New Advent
 Home   Encyclopedia   Summa   Fathers   Bible   Library 
 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 
New Advent
Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > G > Greek Rites

Greek Rites

Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more — all for only $19.99...

Rite, language, religion

These are three things that must always be distinguished. A rite is a certain uniform arrangement of formulæ and ceremonies used for the Holy Eucharist, the Canonical Hours, the administration of other sacraments and sacramentals. These offices, as far as we know, have never been performed in the same way throughout Christendom. There are now, apparently there always have been, different rites, equally legitimate, used in different places both by Catholics and other Christians. Obviously each rite was originally composed in some language. But rite is not language; the various rites cannot be classified according to their languages. There are many different rites in the same language; on the other hand the same rite, remaining the same in every detail, is constantly translated. Thus, in the West, the Roman and Gallican Uses are both written in Latin, but they are completely different rites. The Roman Rite is used in Dalmatia in an Old Slavonic version (written in Glagolitic letters), occasionally in Greek in Italy; but in any language it is always the Roman Rite. In the East this want of correspondence between rite and language is still more remarkable. Except those of the Armenians, Nestorians, and Abyssinians, all Eastern liturgies were originally written in Greek. Even the exceptions are only modified derivations from Greek originals. If, then, we take the language in which a rite was originally composed as our test, we must describe all Eastern liturgies as Greek. Indeed, the two great Western parent rites (of Rome and Gaul) represent, as a matter of fact, modified developments from Greek originals too. So we should come to the conclusion that every rite in the Church, every historic liturgy in Christendom is a Greek Rite. If, on the other hand, we make our test present use in the Greek language, we must separate the Byzantine Liturgy said in Greek at Constantinople from what is word for word the same service said in Old Slavonic at St. Petersburg. It is clear then that language is no clue as to rite. At the head of all Eastern liturgies, foundations of two great classes, are the Liturgies of Alexandria and Antioch. They are not only different rites, their difference underlies the fundamental distinction by which we divide all others into two main groups; and both are Greek. And the same Byzantine Liturgy is used unchanged in about fourteen different languages. A second false criterion that must be eliminated is that of religion. It would be convenient for classification if members of each Church used the same rite different from that of any other Church. But this is by no means the case. The historic origin and legal position of the various rites is a much more complicated question. Catholics, joined of course entirely by the same faith, obeying the same laws (though in details there are different laws for different branches of the Church), united visibly to the same great hierarchy under the supreme rule of the pope at Rome, are divided according to rite, so that every Eastern liturgy is used by some of them. The same liturgies (but for a few modifications made by the Roman authorities in the interest of dogma) are shared by the various schismatical Churches. Indeed, Catholics and Schismatics often use the same books. The Orthodox Church, that has for many centuries aimed at an ideal of uniformity in the Byzantine Rite (in different languages), till the thirteenth century used those of Alexandria and Antioch too. Now she has restored the Antiochene Liturgy for certain rare occasions, and there are signs that the Alexandrine Rite may soon be restored too. Other schismatical bodies have, it is true, each its own rite, though this rite generally contains alternative liturgies. It will be seen then that these three points are three quite different questions that must not be confused. In the case of any Christian bishop or priest we may ask: what is his Church or sect, what rite does he use and in what language? And the answers may represent all kinds of combinations. A Catholic may use the Roman Rite in Old Slavonic, the Alexandrine Rite in Coptic, the Byzantine in Georgian. An Orthodox priest may use the Byzantine Rite in Arabic or Japanese.

