The Catholic Church

In the Catholic Church there are 23 different “Ritual Churches”, each having its own particular manner of glorifying God through its own liturgy, spirituality and expressions of faith, but ALL proclaiming the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith in full communion with the Bishop (Pope) of Rome, who is the final arbiter in settling matters of Christian faith and morals.

Each of these “Ritual Churches” is named by the Rite to which it adheres, e.g. Roman Catholic (those Churches following the rituals of the Latin Rite); Byzantine Catholic (those following the rituals of the Byzantine Rite), etc.

How did these various “Ritual  Churches” come into existence? When Christ commissioned His Apostles to go forth and build the Church and unite all peoples of every nation in a common bond of Faith. He simply gave them His teachings – as found in the four

Gospels. He gave them no set pattern for prayers (except the Our Father); no set pattern of action for proclaiming the “Good News” of the Gospels. Therefore it was a natural thing when the Apostles went out into the world to teach all nations, that they kept the essence of the teachings of Christ, but left the external manifestations of this Faith to the language, culture and customs of the local peoples.

When Christ sent the Apostles into the world, St. Peter traveled from  Jerusalem to Antioch and then to Rome. St. Andrew, Peter’s brother, traveled to Byzantium (in present-day Turkey). The town was later to be called Constantinople, after the Roman Emperor Constantine. St. James went to Egypt, while St. Thomas traveled to India. The other Apostles established Churches in other parts of the world, ordaining Bishops to continue their mission.

It is through the Eastern traditions of ancient Byzantium (hence the name Byzantine Catholic) that certain peoples received Christianity. These people came to the United States and established the Catholic Parishes of the Byzantine Rite that we now find all over the country.

A Jewish Pattern for the Place and Celebration of Worship


The division of the inside of a church into distinct sections (sanctuary, nave and vestibule) is a practice inherited from the Jewish tradition. This division was meant to emphasize the sacredness of the place. It was natural that such ideas should find their way into Christian worship. The early converts to Christianity were the Jews. It is clear that for a time, these early Christians persisted in attending the services of the synagogue. When the separation of the Jewish and Christian worship became complete. The Jewish pattern of worship as well as the arrangement of the place for worship was still considered to be the norm for Christians. Thus, the major outline of not only the Church building, but also of the Divine Liturgy (Mass) in the Eastern Catholic Rites/Churches and the Mass in the Western Catholic Church, still follows the outline of the ancient Jewish Services.

A theological reason for the acceptance of this Jewish pattern of worship is taken from “the Jewish Scriptures (because they) were viewed by Christianity not only as a Providential preparation and prototype of the Christian Scriptures, but also as its necessary foundation…” Since only through the use of the Jewish ideas of temple, priesthood, sacrifice, etc., was it possible to express and reveal that the Church was the fulfillment of what the Jews had long hoped for in a Messiah. Thus, Catholicism came to see itself as the fulfillment and continuation of  Judaism, The Jewish Scriptures fulfilled.

The Icon Screen


The Jewish influence is stronger and has persisted longer in the Eastern Churches. This can especially be seen in the most visible feature of a  Byzantine Catholic Church – the Icon Screen. In the Latin Rite there was first the Chancel Screen and then there was the Communion Rail.  Some Churches around the world still have them in place. 

The Holy of Holies (comparable to our sanctuary) of the Great Temple in the City of Jerusalem had a veil (curtain) separating it from the rest of the Temple. Only the High Priest

could enter it, and then, but once a year. It was this veil that was “torn in two from top to bottom” (Mt. 27:51) when Christ died on the Cross. From this arrangement of the Temple of Jerusalem, Christians always keep the concept of a separation of the Sanctuary from the Nave. In the Byzantine Churches, the Icon Screen developed as the replacement of the curtain of the Great Temple in Jerusalem.

