Melkites a bridge to the East

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Melkite leader, Bishop Robert Rabbat, says that while his Church is Catholic, it remains distinctly Eastern and dialogues with other Eastern Churches in the cause of unity. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

The first Melkite Catholic priest arrived in Sydney 126 years ago. Thanks to that pioneering priest, Fr Sylwanus Mansour, the first non-Western church was established in Sydney. St Michael the Archangel Melkite Greek Catholic Church on Wellington Street, Waterloo, had its foundation stone laid in 1893.

“At the time it was something strange, perhaps exotic,” says Bishop Robert Rabbat, bishop of the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Australia and New Zealand.

“Most people here were more accustomed to the Roman Church, to the Anglican Church and the reformed churches, but we built the first church here that Eastern Christians flocked to. Of course, as people migrated and more came, sometimes because of persecution, sometimes for economic reasons, we expanded. We now have churches in all the major cities.”

Most Melkites who migrated to Australia came from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Sudan. Bishop Rabbat estimates there are around 50,000 Melkite Catholics in Australia today, although many of them practise their faith within the Roman Catholic Church, due to the large number of Roman Catholic parishes and schools.
But who are the Melkite Catholics? Where did their Church originate, and how does their worship differ from the Roman Catholic Church?

A Melkite woman reverences a relic of St Mariam.

The Antiochian Melkite Greek Catholic Church—as it is officially known—is an Apostolic Church that came into being in the first century.

“Antiochian because we come from Antioch, where the first See of St Peter was established and the first followers of Christ were called “Christians”; Melkite because we are Chalcedonian; Greek because we follow the Byzantine tradition and Catholic because we are in communion with Rome,” Bishop Rabbat said.

“Melkite” was the name given to those early Christians in Antioch (now in Turkey) who agreed with and accepted the teaching of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, that Christ is one divine person with two natures: human and divine.

“Melkite” is derived from the Syriac word “Malkoyo” meaning “followers of the king”. After the Great Schism of 1054 when the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman) Churches went their separate ways, the Antiochian Melkite Church, being in union with the Patriarch of Constantinople, found itself estranged from the Roman Catholic Church.

“In 1724, the Patriarch of Antioch, Cyril VI, backed by a group of bishops decided to re-build the relationship and enter into union with Rome again,” Bishop Rabbat said. “Those Antiochian prelates who thought it was too early for such a move and who chose to remain in union with the Patriarch of Constantinople, became known as the Antiochian Greek Orthodox. We became known as Antiochian Melkite Greek Catholics.”

As all Apostolic churches do, the Melkite Catholic Church celebrates the same seven sacraments as the Roman Catholic Church. A Roman Catholic can attend a Melkite liturgy as a fulfilment of the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, and likewise a Melkite Catholic can fulfil the Sunday obligation by attending a Roman Catholic liturgy.

Melkite liturgies are a feast for the senses with beautiful Eastern-style priestly vestments, the use of icons, liturgical music from the Greek Byzantine tradition, and a definite love for incense and processions.

The priest faces ad orientam (toward the east) during Mass, and Holy Communion is offered under both species—leavened bread and wine. Here in Sydney, Melkite Catholics celebrate liturgies in both Arabic and English.

“If you are an outsider you might feel you are in a strange environment at the beginning,” Bishop Rabbat says. “But like anything else it requires a certain training of the eyes and ears.”

“We still abide by the ancient tradition where the priest does not face the people. For us the priest leads the community in prayers, moreover he offers the holy gifts on behalf of the community and also offers himself.”

As Easterners who are in union with Rome, Melkite Catholics have taken upon their shoulders the mission of being a bridge between East and West. “The Second Vatican Council expressed the fact that though we are Catholics, we are also Easterners and need to preserve our Holy Tradition. Thus, we have always tried to foster the dialogue between East and West,” Bishop Rabbat said.

The relationship between the Eastern and Western churches is improving slowly but surely, he says.

“Thanks be to God, it’s a dream coming true. We’ve seen over the past 50 years many brotherly encounters between the Popes and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Here in Australia there’s a conference of bishops and representatives of the Eastern churches—Catholic and Orthodox—who meet bi-monthly.”

“Last year His Holiness, Pope Francis, met among others with His Beatitude, Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as His Holiness Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church. So the doors are slowly but surely opening up, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Melkite Catholics play an important role in this on-going ecumenical dialogue between East and West.

“It helps if someone knows both parties. That’s where we come in to play,” he said. “We are Eastern, hence we understand the history and sacred tradition of the East. At the same time, because we chose to re-establish our relationship with Rome 300 years ago, we understand the more recent history of the Church and the subsequent theological advances.”

“Compelled by love for the unity of the Apostolic Church of Christ, our role is to remind Catholics not to forget their Orthodox brethren, and vice-versa. As St John Paul II kept repeating, the Church needs two lungs to breathe—East and West.”

“As Melkite Catholics, we stress the fact that the Catholic Church that it cannot be truly Catholic unless it is universal. Moreover, the Orthodox Church cannot be truly Orthodox unless it remembers that orthodoxy means the truth of the faith. Hence, every baptised Christian is “Catholic”, because we believe in the universal Church, and “orthodox”, because we are called to live according to the teachings of the True Faith.”

“With the help of the Holy Spirit I believe the doors are becoming more and more open. Dialogue is taking place, and God willing hopefully soon we’ll see the result of unity, while preserving diversity, and that cannot but be pleasing to our Heavenly Father.