The Greek Melkites Church of Antioch
The Greek Melkites Catholic Church is rooted in the oldest Christian Church in the world. It started in Antioch known historically to be the city where the followers of Jesus Christ were first called by the name “Christians.” Here is the first Petrine See where St. Peter preached before ever going to Rome. Saint Ignatius of Antioch was the second bishop of Antioch consecrated by the Apostle Peter. Ignatius, “bearer of Christ”, is one of the Apostolic Fathers who wrote letters on the sacraments, ecclesiology, and the role of bishops before suffering martyrdom for the Christian faith as he was eaten alive by wild animals before Pagan crowds in Rome.
By the third century AD, the catechetical school of Antioch had produced teachers of Biblical exegesis using literal interpretation of the Bible found in the writings of Theophilus Bishop of Antioch in competition with the catechetical school of Alexandria which used the allegorical exegesis found in the writings of Origen and others. In the 4th century, Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople and with it the Archbishop of Constantinople became second in the hierarchy after the Bishop of Rome; a spot which that of Alexandria had enjoyed. The Alexandrian bishops now loathed the post of Constantinople. In the 4th century, the Cappadocian Fathers St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory Nazianzin defended the Nicene Creed – defined in the Council at Nicaea in 325 AD. – in their theological writings; completed in the Council held in Constantinople in 381 AD. While Basil’s writings addressed the heresies of the Arians and Semi-Arians, those of Gregory Nazianzin addressed the life-giving gifts of the Holy Spirit. As we will see below, with St. John Chrysostom, they are considered Fathers of the Church. St Basil, whose Divine Liturgy is celebrated alternatively with that of St. John Chrysostom in the Byzantine Eastern Churches, was particularly popular for building hospitals to treat the poor. In the 4th and 5th centuries, debates in Christology deepened the differences in interpretation between the two Sees of Alexandria and Antioch that the Alexandrians increasingly emphasized the union of the two natures of Christ into one person, while the school of Antioch used the literal exegesis that distinguished the human nature of Christ from his divine nature. At the same time, John Chrysostom was raised in Antioch. He became a popular preacher in his sermons that used the literal interpretation of the Bible and applied it to everyday life. The emperor Theodosius I was impressed by John’s sermons that converted Pagans to Christianity. When in 397, St. John Chrysostom was taken from Antioch to become the Archbishop of Constantinople Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria wished to replace/succeed him. In his sermons in Constantinople St. John Chrysostom did not spare the empress Eudoxia from his criticism which eventually caused banishing him to the Caucasus where he died. In 431, the victory of the Alexandrians was achieved as the Council of Ephesus under the leadership of St. Cyril of Alexandria excommunicated Nestorius Archbishop of Constantinople who, being from Antioch, carried Antioch’s literal exegesis to an extreme and taught that in Christ there are two separate natures with two persons advocating that Mary is not to be called Mother of God. The Council approved Cyril’s formula. Mary has since been officially called Mother of God (the Theotokos) in the Catholic (Universal) Church. The Church of Antioch produced many other saints such as St. John of Damascus and St. Maximus Confessor until the Great Schism of 1054 between the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople.
However, the Church of Antioch continued to be in communion with both Rome and Constantinople and bishops from Antioch attended the Council of Florence for reunion between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches in 1439-1445.
The formation of the Greek Melkites Catholic Church
The Greek Melkites Catholic Church sprang from the Church of Antioch in the year 1724 AD through an early declaration by the Archbishop of Saida and Sour Aftimius Seifi in 1682 AD that he and his congregation are in union with the Church of Rome – Confirmed at a patriarchal level when in 1724 AD Cyril VI Tanas was the elected Patriarch of Antioch by Bishops of the Synod in Damascus – for reunion with the Roman Catholic Church while continuing to use the liturgical rite of the Byzantine Orthodox Church in Constantinople/Antioch.
Three Melkite Patriarchs left their imprint on the development of the Melkite Catholic Church:
1- Patriarch Maximus III Mazloum (1833-1855)
He was well educated, travelled to Europe and urged Pope Gregory XVI and European rulers to help stop the persecution of his Melkite Catholic little flock in Aleppo and elsewhere in the near East from persecution by the Ottomans driven by the Orthodox Church authorities who considered the Melkite Catholics schismatics and heretics. Observing that tens of thousands of Melkite Catholics have already established themselves in Palestine and Egypt, Pope Gregory XVI granted him the title “Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, and Alexandria and Jerusalem” in 1835. The title has since then been carried by generations of Melkite Catholic Patriarchs to-date.
2- Patriarch Gregory II Joseph Sayour (1864-1897)
He attended the First Vatican Council which declared the infallibility of the Pope when he speaks from the Chair as a teacher of faith and morals, provided that this charism is to be interpreted as such by the Holy See. Patriarch Gregory found it inopportune and wrote “I agree, but with reserve for the canonical rights of the Eastern Churches.”
3- Patriarch Maximus IV Sayegh (1947-1967)
He was a courageous patriarch when he spoke in the Second Vatican Council on behalf of the Eastern Churches. The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagorus I of Constantinople said to him “You represent us in the Council.” Much of the liturgical reforms in the Roman Catholic Church took place in 1969 as a result of the presentation of Patriarch Maximus IV and other Melkite Catholic Bishops who spoke too in the Council.
Recent Demographic Changes
Since the late 19th century, Melkite Catholics immigrated to the Diaspora in South and North America. In the 20th century especially in the second half, more immigrated to North America and Australia. Bishops have been ordained for each country. In the 21st century, immigration from the Near East (Middle East) continues to take place at more pace. One of the reasons of immigration is the relatively high standard of living coupled with freedom of expression, diversity and multicultural coexistence. Except for Lebanon, most countries of the Middle East suffer from a low standard of living and renewed Islamic terrorism that includes persecution of Christians. Major Melkite Catholic religious orders that serve the Lord and the Church include the Basilian Salvatorian Order (BSO) (1682); the Chouerite Basilian Order (BC) (1696); the Basilian Aleppian Order (BA); the Society of the Missionaries of St. Paul (MP) (1903); and the Monastery of the Resurrection (MR) (1976). In addition, a number of feminine Congregations train nuns to serve the Lord and the Church.