To this must be added the development of the thinking of the Early Fathers of the Church, who were some of the most renowned saints, educators and apologists of the first 800 years of Christianity. They saw the Sanctuary as the place where God will judge the world, and the Altar as His Throne. From these concepts there developed the belief in the Byzantine Catholic Churches that when we step inside a Church building, we are transferred into the very presence of God Himself. Since God Himself is present in a Church building, a Byzantine Catholic Church is called “Heaven on Earth." It is the place where people set aside all of their worldly thoughts and problems. In a sense, you leave them at the door of the Church and then enter to stand before the very Presence of God Himself. It is as though one is coming into the court of our Heavenly King.

Since a Byzantine Catholic Church building is “Heaven on Earth," the inside decoration of the

Church is meant to reflect this idea. The Church is filled with images of Saints and Angels – to remind us that we are actually in Heaven. The Icon Screen is also another vehicle to remind us that we are in Heaven and standing in the Presence of God. But, it is also meant to remind us of what St. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13:12): “Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Then, we shall see Him face to face. We don’t know everything now, then we will…” So, the Icon Screen reminds us that, even though we are standing in God’s Presence, we cannot see Him “face to face”. We cannot know Him fully and be completely united to Him as we will after Death


It is only in more recent history that the majority of Catholics have become well educated. In ancient times, most people didn’t know how to read or write. The Church never had such things as Religion Classes for children and adults. The people learned their Faith through what we call today “audio-visual aids”. In other words, people learned their Faith not only through the preaching of sermons, but also through the singing of prayers of the various Church Services. Most of these in the Byzantine Rite are taken straight out of Biblical passages. We all know how much easier it is to  remember the words of a song rather than just reading from a book. These were the audio aids in learning the Faith. The visual aids came into play when people entered their churches and saw all of the paintings depicting the main events of salvation history from both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

Why Icons and/or Statues and Paintings?


In the East, Icons were and are more prevalent. This is due to tradition and geography. The tradition in the East, hence Eastern Catholic uses Icons as visual aid for veneration. Through lines and color the Iconographer conveys the awesomeness of the invisible, divine reality. The creation of an Icon is defined by tradition. Also, the geography of the Eastern Catholic Churches in ancient times were mostly located in earthquake prone areas of our planet.

In the West Statues and Paintings were and are the custom. The tradition of Statues and Paintings in the Western Catholic Church are also a visual aid for veneration. Although, Icons can be found in Western (Latin/Roman Rite) Churches. The tradition and custom is Statues and Paintings. 

Either Icons, Statues or Paintings convey the theology of the Heavenly. All Catholics use Icons, Statues and Paintings to recall and venerate a representation of the sacred personage; as Christ or a saint, or angel. 

What is an Icon


We might say that an Icon is a symbolic painting – much like modern art. What is depicted is not so much reality, but the FAITH OF OUR RELIGION. What does that mean? Western religious art depicts a Saint as he/she would have looked like when they lived on earth. In the case of the Gospel stories, what we might have seen had we been present for the event. An Icon, however, depicts a Saint as he/she looks like in Heaven – a totally spiritualized person. The austere faces in the Icons and the extreme restraint in the lines of the drawing, show the other worldliness of the Saint. In the case of the Gospel stories, an Icon does not want to capture the event itself (as we would in a photograph), but it wishes to capture the Dogma (Faith) behind the Gospel event. So, Icons seek to depict spiritual realities, not physical realities. Also, a true Icon will only depict the actual moment of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, since the Bible never speaks of that moment. It will either depict the Angel greeting the women at the tomb or Christ’s descent into Hades (Purgatory) to release the Saints of Judaism from their bondage, so that they could enter Heaven.

The Sign of the Cross

The early Christians have left us many things. One of these things was the sign of the cross. It identified them as followers of Christ, just as it does for us today. The earliest formalized way of making the sign of the cross appeared in the 400's. The sign of the cross was made from forehead to chest, and then from right shoulder to left shoulder with the right hand. The thumb, forefinger, and middle finger were held together to symbolize the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This practice was universal for the whole Church until about the twelfth century, and continues to be the practice for the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church.

In the Latin/Roman Rite the priest, when imparting a blessing, still makes the sign of the cross from the right to left. What happened without any Church Council or discussion, is what is known as the “natural mirror effect.” During the middle ages people wanted to be holy and wanted to imitate the priest. When the priest was making the sign of the cross over the people, the people “mirrored” the direction of the priest’s hand. If the priest was going to his right and you have people facing you. They will be going to the left, left to right not right to left, that is how this came to be in the Latin/Roman Rite. Prior to the end of the twelfth century, Christians of both East and West made the sign of the cross from right to left. 

