Great and Venerable Leaders
When we hear the word ‘patriarch’ we often think of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Some groupings might even include Adam, Melchizedek, and Noah. These are, of course, all ancient and honored Old Testament figures. In fact, to use a more contemporary term, they are the ‘founding fathers’ of the Faith. If you look up the term ‘patriarch’ in a dictionary, you will find something akin to ‘a man who rules a family, tribe, or clan.’ You might have a large family gathering with uncles, aunts, and cousins, and the grandfather will be considered ‘the patriarch.’ However, the term also has a technical use within the Church today.
Catholic Patriarchs Today
While Catholics will be familiar with priests, bishops, and cardinals, few are familiar with the term ‘patriarchs’ used in context of the Catholic Church. Catholic patriarchs are the highest-ranking bishops in certain Eastern Catholic Churches. They exercise certain privileges and authority over their respective territories to a greater degree than bishops in the Latin Church. Unlike Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs – to which the term is most applied – Catholic patriarchs are in full communion with the Catholic Church and united to the authority of the Roman Pontiff who exercises ultimate primacy.
The history, though, of how the patriarchates started and developed in the early Church is related by Catholic Encyclopedia:
“Names of Christian dignitaries were in early days taken sometimes from civil life (episkopos, diakonos), sometimes borrowed from the Jews (presbyteros). The name patriarch is one of the latter class. Bishops of special dignity were called patriarchs just as deacons were called levites, because their place corresponded by analogy to those in the Old Law. All such titles became technical terms, official titles, only gradually. At first they were used loosely as names of honour without any strict connotation; but in all such cases the reality existed before any special name was used. There were ecclesiastical dignitaries with all the rights and prerogatives of patriarchs in the first three centuries; but the official title does not occur till later. As a Christian title of honour the word patriarch appears first [i.e., our oldest extant written record] as applied to Pope Leo I in a letter of Theodosius II (408-50; Mansi, VI, 68). The bishops of the Byzantine jurisdiction apply it to their chief, Acacius (471-89; Evagrius, ‘H.E.’, III, 9). But it was still merely an honourable epithet that might be given to any venerable bishop. St. Gregory of Nazianzus says: ‘the elder bishops, or more rightly, the patriarchs’ (Orat., xlii, 23). Socrates says that the Fathers of Constantinople I (381) ‘set up patriarchs’, meaning apparently metropolitans of provinces (Church History V.8). As late as the fifth and sixth centuries Celidonius of Besançon and Nicetius of Lyons are still called patriarchs (Acta SS., Feb., III, 742; Gregory of Tours, ‘Hist. Francorum’, V, xx).
“Gradually then – certainly from the eighth and ninth centuries – the word becomes an official title, used henceforth only as connoting a definite rank in the hierarchy, that of the chief bishops who ruled over metropolitans as metropolitans over their suffragan bishops, being themselves subject only to the first patriarch at Rome.”
Ancient Rites, One Faith
Also unbeknownst to many rank-and-file Catholics, the Catholic Church is larger than merely the Roman Catholic Church. There are approximately 20 liturgical Rites separated into several key groupings. The non-Western groupings are generally led by a Patriarch.
There are three major groupings of Rites based on the initial transmission of the Faith: the Roman, the Antiochian (Syria), and the Alexandrian (Egypt). Later on, the Byzantine derived as a major Rite from the Antiochian, under the influence of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom. For an online copy of the book, The Eastern Catholic Liturgies: A Study in Words and Pictures, illustrating the pre-Vatican II worship of the Eastern Rites, click here.
Note, each of these most ancient Rites and Sees [definition: a city in which a cathedral church is located, serving as the seat of authority of the bishop or archbishop] traces its roots and authority back to St. Peter. Everyone of course knows that he was the first Pope and Bishop of Rome (feast celebrated on January 18). St. Peter was also the first Bishop of Antioch, and the Church still celebrates this feast (Feb. 22). St. Mark is considered the first Bishop of Alexandria. However, tradition tells us he was St. Peter’s “right-hand” man. St. Mark was a young man when Our Lord was crucified (he was the youth who ran away from Gethsemane, cf.Mk 14:52, and the son of the woman who owned the house church in Jerusalem, cf. Acts 12:12). He was a missionary with St. Barnabas and St. Paul but later joined St. Peter as his assistant. From Rome, St. Peter sent St. Mark to evangelize and oversee the Church in Alexandria, thus this See also traces itself back to the Chief Apostle.
The role of patriarch also goes back to Apostolic times when the Apostles diffused the Faith to various regions throughout the world. The unique manner in which they offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass reflected a genuine variation while the doctrine of the Faith amongst all the Rites was unwaveringly universal. All the major patriarchates trace their foundation to the Apostles: Rome and Antioch to St. Peter, Alexandria to St. Peter via St. Mark, Jerusalem to St. James, and Constantinople claimed in later centuries to have been founded by St. Andrew (as a city, Constantinople did not exist until 324 A.D. when it was built upon the foundations of the ancient Greek city Byzantium.) For the sake of legitimacy and authenticity, it was a theological necessity for a patriarchate and rite to trace themselves back to the authority of Our Lord’s Apostles.
Who Are the Catholic Patriarchs Today?
- Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria: Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak
- Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch: Patriarch Mar Ignatius Joseph III Yonan
- Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East: Patriarch Bechara Boutros Cardinal al-Rahi
- Melkite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch: Patriarch Youssef Absi
- Chaldean Catholic-Patriarch of Baghdad: Louis Raphaël I Sako
- Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia: Raphaël Bedros XXI Minassian
- Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem: Pierbattista Pizzaballa
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI renounced the title of “Patriarch of the West” (Patriarcha Occidentis) in a surprise and controversial move since the Pope is the true Patriarch of the West while the Eastern Sees are overseen by their own patriarchs united to him. And in 2022, Pope Francis changed the title of “Patriarchate of Babylon of the Chaldeans” to “Patriarchate of Baghdad of the Chaldeans” as requested by the Synod of Bishops of the Chaldean Church.
The patriarchal See of Jerusalem has jurisdiction over all Latin Rite Catholics in the Holy Land, comprising modern-day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, as well as Cyprus.
It should also be noted that the head of the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church holds the title of “Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halych and All Ruthenia.” The title “Major Archbishop,” was introduced only in 1963 and is unique within the Catholic Church. However, the clergy and faithful of the Ukranian Catholic Church acclaim their ordinary as “Patriarch” and have requested official Papal recognition of this title.
Pray for the Patriarchs
While we should be accustomed to pray for the Pope, our bishops, and our priests, we should not neglect to pray for these patriarchs. In many respects, their Rites underwent changes with Vatican II but with minimal impact so far – although the one most dramatically affected by modernism was the Maronite Rite. Let’s pray that they too remain traditional and do not introduce to their own worship the errors of Communion in the Hand, lay ministers, and others.