Every situation demands a hero. The hero for Christians of the East and of the West, I believe, is Blessed John Paul II. In 2001, he challenged the Church to “breathe with both lungs,” the left lung representing the Western Latin Rite Church, and the right lung representing the Eastern Church (including the Eastern Rite Catholics in union with Rome, and the separated Orthodox Churches not in union with Rome).

Ten years after Pope John Paul’s powerful “breathing analogy,” Pope Benedict in November 2011 prayed, “that the Eastern Catholic Churches and their venerable traditions may be known and esteemed as a spiritual treasure for the whole Church.”

In Argentina, 6,934 miles away, the Eastern Rite Catholics being served by Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio were included in Pope Benedict’s November prayer intention. Two years later, this Cardinal-Archbishop who simultaneously served Latin Rite Catholics in Buenos Aires would become Pope Francis.

The “different rites” within the Catholic Church (22 in all) is confusing for the average Catholic. In fact, many faithful Catholics, including some priests, do not realize that the Mass they celebrate is not the same liturgy that all Catholics celebrate worldwide. Although our liturgical traditions are unalike, however, we all share the same “valid” sacraments and identify the same pope as our religious leader and Vicar of Christ on earth.

The Vatican II document Orientalium Ecclesiarum (Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite) helps us better understand the Eastern (or right lung) of the worldwide Catholic Church. Promulgated by the Council on Nov. 21, 1964, by Pope Paul VI, it is one of shortest of the 16 council documents. While it addresses itself to preserving the heritage of the 21 Eastern Catholic Rites, it also reaffirms the shared heritage with Latin Rite Catholics of recognizing the Bishop of Rome, the pope, as the Catholic leader of the universal Church. As article 3 in Orientalium Ecclesiarum explains:

“These individual Churches both Eastern and Western, while they differ somewhat among themselves … in liturgy, in ecclesiastical discipline, and in spiritual tradition, are nonetheless all equally entrusted to the pastoral guidance of the Roman Pontiff, who by God’s appointment is successor to Blessed Peter in primacy over the universal Church.”

The Second Vatican Council and the efforts of Blessed John Paul II helped expand the Eastern Catholic Rites. Even within the geographical boundaries of the Diocese of Metuchen, for example, there are five Eastern Catholic Rites including Alexandrian, Antiochene, Armenian, Byzantine, and Chaldean Catholics.

When Orientalium Ecclesiarum received an approved vote of 2110 to 39 by the Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council, it probably became a learning opportunity for many of the “Lain Rite” bishops. Like lay Catholics, priests and bishops too have a tendency to confuse certain Eastern Catholic Rites (in union with Rome) with the Eastern Orthodox Church (not in union with Rome). The confusion occurs due to identical or similar names of rites within the Catholic and the Orthodox Church.

Allow me to summarize some key aspects of Orientalium Ecclesiarum and related information unique to the Eastern Catholic Church. This will hopefully provide a window into the East for us Western Latin Rite Catholics, allowing us to gain a better insight into the complicated and often confusing history and theology of the Catholic Church of the East.

The primacy of the pope over the Church derives from his status as the successor of St. Peter. Although less ancient than the foundation of other Churches in the East, for example in Antioch, the seat of the pope in Rome is first in honor because it is the seat of St. Peter (the rock).

Article 14 affirms that Eastern Rite priests are permitted to administer baptism “to the faithful of any rite,” including the Latin Rite. Latin Rite priests may do likewise. The baptized person, however, retains the “rite” of his or her father which may or may not be the “rite” of the church of baptism.

According to article 15, Eastern Rite Catholics are required to attend Divine Liturgy (Holy Mass) every Sunday and feast days and to celebrate the Divine Office (or Liturgy of the Hours). Attending Vespers (or Evening Prayer) is even required for some Eastern Catholics in order to receive Holy Communion the following day. In the West, Latin Rite priests and consecrated religious are obliged to pray the Divine Office (or Liturgy of the Hours) but lay Catholics are not obliged to even though some may choose to do so.

Article 16 explains that every priest who is granted the faculty to hear confessions may hear the confession of any Catholic in his geographic territory, regardless of rite.

The Second Vatican Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium required liturgical reform for Latin Rite Catholics. (Many of us recall, for example, the change in language of the Mass from Latin to English and the posture of the priest from standing with the congregation facing East toward heaven to facing the congregation as presider and leader of prayer). The Council did not prescribe liturgical reform for Eastern Rite Catholics. The general invitation for Eastern Rite Catholics was to “preserve their traditions” (cf. article 6).

The Vatican II interest in the Eastern Catholic Churches was primarily as a bridge to ecumenical dialogue with the separated Eastern Orthodox Churches. We read in article 30: “All these legal arrangements are made in view of the present conditions, until such time as the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Churches unite together in the fullness of communion.”

In the Eastern Catholic Rites the priest is the ordinary minister of the sacrament of confirmation, while in the Western Latin Rite, the bishop is the ordinary minister of this sacrament. (With the permission of the bishop, the priest may serve as an extraordinary minister of the sacrament of confirmation in the Latin Church).

Neither in the East nor the West is a deacon permitted to preside over the sacrament of matrimony when one of the spouses is an Eastern Rite Catholic. The reason is due to the fact that, for Eastern Catholics, the validity of the sacrament of matrimony is partly based on the nuptial blessing (which can only be given by a priest).

Regarding relations with the separated Churches, (i.e. Orthodox Churches not in communion with Rome), the Catholic Church recognizes all their sacraments as valid (i.e. article 25). Practically speaking this means:

Orthodox Priests who wish to come into union with Rome are not required to be “ordained again.”

Orthodox faithful who wish to become Catholic are not required to receive the sacraments of initiation but need only make a “profession of faith.”

Catholics traveling in countries where it is insurmountable to find a Catholic Church may fulfill their Sunday obligation by attending an Orthodox liturgy (not in communion with Rome). The reason is because we recognize the sacraments of the Orthodox Church as “valid” sacraments, (cf. article 27).

Orthodox faithful (not in communion with Rome) are admitted to the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and anointing of the sick when an Orthodox priest is unavailable, cf. article 27. (Note: This is a sensitive point because, although the Catholic Church offers this accommodation based on its belief that the Orthodox sacraments are valid, the Orthodox Church does not recommend that their faithful receive the Catholic sacraments).

Every situation demands a hero. May Pope John Paul, who recognized the time was right in 2001 to challenge the Church to “breathe with both lungs,” soon take up this cause again and intercede from his new place in heaven as the canonized –Saint John Paul — helping fulfill the prayer Jesus himself prayed, at the hour of his Passion, “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).

Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., diocesan priest, theologian, author and former seminary administrator/professor, currently serves in the Office of the Bishop of Metuchen