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The Byzantine Catholic church is a part of the larger Catholic Church. Historically, the Christian Church was divided in two halves, the Western church and The Eastern church. Politically and culturally, these divisions mirrored the early divisions of the Roman Empire. The Byzantine Catholic church is a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Byzantine Catholics are comprised of seven distinct groups and follow the Rite, or religious practices, of the Catholic Orthodox Church.
As citizens, Byzantine Catholics were governed by the successive Emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire. Spiritually, they are governed by their Patriarch sitting in Constantinople. The Patriarch is a father of the church and one of its recognized spiritual authorities. The Pope is honored as the Patriarch of Rome, one equal but not superior to the other patriarchs of the Catholic Church.
Historically, the Western church was centered on Rome, both in language and culture. Latin was the language of liturgical, or public, worship and religious ceremonies. The Byzantine Orthodox Church was centered in Constantinople, and Greek was the liturgical language. Due to its great distance from Rome, the Byzantine Catholic church was more heavily influenced by Greek, Syrian, and Oriental cultures. Comprised of seven diverse groups, liturgies are performed in the languages of the groups’ members.
For instance, Melkites residing in Syria and Egypt use a mixture of Arabic and Greek liturgically. Romanian Byzantine Catholics, living mostly in Transylvania, use their own language for all liturgical functions. All seven groups use the Byzantine Rite, which refers to divine office. These are duties performed for God. They include the recitation of certain prayers at fixed hours by priests, clerics, and religious. The meaning of Orthodox is “right believer,” and any Catholic Christian following the Byzantine Rite is considered Orthodox.
The Roman Emperor Constantine, for whom Constantinople, now Istanbul, was named, had wanted to found a “New Rome.” One legacy he left was a schism within the Catholic Church which still exists today. Past Popes did not recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople. Constantine was very powerful, however, and managed to always keep one there. Today, the Byzantine Catholic church does not recognize the Pope as the supreme religious authority, but instead as a patriarch of the church among equals.
The Byzantine Catholic church, under its rich and varied cultural influences, grew to be very different from the Roman Catholic Church. Byzantine art mixed ecclesiastical and oriental influences to create religious designs not seen before. Animals were used symbolically in religious art. Dragons and birds with human heads decorated stained glass. Winged lions gathered together reading sacred books adorn archways and walls.
Differences evolved between the Eastern and Western churches on religious dogma. One Catholic doctrine still remains consistent. Neither half constitutes one church, and each is a part of the whole.