The essential note of a rite

We have seen then that neither its language nor the sect of people who use it can be taken as essential to a rite. The real note that defines it is the place where it was composed. All rites had their origin in some one place or city that was an ecclesiastical centre for the country round. After the service had been put together and used here, by a natural process of imitation churches around began to copy the order observed in the great town. The greater the influence of the city where the rite arose, the more widely the rite spread. It was not a question of inherent advantages. No one thought of choosing the rite that seemed most edifying or beautiful or suitable. People simply copied their chief. The rites were formed at first in the patriarchal cities: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople. Jerusalem had already given hers to Antioch. The bishops of each patriarchate naturally thought that they could not do better than celebrate the holy mysteries in the same way as their patriarch. We know in the West how, long before there were any laws on the subject, every one began to copy what was done at Rome. It seemed safest to follow Rome in the matter. The Frankish Church in the eighth century gave up the Gallican Rite, and adopted that of the patriarchal see. The "Liber sacramentorum Romanæ Ecclesiæ" spread throughout Western Europe till it had displaced all other uses, except in one or two remote districts. We see the same tendency at work still — uniformity in accordance with Roman customs, even in such details as the shape of vestments and the pronunciation of Latin. So it was in the East with regard to their patriarchal sees. Local customs are gradually suppressed in favour of the patriarch's way of doing things. Schisms and heresies accentuate this uniformity among Catholics. It was a sign of adherence to the Catholic centre — Alexandria, Constantinople, or whichever it might be — to agree entirely with it in rite. Lastly come laws determining this tendency; and so we have the principle that (with exceptions) obtains still throughout Christendom, namely: "Rite follows Patriarchate". The Roman Rite is used throughout the Roman patriarchate, by the clergy subject to the pope as their patriarch, and only by them; the Alexandrine Rite belongs to Egypt — where the patriarch of Alexandria has jurisdiction; that of Antioch to Syria; that of Constantinople to the Byzantine territory. The National Nestorian (East-Syrian) and Armenian patriarchates have their own rites. Such was the principle for many centuries everywhere. Except for the two remnants of other Western rites at Milan and Toledo, it may still be taken as a fairly safe one in the Catholic Church; and among all Eastern sects, except the Orthodox. Since the thirteenth century, however, the Orthodox, regardless of the older tradition, use the Byzantine Rite everywhere, even in their Alexandrine, Antiochene, and Jerusalem patriarchates. In their case, then, the principle cannot he applied. But the exception is rather apparent than real. This spread of the use of the Rite of Constantinople meant an assertion of that patriarch's jurisdiction throughout the Orthodox Church. In this case, too, rite really followed patriarchate; the disappearance of the Liturgies of Alexandria and Antioch among the Orthodox meant, as was intended, the practical disappearance of any real authority in those places save that of the prelate who nearly succeeded in justifying his pompous title of Ecumenical Patriarch. Now that his attempt has failed, and the other patriarchs are becoming more and more conscious of their independence of him, there are signs of a near restoration of their own liturgies, to be used, as before, where their jurisdiction extends.

But a rite in spreading out from the patriarchal city where it was composed does not itself change. Since the invention of printing, especially, and the later tendency to stereotype every detail of the sacred functions, each rite, wherever used, is made to conform rigidly with its standard form as used in the central church. The Liturgy of Jerusalem-Antioch contains, as the first member of its Great Intercession, a prayer for "the holy and glorious Sion, mother of all Churches", plainly a local touch intended originally for use in Jerusalem, where the rite was written (Brightman, "Eastern Liturgies", 54, 90). The Alexandrine Rite, even if used in far countries, makes the priest pray that God may "draw up the waters of the river to their proper measure" (op. cit., 127, 167) — a local allusion to the flood of the Nile on which fertility in Egypt depends. And the Roman Rite, too, used in every continent, still contains unmistakable evidence that it was composed for use in that one city. The lists of saints ("Communicantes" and "Nobis quoque") contain the Apostles and then local Roman saints, or those, like St. Cyprian, specially honoured at Rome; the Calendar with its Rogation and emberdays supposes the Italian climate; the special heroes of Rome, as St. Laurence, are those that have the oldest great feasts. Of course Rome, like all Churches, honours the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles, the Baptist, St. Stephen, the œcumenical saints of Christendom. After them she naturally honours first her own saints, whose relics hallow her basilicas. The stations at the Roman basilicas affect her year throughout; and on the feast of the Princes of the Apostles she remembers specially "happy Rome purple with their glorious blood". From all this, then, it is clear that the real distinction of rites is not by language nor by the religion of those who may use them, but according to the places where they were composed. The correct and scientific way of describing any rite, therefore, is always by the name of a place. Thus we have the Roman and Gallican Rites in the West; in the East the Rites of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, etc. This is the really essential note of any rite, that it keeps even when translated into other languages.

What is a Greek rite?

An obvious corollary of what has been said is that we had much better never speak of a "Greek Rite" at all. Like the cognate expression "Greek Church" it is a confused and unscientific term, the use of which argues that the speaker has a mistaken conception of the subject. What is called a Greek Rite will always be the rite of some city — Alexandria or Constantinople, and so on. If one wishes to emphasize the fact that the Greek language is used for it, that statement may be added. At Athens and Constantinople they use the Byzantine Liturgy; it may be worth while to add that they use it in Greek, since at St. Petersburg and Sofia they follow exactly the same rite in Old Slavonic. When people further distinguish "pure Greek" and "Græco-Arabic", "Græco-Slavonic" Rites, the confusion is greater than ever. By these last terms they mean rites translated into Arabic and Slavonic out of the Greek. Now, the evidence on the whole tends to show that every ancient rite in Christendom was first used in the Greek language; those of the Copts, Syrians, and Romans certainly were. So that if one calls the Russian service "Græco-Slavonic", one may just as well describe the pope's Mass as "Græco-Latin". It would then be enormously to the advantage of clear ideas if people would stop using this expression and would describe each rite by the name of its place of origin. The name Greek Rites, however, still too commonly used, applies to the three classical Eastern uses whose original forms in Greek are still extant. These are the parent rites of Alexandria and Antioch and the widely spread Byzantine Rite. The Alexandrine Liturgy, ascribed to St. Mark, is no longer said in Greek anywhere. It is the source of the Coptic and Abyssinian Rites. The Greek text, which was used by the Orthodox of Egypt down to the thirteenth century, will be found in Brightman's "Eastern Liturgies", 113-143; an English translation of the Coptic form follows, 144-188; the Abyssinian Liturgy, 194-244. For a further account see ALEXANDRINE LITURGY. The other parent rite of Antioch stands at the head of a very great family of liturgies. In the original Greek it is represented in two obviously cognate forms, that of the eighth book of the "Apostolic Constitutions" (Brightman, op. cit., 3-27; compare the fragments of the liturgy in the second book, ib., 28-30), and the Liturgy of St. James (ib., 31-68). Its place of origin was not Antioch but Jerusalem. Till the thirteenth century, the Liturgy of St. James was used throughout both patriarchates. It still survives in Greek among the Orthodox for two occasions in the year, on St. James's feast (23 Oct.) at Zacynthus (Zante) and on 31 Dec. at Jerusalem. Translated into Syriac it is used by the Jacobites and Syrian Uniats (text in English in Brightman, 69-110); with further (Romanizing) modifications it forms the Maronite Rite (a Latin version has been edited by Prince Max of Saxony: "Missa Syro-Maronitica", Ratisbon, 1907). The Chaldean Rite, used by Nestorians and Uniat Chaldees (Brightman, 247-305), appears also to be derived, if remotely, from St. James's Liturgy. The Byzantine Use is further derived from this, and the Armenian Liturgy from that of the Byzantines. So, except for the services of Egypt and her daughter-Church of Abyssinia, the Greek Liturgy of St. James stands at the head of all Eastern rites (see article ANTIOCHENE RITE).

