I went to an eastern-rite liturgical service this Sunday morning! What type of liturgy did you attend, my faithful readers? For most Roman Catholics in Chicago, this is probably a confusing question. The answer I’d commonly get would be something like “ummm…I attended a Roman Catholic mass at my parish. What other type is there?” In past columns, I’ve explained the 23 different types of Catholicism. But a somewhat different concept is the idea of “western” or “eastern” Christianity. It doesn’t revolve around types of types of Catholic churches, Catholic orders, Christian denominations, or even liturgical rites (there are a variety of different kinds of liturgical rites in both eastern and western Christianity). So what exactly does the concept mean?
As the Chicago Catholic Examiner, you can find my columns under “Western Religion”. We tend to think of Christianity as a “western religion” (as opposed to an “Eastern religion” like Buddhism or Taoism), because Christianity is a faith prevalent in the western world (Europe, North America, etc.) But within Christianity itself, there are two different traditions – a western one, and an eastern one. The Christian world developed these two different cultures centuries ago, dating back to the early days of Christianity. As Christianity spread around the world, different types of Christian culture developed in different regions, and the faith began to show two very distinctive expressions. Officially, we date the “East-West Schism” to 1054 A.D. – this when the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church excommunicated each other and became separate churches. Western Churches then became known as “Catholic” and eastern Churches then became known as “Orthodox”. But aside from the official split, they had developed very different cultural expressions of their faith for centuries before the split – and continued to develop different traditions for centuries after. In the 21st century, the East/West divide is no longer strictly along Christian denominations. Today, Christianity is generally organized as Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, and it’s actually possible to find eastern and western Christianity in all three. That being said, it’s nearly impossible to find an “eastern-rite” Protestant Church, and “western-rite” Orthodoxy is also very rare. The Catholic Church is predominantly western Christianity, but also has an eastern “lung”, as Pope John Paul II used to say. In areas like the United States (and throughout Chicagoland), eastern Christianity is often overlooked but it does have a visible presence. So who are the eastern Christians? In modern day Christianity, they tend to fall into one of four categories:
- Eastern Orthodox Churches
- “Oriental” Orthodox (Miaphysite) Churches
- Assyrian Church of the East/Ancient Church of the East
- Eastern Catholic Churches
As you may have noticed, 3 out of the 4 types of eastern Christians you will encounter are non-Catholics. Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches are the ones that formerly served ties with Rome and the Pope in 1054 A.D. They are similar culturally, the reason why they are in different categories is the “Eastern Orthodox” Churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, etc.) recognize the first seven ecumenical councils, while the “Oriental Orthodox” (Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Church, etc.) recognize only the first three. This means there’s some internal dispute among the Orthodox churches when it comes to various Christian dogmas. The Assyrian Church of the East is very rare today (it’s estimated to have about 400,000 adherents worldwide) , although oddly enough, its world headquarters is right here in Chicago, as the church is currently headed by the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV, who resides at the Assyrian Church of the East – Patriarcal Headquarters, 8908 Birch Avenue, in Morton Grove, Illinois . The Church originally developed during the 1st century in the Aramaic speaking regions, and split with the rest of Christianity during the Nestorian controversy of the 4th century.
The fourth group, Eastern-Catholic Churches, make up the presence of Eastern Christianity within the Catholic Church. They usually trace their origins to parts of various Orthodox Churches that reunited with Rome in the 15th and 16th century. I’ve covered the various types of Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches and where you can find their parishes in other articles, so I won’t rehash that information here. In any case, they have millions of adherents worldwide and several parishes in the Chicago area.
So what’s the difference between Eastern and Western Christianity? In many cases, it revolves around language, culture, and religious outlook that developed over many centuries. They differences are so great that they are often “uncomfortable” in each others parishes, even if they have identical theology. Both brands of Christianity have many customs and traditions that are either unknown or not used in their counterpart. Eastern Christianity generally consists of the Christian traditions and churches that developed in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Horn of Africa, India and parts of the Far East over several centuries of religious antiquity, whereas Western Christianity developed and came to be predominant in most of Western, Northern, Central, Southern Europe, ancient Northern Africa, Southern Africa, and throughout Australia and the Western Hemisphere. In North American and in the Chicago area, western Christianity is by far the most predominant type of Christianity, but all four types of eastern Christianity have an endearing presence here as well.
Here’s a breakdown of some noticeable differences between the two:
- Western Christianity uses Latin as the predominant church language and traces their cultural development to Rome, while Eastern Christianity uses Greek as the predominant church language and traces their cultural development to Constantinople. (This does not mean it’s the “everyday” language currently used by its parishioners, as many western Churches use languages such as English, Spanish, Italian, Polish, German, Korean, etc., and many eastern churches use languages use Syrian, Russian, Bulgarian, Armenian, etc., and their parishioners know nothing of the Greek language.) What it essentially means is that both types of Christianity were originally dependent on, and developed from those languages. Even many protestant churches far removed from the Pope still use Latin terminology to discuss doctrines (for example, “Sola scriptura”, a protestant doctrine, is Latin for “By scripture alone”), and Eastern Churches nowhere near Athens maintain ideas that developed in ancient Greece.
