National Catholic Register


The Patriarchate of Antioch

BY Gabriel Meyer

November 10-16, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/10/96 at 1:00 PM


Founded originally by St. Peter, Antioch grew into one of the chief centers of early Christian evangelization (Acts 11, 19-30). Soon its influence spread over much of the Middle East: Syria, Phoenicia (Lebanon), Arabia, Palestine, Cilicia, Cyprus and Mesopotamia.

At the first ecumenical council (Nicaea I, A.D. 325), Antioch, along with Rome and Alexandria, was recognized as one of the ancient apostolic patriarchates. But by the 5th century, theological controversies had served to undermine its influence: Nestorius, an Antiochene, was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) and two decades later, the Council of Chalcedon created the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, further reducing Antioch's authority and prestige. The Church was further weakened by splits occasioned by the so-called monophysite controversy. From 550 onward, the Patriarchate of Antioch was divided between the Melkites who were loyal to the Christology of the Council of Chalcedon and the so-called Jacobites who opposed Chalcedon.

Until the early Middle Ages, all Antiochenes followed the West Syrian rite, but Byzantine influence in Syria resulted in the gradual adoption of the Liturgy of Constantinople by the Melkite Antiochenes. The non-Chalcedonians continued to be faithful to the older Syriac traditions.

The Crusades added yet further divisions. Regarding the Orthodox Melkites as schismatics, the Crusaders established Latin patriarchates in Antioch and Jerusalem—thus forcing the Melkite patriarchs to reside in Constantinople until the end of the Latin occupation of the see in 1268. In addition, the region's Muslim rulers forbade all contact with the West.

However, in the early 17th century, Catholic missionaries—Capuchins, Jesuits and Carmelites, principally—succeeded in infiltrating Melkite communities in Syria and fostering a desire for union with Rome. For more than a century, as individual Melkite communities and hierarchs sought rapprochement with the West, while retaining their ancient traditions, no distinctions were made between Orthodox and Catholic elements.

But in 1724, on the death of Patriarch Athanasius III, an unmistakably Rome-oriented patriarch, Cyril Tanus, was elected, according to custom, by the clergy and people of Damascus. While Rome recognized the appointment, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Orthodoxy's titular head, excommunicated Cyril as an apostate. Unintentionally, with the election of Cyril, the Antichene patriarchate was split further—into separate Melkite (Antiochian) Orthodox and Melkite Catholic jurisdictions.

—Gabriel Meyer