People who speak of the Greek Rite generally mean that of Constantinople. The name is an unfortunate example of false analogy. We have all learnt in school of Greek and Roman history, Greek and Roman classics and architecture, and we know the Roman Rite. It is tempting to balance it with a Greek Rite, just as Homer balances Virgil. How different the real situation is this article shows. The Byzantine Rite, to which should always be given its own name, is the most wide-spread in Christendom after that of Rome. It was formed first in Cappadocia, then at Constantinople, by a gradual process of development from that of Antioch. The names of St. Basil (died 379) and St. John Chrysostom (died 407) are, not altogether wrongly, attached to the chief periods of this development. From Constantinople the rite then spread throughout by far the greater part of Eastern Christendom. As the power of the patriarchs of the imperial city grew, so did they gradually succeed in imposing their use on all bishops in communion with them. Now, except for the two insignificant exceptions noted above, the Byzantine Rite is used throughout the Orthodox Church. It seems that this abuse will not last much longer. Since the authority of the œcumenical patriarch outside of his own patriarchate has already come to an end, we may live to see the old rites restored in Egypt and Syria, according to the traditional principle that rite follows patriarchate. The Use of Constantinople is also followed by a great number of Catholic Uniats, Melchites in Syria and Egypt and others in the Balkans, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Italy, etc. These people represent the old Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Catholic Church; but that Church has never, like her Orthodox rival, set up a principle of uniformity in rite. There are, besides the Latins, Uniats of every rite. The text of the Byzantine Liturgy in Greek will be found in Brightman, 309-411. It is also used, translated into many languages. The older classical versions are Arabic and Old Slavonic (Syriac is no longer used, Georgian only by a handful of Uniats). Then come Rumanian and a number of modern languages used chiefly by Russian missionaries in Siberia, China, Japan, and America (list in Brightman, pp. lxxxi-lxxxii). Uniats recognize as liturgical languages for this rite only Greek, Arabic, Old Slavonic, and Georgian. It is these versions of the Byzantine Rite that people mean when they speak of "mixed Greek" rites. There are no changes of any importance in them. The Old Slavonic books contain some local feasts, and a few quite insignificant variants of the text; the same applies to the Arabic versions. Otherwise they are mere translations. The student of this rite (except in the case of very specialized study) should always turn to the Greek original. For further description see THE RITE OF CONSTANTINOPLE.


For bibliography see ALEXANDRINE, LITURGY; ANTIOCHENE LITURGY; CONSTANTINOPLE, THE RITE OF. See also CHARON, Le Rite Byzantin dans Les Patriarcats Melkites, extrait des Chrysostomika (Rome, Propaganda, 1908); SOKOLOW, Darstellung des Gottesdienstes der orth.-kath. Kirche des Morgenlandes (Berlin, 1893); ENGDAHL, Beiträge zur Kenntnis der Byzantinischen Liturgie (Berlin, 1908. the Greek text and a Latin version of the liturgy from a manuscript in the Grand-ducal Library at Baden, probably of the fifteenth century); PRINCE MAX OF SAXONY, Ritus Missæ Ecclesiarum Orientalium S. Ram. Eccl. unitarum (Ratisbon, 1907-), i. e. Latin versions of Uniat liturgies.

About this page

APA citation. Fortescue, A. (1909). Greek Rites. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fortescue, Adrian. "Greek Rites." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

Copyright © 2023 by New Advent LLC. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.