Around the time of Pope Innocent III, there was an instruction (1198-1216) which evidences the traditional practice, but also indicates a shift in the Latin/Roman Rite practice of the Roman Catholic Church: Pope Innocent stated, “Others, however, make the sing of the cross from left to the right, because from misery (left) we must cross over to glory (right) just as Christ crossed over from death to life, and from Hades to Paradise.” Because people were crossing themselves from left to right “Natural Mirror Effect.” Eventually, this practice became the custom for the Western Church.  

In general, the complete sign of the cross was and is made to acknowledge that all of our faculties (mind, heart, and soul) and all of our strength (shoulders) are being dedicated to the service of God through the cross of Christ, the sign of our redemption. 


Bowing and making the sign of the cross upon ourselves many times during Liturgy (Mass) is a sign of our faith. We bow slightly and bless ourselves every time we glorify the Holy Trinity, especially at the end of prayers. We bow deeply and sign ourselves whenever we enter or leave the Church.  Bowing in reverence to God is the Byzantine tradition.


Listening is very important during liturgical services. The Scripture readings are usually chanted and not printed in our booklets. The hymns and prayers are filled with scriptural quotes and imagery and reflections by the Church ascetics. The booklets and supplements aid us in making the proper responses during Liturgy (Mass) and occasionally do not contain the full text of the Celebrant’s prayers. They may also contain additional texts that are not prayed at every Liturgy (Mass). If one loses his place in the worship aids, look to a nearby parishioner for guidance or simply listen.  


Incense is used as a sign of reverence for the Sacred Place and as a sign of reverence for the people who are made in the image and likeness of God. It is also a sign of purification and preparation for something important about to happen. It reminds us that our prayers ascend like the smoking aroma of spiritual fragrance before the throne of God.

Congregational Singing

Congregational singing is one of the beauties of Liturgy (Mass) as celebrated in the Byzantine Church. As we adorn holy objects in a special way, so are the Word of God, related sacred texts, and inspired songs adorned with music. Our liturgical services are sung ‘A cappella’ and the responses are led by a cantor or a school of cantors, very similar to Jewish services.

Reception of Holy Communion

Reception of Holy Communion, which is the reception of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, is also an external sign of the unity of the members of the Catholic Church. We partake of Communion at the Divine Liturgy (Mass), our greatest form of worship and thanksgiving to Almighty God.  Therefore, those who have predisposed themselves (through fasting, moral readiness, etc.) and who share our Catholic Faith – regardless of the Ritual Church (e.g. Byzantine Catholic, Roman Catholic, etc.), are invited to approach the altar and receive Holy Communion.

When approaching the Priest:

1. Say your first name to the priest if he might not know it;

2. Move immediately in front of the priest;

3. Stand straight and do not bend your knees;

4. Hold the cloth or paten to your chin with both hands;

5. Tilt your head back slightly and

6. Open your mouth widely but do not extend your tongue.

The Priest will bring a small spoon to your mouth and gently place the Eucharist into it (DO NOT CLAMP DOWN ON THE SPOON). There is no need for you to say “Amen” at this time, but you are most welcome to say “Amen” at the end. Wait for the Priest to bring his hand away from your face, then close your mouth and return to your place.

The Sanctuary and The Altar

The Sanctuary corresponds to the Holy of Holies of the Great Temple in the City of Jerusalem, as stated earlier. It is the most sacred space in the Church. In the center of the Sanctuary is the Altar, which is the most sacred object in the Church. It is called the Holy Table, because it represents the Holy Table of the Upper Room, where Christ shared the Last Supper with His disciples on the first Holy Thursday. It is called the Throne of God because on it, Jesus Christ is made present in the Holy Eucharist. On the Altar is also kept a highly decorative Gospel Book, which symbolizes Jesus Christ as the Word of God, who came to teach us all truth.