Malankara World

History of Church

One and Many Churches (Origins of the Church)

by Chorbishop John D. Faris

Editor's Note: This is presented from the point of view of the Catholic Church.

When being introduced to other Catholics, Eastern Catholics are often given the litmus test, "Are you under the pope?" They are asked this question because most Catholics identify the Catholic Church with the Latin Catholic Church. It comes as a shock to many to learn that the Catholic Church is actually a communion of twenty-two churches; one of these churches is the Latin Church and the other twenty-one fall under the category of Eastern Churches---all of them are Catholic!

An explanation of the evolution of the Eastern churches is complex and somewhat confusing. Relations among them are comparable to many American families today that are comprised of stepparents, brothers and sisters, half-brother and sisters and in-laws.

Why Are There So Many?

Some would offer the simplistic explanation that the multiplicity of Eastern churches is the result of disputes and divisions. Like so many simple answers, this is only partially correct. Some churches are indeed the result of divisions that unfortunately took place. However, history demonstrates otherwise and reveals to us that while the Church has always sought unity of faith in the one Lord, it was never "one" from the perspective of liturgy, discipline or government. The Gospel message was taken from Jerusalem to various parts of the world, took root and flourished to give rise to a wonderful diversity of churches that were, for some time, all in full communion with each other.

Christianity in the Roman Empire

Christianity arose in the context of one of history's greatest political structures, the Roman Empire, a governmental structure encompassing a territory today controlled by approximately forty nations. Despite the persecution inflicted on the adherents of this new religious movement, the Empire furnished Christians with a superstructure in which to function; that is, the necessary communication, transportation and commercial systems served in the spread of the Good News.

Certain cities that were of great importance for the secular world attained similar importance also for Christians for the very same reasons.

Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch were all centers of commerce and government. As such, they attracted the apostles and evolved into centers of evangelization. With the passage of time, the Christian communities that matured in these cities took pride in their apostolic foundations. Rome and Antioch identified themselves with Peter, who preached in both of these cities, and who was martyred in Rome. The Christians of Alexandria take pride in the tradition that Saint Mark brought the Christian message to them. This identification with an apostle eventually became so important to the Christian world that Constantinople, after its establishment as an imperial capital in the fourth century, coincidentally found the tomb of Saint Andrew, so that it, too, could lay claim to apostolic authority. Eventually, Constantinople would overshadow all the other important Christian centers and even rival Rome. In doing so, it reminded the Romans that Saint Andrew was the elder brother of Peter.

The fourth century was a turning point for the Christian Church. In the first part of the century, emperor Constantine the Great declared Christianity to be the state religion. No longer were Christians obliged to hide from persecutors in the catacombs. Instead, Christians were able to profess their faith publicly and to establish centers of worship and administration.

During the latter part of the century, another emperor, Theodosius, divided the Roman Empire into two separate empires, the Western and the Eastern, with their respective capitals at Rome and Constantinople.

This division was to be of crucial importance to the Church, because when divisions arose, the rifts occurred along the same lines, that is, Western and Eastern. The term Eastern Church designates all those churches which found their origins in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Centers of Evangelization

Jerusalem is a city revered as holy by the followers of three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, because it is held to be the site of the Temple of Solomon, the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the rock from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. As an aside, medieval mapmakers, who were concerned more with showing people their place in the world rather than geography, always placed Jerusalem in the center of the map. Everything else revolved around that one city. Despite the disposition of Divine Providence that this city was to be the site of numerous key events in religious history, the fact that it was isolated and landlocked made it insignificant in the cultural, commercial and governmental spheres; therefore, it was ill-suited to be the center of any religious movement. Tragic events resulted in even a further decline in the city. It was destroyed soon after the death of Jesus in 70 A.D. and rebuilt only to be destroyed again in 135 A.D.

By the time that Christianity had attained a certain public recognition, Jerusalem had already ceased to be a vital, progressive center of the Christian Church and was instead a place of sacred memories.

It is fortunate that the fate of Christianity was not bound to the fate of Jerusalem. After receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus soon dispersed and established Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire and even beyond its Eastern boundaries in the kingdom of Armenia and the Persian Empire.

