it has come about that various churches, established in various places by the apostles and their successors, have in the course of time coalesced into several groups, organically united, which, preserving the unity of faith and the unique divine constitution of the universal Church, enjoy their own discipline, their own liturgical usage, and their own theological and spiritual heritage. Some of these churches, notably the ancient patriarchal churches, as parent-stocks of the Faith, so to speak, have begotten others as daughter churches, with which they are connected down to our own time by a close bond of charity in their sacramental life and in their mutual respect for their rights and duties. This variety of local churches with one common aspiration is splendid evidence of the catholicity of the undivided Church. In like manner the Episcopal bodies of today are in a position to render a manifold and fruitful assistance, so that this collegiate feeling may be put into practical application.”
St. John Paul II promulgated the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches and celebrated the centenary of Leo XII’s Orientalium Dignitas with the apostolic letter Orientale Lumen:
“Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each.
“Our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters are very conscious of being the living bearers of this tradition, together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition must also be fully acquainted with this treasure and thus feel, with the Pope, a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the Church’s catholicity be restored to the Church and to the world, expressed not by a single tradition, and still less by one community in opposition to the other; and that we too may be granted a full taste of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church which is preserved and grows in the life of the Churches of the East as in those of the West.”
In conclusion the Catholic Church desires that its Eastern component not only survive but also continue to grow, flourish and enrich the universal Church with treasures.
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Follow-up: Penitential Rite and “Absolution”
Some readers made observations regarding our October 11 piece on the penitential rite.
One priest wrote: “If I remember rightly, in the 1960s when I took part daily in dialogue at Mass, the Confiteor was said first by the priest and then by the people (including the server). It was not just a dialogue between priest and server.”
This priest remembers correctly. The possibility of the entire congregation, and not just the server, saying the second Confiteor was foreseen and permitted. Having the server say it was a minimum requirement. If no server were available, anybody, including a woman who knew the Latin, could say it while kneeling at the altar rail.
Another priest, from Louisiana, mentions the following:
“In your recent response to the question about the penitential rite and ‘Absolution,’ I believe the Church has always taught there are many vehicles by which venial sins can be forgiven, e.g., attendance at Mass, reception of Communion, reading Scripture, corporal works of mercy, works of charity, etc. Presuming my premise is correct, then wouldn’t the absolution at Mass also be a vehicle by which venial sins are forgiven? I’ve always read the rubric: ‘The rite concludes with the priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance’ to mean that mortal sins are not forgiven, for which the sacrament of reconciliation/confession is necessary.”
I would say that our reader is substantially correct insofar as attendance at Mass is considered as one of the vehicles through which venial sins are forgiven. In this broad sense the priest’s absolution could be taken as such a vehicle. Notwithstanding this, the priest’s absolution at Mass would not be transformed into a sacramental absolution in the technical sense of the sacrament of reconciliation which absolves both mortal and venial sins.
In my earlier response I deliberately avoided getting into this topic as the original question was more centered on the external-ritual aspect than the theological. This follow-up has provided a useful opportunity to complete the earlier answer.
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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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