|St. John's Syro-Malankara Catholic Cathedral, Kerala, India|
As we probe deeper and deeper into the various liturgical traditions of the Catholic Church, we come to one of the most historically important liturgical traditions of the Church. Today, we will take a look at the Antiochene, or West Syrian Rite of the Catholic Church. The Church in Antioch is traditionally the oldest patriarchy in the world, older than even Rome, as tradition holds that St. Peter established the Church in Antioch, and was its first bishop until he moved on to Rome. A very rich liturgy developed in this region, and three of the 23 sui iuris (self-governing) Eastern Catholic Churches utilize the West Syrian Rite. Those Churches are the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, and the two patriarchal Churches which still have the Patriarch of Antioch as their leaders today, the Syriac Catholic Church and the Maronite Catholic Church. To recap, the Catholic Church is divided into six distinct rites, and within those six rites, there are 24 distinct and autonomous Churches. The 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches defines a rite as “the liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary patrimony, culture and circumstances of history of a distinct people, by which its own manner of living the faith is manifested in each Church sui iuris.” Therefore, these three particular Churches share the same patrimony, but have a few different ways of expressing it, as we will see detailed in this essay.
Pope St. John Paul II noticed the close relationship between the Church in Rome and the Church in Antioch when he met with several Maronite Catholic clergy and laity in 2000: “…[T]oday's audience, strengthens the close bond that exists between the Sees of Rome and of Antioch, that ancient city where ‘the disciples were for the first time called Christians’ (Acts 11: 26) and where St. Peter himself lived. Therefore, spurred by an "inner command" that stems from your faith, you have come ‘to visit Cephas’ (Gal 1: 18) in order to live your ecclesial communion with him. Indeed, your full communion with the Church of Rome is a tangible expression of your awareness of unity. In these days you are having a powerful experience of this ecclesial unity, which will help you in turn to be more and more committed to evangelizing the world, since the Maronite tradition is also ‘a privileged opportunity for reviving the dynamism and missionary zeal which each of the faithful must share’.” This essay will serve to briefly demonstrate how the Church is truly One, and how the liturgical tradition and histories of the Churches that use the West Syrian Rite contribute a wonderful treasure to the universal Catholic Church.
Maronite Catholic Church
Probably the most interesting thing about the Maronite Catholic Church is that it is one of only two Eastern Catholic Churches that have never broken communion with the Pope in Rome. Thus, the Maronite Catholic Church has no counterpart in the Oriental or Eastern Orthodox Churches. After spending a few centuries isolated from the rest of the universal Catholic Church, communion was re-affirmed with Rome in 1182. But there’s much more to the Maronite’s history prior to 1182. The Maronite Catholic Church traces its roots back to St. Maron in the 4th century. A contemporary and friend of St. John Chrysostom, St. Maron was a monk who followed in the ascetic footsteps of the Desert Fathers and lived as a hermit after retiring to a mountain range outside of Antioch. Many people followed his example and after his death in 410, his followers built a monastery at Apamea, in what is now the northwestern region of Syria. The Byzantine Emperor Marcian funded the construction of this monastery, and dedicated it in 452.
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