When the followers of Jesus began to take the Good News to the pagan world, the new religion naturally presented itself as a novelty, and, since its followers were usually to be found in the urban centers, it was regarded as a religion of the city. Association with urban society brought with it great culture and economic resources, which are naturally more available in the cities than in the rural areas. After the Church was recognized by the state, it soon received the largess of the imperial court. Imitating the imperial court, the Church constructed elaborate churches and monasteries. Imperial money and wealthy benefactors also afforded the Church the possibility to establish libraries, schools, and charitable institutions. However, there is a negative side to the Church's identification with the urban population. The rural population was mistrustful of this new institution with its "citified" ways. They were so reluctant to accept the new religion that the word for countryside, "pagus," eventually came to mean non-believers, hence, the term "pagan."

Even after the rural population had come to accept Christianity, difficulties arose because of a conflict of culture and political interests. The cities of Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria were Greek in culture and identified themselves with the political interests of the imperial government. The rural regions surrounding Alexandria and Antioch were not Greek in culture, but were Coptic and Semitic in language and culture and were antipathetic towards Constantinople, which was decried as a drain on their resources. The doctrinal disputes that arose during the fifth century, instead of being fundamentally theological in nature, were expressions of the cultural, political and economic tensions of the times. A modern example of political tensions being given a religious veneer are the problems in North Ireland.

A city which was to gain importance very early in the life of the Church was Antioch, a political capital and center of commerce and culture. As such, it was an ideal location for the dissemination of the Christian message, especially after the fall of Jerusalem. As I said earlier, Peter is connected with the establishment of the Church in Antioch; Paul used the city as a base for his mission to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. Their efforts to upbuild and consolidate the community resulted in the attainment of a unique communal identity, and it was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called "Christians" (Acts 11:26).

Many of the Eastern Churches trace their origins to Antioch. In addition to the region immediately surrounding it in the Middle East, the churches of Persia, India, Mongolia and China all find their origins in the evangelization effort of the Antiochenes. Unfortunately, the current status of Antioch, today a small town in Turkey, does not reveal the former greatness of a city so crucial to the evolution of Eastern Christianity.

Another key city in the life of the Eastern Christian world is Alexandria. Founded in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great, the city of Alexandria exerted an influence over northern Africa in a manner similar to that of Antioch in the Middle East.

We mentioned a few moments ago that the Gospel message was to expand beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire into Persia and Armenia. It is important to recall the fact that the Gospel crossed imperial boundaries, because the churches of Persia and Armenia were soon to separate from the rest of the Christian world because of the animosity among the governments. An insignificant city on the Bosphorus, Byzantion, as it was then called, was to be the site of emperor Constantine's new imperial capital. Constantinople, as it eventually came to be called, attained a prestige that overshadowed the entire East and rivaled the status of Rome in the governance of the Church.

Heresies, Invasions and Schisms

However, this blessed unity was not to last forever. Tensions within the Church soon gave rise to divisions. One doctrinal dispute questioning the divinity of Christ, known as Nestorianism, which was condemned at a Church Council in 431, resulted in the separation of the Church of Persia from the rest of the Christian Church.

Monosphysitism, a theological position that exaggerates the divine nature of Christ to the detriment of his human nature, was condemned during the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This resulted in the separation of the territory surrounding Antioch , Alexandria, and Armenia. While the countryside had departed, the urban Christians of these cities, faithful to Constantinople, remained in full communion.

Up to this point the divisions of which we have spoken all took place within the East itself. By the beginning of the eleventh century, another division arose--this time along Eastern/ Western lines. For some time the Eastern and Western Empires had become culturally and politically estranged. Rome became Latin and Constantinople was Greek . Misunderstandings arose tha t eventually resulted in the rupture between the Eastern Churches and the Church of Rome. Those of the East identified themselves as Orthodox and those of the West as Catholics (even though both terms can be aptly applied to both Churches.) With the exception of a few scattered communities in southern Italy and Mt. Lebanon, Catholicism had disappeared from the East.

Partial Reunions

During the sixteenth century with the Counter Reformation of Trent, missionaries were sent to the Eastern territories. The dedication, erudition, and wealth of the missionaries impressed the Eastern Orthodox, and eventually small pockets of Eastern Catholic communities were founded. The Church was at a crossroads at this point. It is important to recall that for five hundred years, the Catholic Church was almost entirely a Latin Catholic Church. To be Catholic was to be Latin Catholic.

