To associate the Catholic Church with only one particular rite, such as the Roman rite or an Eastern rite, is to ask a bird to fly with one wing. Perhaps the bird can still move, but it certainly can’t soar the way God intended. The eastern and western rites, with their common essence and unique traditions, all form the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, and together take the Church to the heights God intended for it.
The Eastern Catholic rites, which aren’t to be confused with the Eastern Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic rite are fully united with each other, under the leadership of the Holy Father. When most people think of the Catholic Church, they usually think only of the Roman (or Latin) Catholic rite, which is the predominant rite in the Western world, and the largest rite of the Catholic Church, with over a billion members. The other rites, although smaller, are just as much a part of the universal Catholic Church, and the majority of them came into being around the same time as the Latin rite. As Pope Paul VI explained:
These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in rite (to use the current phrase), that is, in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are, nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church. They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world (cf. Mark 16, 15) under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff. (Orientalium Ecclesiarum #3)
All of the rites in the Catholic Church share the same sacraments and the same faith and beliefs. They are all united to each other and to the Holy Father. They differ, however, in liturgical tradition and, in some cases, in disciplinary norms. When people say, for example, that “the Catholic Church doesn’t allow married priests,” what they really mean is that “the Latin rite of the Catholic Church doesn’t have married priests,” because married priests have always been part of the tradition of the Eastern Catholic rites, and have been fully approved by the Church, as is affirmed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1579-1580. When promulgating the Code of Canons for Eastern Churches in 1992, John Paul II emphasized of the importance and validity of upholding both traditions – that of celibacy for the clergy in the Latin rite, and that of the legitimacy of married priests in the Eastern rites – stating:
Clerical celibacy chosen for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and suited to the priesthood is to be greatly esteemed everywhere, as supported by the tradition of the whole Church; likewise, the hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive Church and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honor. (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, #373)
In addition, the Eastern Churches have different liturgical prayers and traditions. The sacraments are the same, and are valid in all of the Catholic rites.
A Latin (Roman) rite Catholic, for example, can receive communion in any of the Eastern Churches, receive confession from an Eastern rite priest, etc., and vice versa. The essence, therefore, and the core elements of the liturgy are the same. The sacraments have the same form and ceremony. However, the liturgical texts, prayers and other elements of tradition developed differently.
The Latin rite Church, for example, received its heritage, traditions and Eucharistic prayers from Sts. Peter and Paul. The Eastern rites trace their origin back to different apostles, include St. Thomas, St. John and St. Barnabas. When the apostles, following Christ’s command, went out to evangelize, they carried with them the essential elements of the liturgy – the Word and the Eucharist, the beliefs of the Church, and a common sense of hierarchy (deacon-priest-bishop). They did not, however, have a completed missal of readings agreed upon, or hymnal of Catholic songs, or a collection of prayers already developed for the Mass. Rather, they took what Our Lord had bequeathed to them, went out to the different communities, and put it in action. All of them used the words of Christ at the Last Supper, for example, in the liturgy of the Eucharist, but the prayers surrounding those words were developed in an appropriate manner by the different apostles and the communities they served. For the liturgy of the Word, all of them used readings from the former scriptures, as well as the stories and scripts that would come to be called the Gospels, and gave a commentary on applying the faith to daily life (the homily). Which readings were used each week, however, were determined by the different apostles in the different communities, and were therefore affected by each apostle’s personal experience of the faith.
It is therefore not surprising that course of readings throughout the liturgical year in the Latin rite, begun in Rome by St. Paul, focus more on the cross and evangelization, while course of readings in several of the Eastern rites that trace their heritage back to St. John, for example, focus much more on charity and love, which reflects “the beloved disciple’s” own experience. Seen in this light, it is also unsurprising that the Latin rite, started by St. Paul, mandates clerical celibacy, given St. Paul’s own emphasis on the value and importance of celibacy (see, for example, 1 Cor 7:7-8, 32-35), in addition to the words of Our Lord praising those who remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom of God (Mt 19:12), while the Easter rites continue allowing married men to become priests, which was also a tradition from the beginning of the Church.
Thus, while the essence of the faith and liturgical practice remained the same, and the early Churches were in full communion with each other, the liturgical traditions, including the prayers, readings, hymns and postures, developed differently in different areas, due both to the different apostles that founded them and to the needs of each region and, together, give wings to the faith, giving a more complete picture of the identity of the Church and Scriptures, as well as the traditions of the Early Church.
The universal Church has always valued these different traditions, which greatly enrich the Church. It is important to remember, however, that the unity of the Catholic rites supersedes the differences – there are different Catholic rites, but only one Catholic Church. To end with the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
At the moment of her birth, the Church was already catholic, already a world Church. Luke thus rules out a conception in which a local Church first arose in Jerusalem and then became the base for the gradual establishment of other local Churches that eventually grew into a federation. Luke tells us that the reverse is true: what first exists is the one Church, the Church that speaks in all tongues – the ecclesia universalis; she then generates Church in the most diverse locales, which nonetheless are all always embodiments of the one and only Church.
(Called to Communion, 1991)