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The Church is a Federation of Churches or Rites
Within the one Catholic Church there are in fact many churches which maintain their own traditions of theology, liturgy, spirituality, and government that are quite different from those usually associated with "Roman," or Latin (Western) Catholicism.
As most of us realize, the Church began in the East. Our Lord lived and died and resurrected in the Holy Land. The Church spread from Jerusalem throughout the known world. As the Church spread, it encountered different cultures and adapted, retaining from each culture what was consistent with the Gospel. In the city of Alexandria, the Church became very Egyptian; in Antioch it remained very Jewish; in Rome it took on an Italian appearance and in the Constantinople it took on the trappings of the Roman imperial court. All the churches which developed this way were Eastern, except Rome. Most Catholics in the United States have their roots in Western Europe where the Roman rite predominated. It has been said that the Eastern Catholic Churches are "the best kept secret in the Catholic Church."
The Vatican II Council declared that "all should realize it is of supreme importance to understand, venerate, preserve, and foster the exceedingly rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern churches, in order faithfully to preserve the fullness of Christian tradition" (Unitatis Redintegrato, 15). Pope John Paul II said that "the Catholic Church is both Eastern and Western."
"The Eastern Churches are the Treasures of the Catholic Church" -- Pope John XXIII
Our Lady's Maronite Parish belongs to the Eparchy (diocese) of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, one of the two Maronite dioceses in the United States. The Eparchy consists of over thirty-five parishes located in major American cities from the Smoky Mountains westward. Our Lady's parish boundaries cover all of central Texas and we are a sister parish to the Maronite parishes in San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas.
Many people forget - or do not realize - that Christianity came from Judaism. As the church expanded beyond the realm of Judaism, it adapted itself to the people and cultures in which it took root. This cultural adaptation resulted in the 22 different rites of the Catholic Church today.
It is from Jewish roots that the church of Antioch sprung. In fact, the church of Antioch was founded by St. Peter and it was there that the terms "Christian" and "Catholic" were first used. The first Christians were Jews and entire communities came to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Evidence from archaeological studies of Maronite church buildings show that they had earlier been synagogues.
During the many disputes among Christians in the fourth century over the divinity and humanity of Christ, the arguments became heated in Antioch. Under the leadership of St. Maron, the head abbot, monks left the city for peace and quiet. Lay people and clergy -Maronites- followed the monks. Later during the Arab invasion of the Middle East the Maronites fled to the Cyprus and to the safety of the Lebanon mountains.
To this day, the Maronite Church retains its Jewish roots more than any other Catholic rite, as evidenced by its use of Aramaic/Syriac and by the prayers which remain faithful to Semitic and Old Testament forms.
The Maronite liturgy is one of the oldest in the Catholic Church. St. Peter and other Apostles brought the liturgy of the Last Supper to Antioch where it developed in Greek and Syriac concurrently. The early Antioch liturgy is the basis of the Maronite liturgy.
The first thing you will notice is the layout of the church itself. There is a platform extending from the altar, called a bema. The early churches were former synagogues, and the bema was the raised platform on which the elders stood and read scripture. You will also notice the richness of the priestly vestments. The design of the Maronite vestments is indigenous to the Holy Land.
The priest and deacon sit at the end of the bema facing the altar rather than presiding over the congregation. The semicircular seating arrangement dates back to the two monastic choirs of the early church. it encourages the congregation to be participants in the liturgy, rather than spectators. The liturgy is throughout a dialogue between the people and the priest. The priest serves as the prayer leader in much the same way as Moses served the Israelites. The congregation stands or sits during the liturgy as the liturgy is chanted back and forth between the priest and the congregation. In Eastern Catholic Churches, kneeling is done on Pentecost, in private prayer and can be done during Confession (Reconciliation).
The Maronite liturgy begins with calling on God's mercy, whereas the Latin Rite liturgy begins with "let us call to mind our sins." We also acknowledge our sinfulness, but greater stress is laid on God's mercy. As one prayer says, "Your mercy, O Lord, is greater than the weight of the mountains..."
The Triasagion (Qadeeshat Alaho) is the first prayer that is sung in Aramaic, and it is sung three times in honor of the Holy Trinity. It is normally sung facing East.
The sign of peace is also different from the Latin Rite. The priest kisses the alter, places his hands on the chalice, then passes God's peace to the deacon, who then gives it to the acolyte, who passes it to the first person in the pews, who passes it to the next person, an so on. Very rich indeed!
The Consecration is sung in Aramaic, the everyday language of our Lord, the Blessed Mother, and the Apostles. It is the closest we come to the Lord's actual words at the Last Supper.
Throughout the liturgy, the priest will bless the congregation using the handcross, the Gospel, and the Eucharist itself, both before and after Communion. Holy Communion is given only by intinction. There is no Communion in the hand and there are no Eucharistic ministers. Only the bishop, the priest, the deacon or the subdeacon give communion. It is done with the words, "The servant of God ... receives the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life."
The Maronite rite has over eighty Eucharistic Prayers, called Anaphorae. Most were composed by different saints, including St. James (the oldest prayer), the Apostles, St. Peter, St. Sixtus and St. Basil. The prayers throughout the liturgy are full of Biblical Imagery. The story of salvation is told over and over again, and each liturgy is a short course in theology, using spiritual poetry to give praise, honor and thanksgiving for God's mercy and forgiveness, and His constant love for us not matter what!
A Roman rite Catholic may attend any Eastern Catholic Liturgy and fulfill his of her obligations at and Eastern Catholic Parish. A Roman rite Catholic may join any Eastern Catholic Parish and receive any sacrament from an Eastern Catholic priest, since all belong to the Catholic Church as a whole.
The Holy Father encourages Roman rite Catholics to visit the Eastern Catholic churches, although Eastern Catholics are discouraged from going to Roman rite parishes, as it is the will of Rome that Eastern Catholics retain the rich heritage and support their own parishes. Vatican II even went so far as to say that if any Eastern Catholics have fallen away from the Eastern rite out of time or neglect, they should take pains to return to their heritage. Eastern Catholics who attend a Roman rite parish because there is no Eastern parish for them to attend still remain Eastern Catholics of their own particular rite.