The Church authorities were confronted with the issue of whether the new converts needed to become Latin in order to be Catholic. It was decided that they could become Catholic and still retain their Eastern traditions. After bishops had been appointed for these communities, Eastern Catholic Churches came into existence. There are now twenty-one Eastern Catholic Churches, all in communion with Rome.

Traditions and Rites

The centers of evangelization, the cities of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, the Persian Empire, and the Kingdom of Armenia, gave rise to the five major traditions in the Church: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Chaldean (East Syrian) and Armenian. The twenty-one Eastern Catholic churches each observe a rite that was derived from one of these traditions.


Two world wars, the persecution of communist dictatorships, regional conflicts (the most famous being the Arab-Israeli wars) and the rise of fanatic Islamic fundamentalism resulted in the massive emigration of Eastern Christians to all parts of the world during the twentieth century. This migration has resulted in a situation wherein the population of the Eastern Churches -- both Catholic and non-Catholic - is greater in the lands of the immigration than in the place of the Church's origins. In some places Christianity has almost disappeared. Istanbul, the former Constantinople, has only a few thousand Christians subject to the Ecumenical Patriarch.

A Tradition of Disunity

One can see that the history of Christianity has been one of expansion and division. In general, the Church is divided between East and West. Eastern Christianity itself is divided into the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Catholic Churches. The plea of our Lord for unity was a prediction of this unfortunate situation. Perhaps the greatest tragedy was the fact that the Christian world had become comfortable with the arrangement; disunity had become an accepted fact-until the birth of the ecumenical movement. In short, ecumenism is a quest for unity among Christians. For a moment, let us examine this movement with regard to the Eastern Churches.

The Catholic Church can take pride in the accomplishments that have been made in the quest for unity, a program known as ecumenism. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the Catholics are the "new kids on the block" with regard to ecumenism. At first the Catholic Church was mistrustful of any such effort. It is only necessary to refer to a statement of Pope Pius XI to appreciate the Catholic mindset: "There is only one way in which the unity of Christians may be fostered, and that is by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it; for from that one true Church they have in the past unhappily fallen away."

Dialogues of Charity and Truth

With Vatican II came a refined understanding of "Church" that included not only the Catholic Church, but all who professed the name of Christ. It was with this new understanding of Church that the Catholic Church embarked on a quest for unity. The journey was to be undertaken on two paths: a dialogue of charity and a dialogue of truth. The dialogue of truth is the interchange that takes place between the theologians as they attempt to reconcile the doctrinal differences that have arisen during the past 1500 years. However, this dialogue of truth must be preceded by and based upon a dialogue of charity, which is simply a reversal of the process of alienation that has occurred. Like any healing process, it is gradual, painfully slow and difficult to measure. It is a journey that is also marred by setbacks and disappointments. Nevertheless, we are confident that the Lord who has begun the good work will see it through to completion (Phil. 1:6). Success in the dialogue of charity will not take the form of a signed agreement between Church leaders; rather it will have achieved its goal if someday Eastern Christians awake to an atmosphere of love and trust that has been lacking for so long.

About the Author:

Chorbishop John D. Faris, a native of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, was born in January 1951 and is a Maronite Catholic priest of the Eparchy of Saint Maron. In 1976, he was ordained to the priesthood and in 1988 he was appointed a Chaplain to His Holiness. In 1991, he was ordained a Chorbishop of the Maronite Church by Archbishop Francis Mansour Zayek.

On 1 June 2009, Chorbishop Faris was appointed Pastor of Saint Louis Gonzaga Maronite Church in Utica, New York. He has an extensive Canon Law background and currently is a member of the Committee of Church Governance for the Cannon Law Society of America.

Chorbishop Faris is a member of the Board of Councilors for the Eastern Lieutancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre and also serves as a Knight Commander of the Order. In October 2009, Faris received the Order's highest honor, the Golden Palm for his dedication and work for the Holy Land. He is heavily involved in recruiting new members and provides extensive lectures on the Order and the Holy Land.

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