Brief History of the Melkite Church
Unlike other Eastern churches, Catholic or Orthodox, the Melkite Church is not a national church. In the canonical acceptation of the word, it is a particular Church, spread throughout the Middle East and throughout a diaspora of ever increasing extent.
The Melkite Church is the legitimate heir of the three apostolic sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Its origins are inextricably bound up with the preaching of the Gospel in the Greco-Roman world of the Eastern Mediterranean, and with the extension of Christianity beyond the limits of the Empire. The Melkite Church owes its character as a particular church to two loyalties; one to the Empire of Byzantium and the other to the first seven ecumenical councils. It was only towards the end of the fifth century that it took the name of Melkite.
The arrival of the Moslem Arabs in 639 jeopardized the position of the Melkites who were suspected by their new rulers of being agents of the Byzantines. The hierarchical and administrative structure of the Melkite Church became almost completely disjointed because of its dependence on Constantinople. A large wave of Greek emigration followed which resulted in a major reduction in Church membership. Syrian (Melkite) monasteries appeared in the region of Rome, and several popes of the 7th and 8th centuries were of Syrian origin – Pope Theodore († 649) born in Jerusalem; John V († 686) born in Antioch; Sergius († 701) born to a Syrian family in Sicily; Sissinius († 708); Constantine († 715); and Gregory III († 741). All claimed themselves of the Syrian Chalcedonian Church.
During this period, the Melkite Church contributed writers to the Universal Church whose influence in theology and liturgy continues to the present time. Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem and Saint Climacus died early in this period. Saint Andrew of Crete, made famous by his Great Canon of penance, was born in Damascus in 660 and began his religious life among the clergy of Jerusalem. It is also believed that Saint Maximus the Confessor was of Syrian origin. Saint John the Damascene (675-735), born in Damascus, first served in the administration of the Ummeyad Caliph before retiring to Saint Saba where he wrote his triple defense of the Holy Images, his theological Somme, as well as several writings in poetry and music that went into the Byzantine liturgy and whose most famous is the Easter Canon. His competitor in hymnographic composition was his adopted brother, Cosmos, who later became Bishop of Maiouma in Gaza. In this movement of the defense of icons and liturgy, the two “Grapti” brothers, Theodore and Theophanus, played a major role. There is also the Bishop of Harran in Syria, Theodore AbuQurra (740-820), whose very person represents the first attempt at adapting and inserting Chalcedonian Christianity in the Arab-Moslem environment.
By 1724 certain members of the Melkite Church obtained unity with Rome, whereby they received the name Greek Melkite Catholic Church.
Today, sociologically speaking, the Melkite Church offers an astonishing ethnic homogeneity. Its patriarch, its episcopate, its clergy both regular and secular, its faithful all speak the languages of their new homelands – the United States of America, Latin America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. Today, the Melkites number about two million.
From the spiritual point of view, the Melkite Church gave many Saints and Doctors to the Catholic Church. It professes the Seven Sacraments and celebrates the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great. Once a year it celebrates the Liturgy of the Apostle James. On a daily basis, the Melkite Church implores the devotion of the Matins, Five hours and Vespers. The Melkites share with the Orthodox and Catholic Churches the Great Lent, the Apostle Lent, the Mother of God Dormition Lent, and the Advent Lent. *
* Melkite Greek Catholic Church information center – www.melkite.org