- In Western Christianity, sacraments such as Confirmation and Holy Communion are seen as “coming of age” ceremonies, whereas in many Eastern churches, sacraments are grace for all full members of the church, and administered to infants after baptism.
- Western Christianity has religious traditions such as Stations of the Cross and Ash Wednesday that never developed in eastern Christianity (this does not mean they “reject” them, but simply that it’s not part of their culture), whereas Eastern Christians likewise have religious traditions like the Sunday of Orthodoxy and Blessing of Waters at Theophany, which never developed in Western Christianity.
- Western Christianity makes frequent use of realistic statues and contemporary artwork in their churches and worship service, letting individual artists show the glory of God through their creativity, whereas eastern Christianity makes frequent use of icons (an ancient style of religious paintings) and vibrant colors, focusing on the idea that the artwork expresses the public teaching of the church, and has a shared ownership. Icons are also flat and unrealistic, showcasing the venerable holiness of the saints and prophets.
- Western Christianity focuses on clear, direct communication with spoken bible readings, whereas Eastern Christianity focuses on the subconscious and eschatology, usually by chanting bible readings.
- Western Christianity focuses on the atonement through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and both Roman Catholics and Protestants often meditate on Jesus’ suffering for our sins. Eastern Christianity focuses on the incarnation, and the fact Jesus willing gave himself up to be crucified.
- Western Christianity focuses on sacraments as it relates to the atoning nature of Christ, whereas the East focuses on sacraments as they lead towards the divinization of all humanity.
- In Western Christianity, the Church is often at odds with the secular society and has, at times, been both religious and secular head of society. In Eastern Christianity, the Church typically maintains a separate but close and mutually dependent relationship with the secular government of their respective nations
- Western Christianity has evolved its theological development over the centuries and often adds new prayers or customs, whereas Eastern Christianity is very conservative and maintains the basic theology found from the earliest centuries of the Church. For example, the Roman Catholic mass has gone through multiple divisions in recent years, whereas the present-day Byzantine Rite Divine Liturgy is almost identical to the guidelines established for it in the 8th century.
- Western Christianity is seen as too legalistic by eastern Christianity, and replies much on intellectual speculation and formal wording for doctrines. On the other hand, Eastern Christianity is seen as too mystical by the western world, and relies much on spiritual practices.
- Western Church buildings tend to have large steeples and majestic ceilings, focusing on reaching towards the heavens. Eastern Church buildings tend to have big gold or silver domes and bright colors, focusing on the fact that God has been with us through the centuries and is watching over us.
- Western Christianity tends to express itself outward, as both Roman Catholics and protestants are very vocally seen in American culture and outspoken about their beliefs, whereas Eastern Christianity tends to express itself inward, as Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholics, and Assyrian Church of the East tend to associate with “their own kind” and not discuss their faith with outsiders.
- In Western Christianity, the minister usually faces towards the people from the altar, empathizing that all are invited to gather around the Lord’s Table here and now. In Eastern Christianity, the minister faces towards the altar along with the people, focusing on the fact that everyone is facing God and headed towards His Kingdom.
- Both Western and Eastern Christianity believe in the trinity, that God is one being but three persons. Western Christianity tends to focus on the aspect of one God, whereas Eastern Christianity tends to focus on the three persons.
- Both Western and Eastern Christianity believe Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Western Christianity tends to focus on identifying with Jesus through his humanity, whereas Eastern Christianity tends to focus on identifying with Jesus through his divinity.
- Western and Eastern Christianity will often focus on different saints, even though the pre East-West schism saints (St. Peter, St. Paul, etc.) are recognized universally. For example, Western Christians will frequently discuss Saint Francis of Assisi, an 12th century Italian saint, whereas Eastern Christians will frequently discuss Saint John Chrysostom, a 5th century Greek saint. (occasionally this is not the case though – for example, St. Patrick, considered a western saint, is frequently admired and depicted in eastern churches, and St. Nicholas, considered an eastern saint, is well known and mentioned by westerners due to Christmas traditions of “Jolly ol’ Saint Nicholas”)
- Western Christianity sees a Sunday Mass and the liturgy as a way to tune the mind towards God and connect people directly to God, by having them focus on a simple but elegant liturgy, clear messages and use of reason, whereas Eastern Christianity sees the liturgy to an art form – with all five senses being involved in the service – sight (icons), smells (incense), sound (constant music), touching (relics like the cross), and tasting (the bread and wine). All this is intended to foster a deep spiritual elevation in the worshiper.
So which “version” of Christianity is correct? They both are, according to the Catholic Church. It’s the position of the Vatican that the differences between Western and Eastern Christianity are complimentary, rather than opposing, since they showcase a full range of Christian expression and allow a truly universal heritage in Christianity. So whether you go to a “eastern” Catholic church in Chicago (like SS. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral at 2245 W. Superior St. in Chicago, shown in this week’s church photo) or a “western” Catholic church (like St. Mary of the Lake Parish at 4200 N. Sheridan Road in Chicago, also shown in this week’s photo) they’re both equally valid forms of Catholicism. Which one will be the most fulfilling spiritually? That’s up to you.