Byzantine Beauty

Eastern-Rite Churches Reflect Eternal Truths of Heaven and Earth


Generally, many of the faithful may not be familiar with the beautiful art of the Eastern Catholic Churches, such as those in the Byzantine rite (see sidebar below).

One of the most beautiful Eastern-rite churches in this country is the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary ( This grand cathedral, with its glorious Byzantine mosaics and icons, stands on a quiet street in the heart of Philadelphia, mere blocks from the National Shrine of St. John Neumann. The cathedral is the seat of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia headed by Metropolitan Archbishop Stefan Soroka. Soon-to-be St. John Paul II made a papal visit here on Oct. 4, 1979.

The cathedral’s 100-foot-diameter gold dome is a city gem, especially in the sunlight. Built in 1966 in the style of Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia (St. Sophia), the cathedral’s beautiful exterior harmonizes Byzantine and mainstream geometric curving lines. In a mosaic over the main door, Our Lord beckons the faithful to enter his magnificent temple.

Stepping into the interior is like walking into heaven’s anterooms. Immediately, one is struck by the magnificent iconography.

Inside the dome, over the great nave that seats more than 1,800 people, is an icon of the Pantocrator, Christ the Almighty Ruler. This icon is traditional in Eastern-rite churches, as is an iconostas (also called an iconostasis) — "icon screen" — a wall-to-wall image in front of the sanctuary. This one has a gleaming icon of the Immaculate Conception filling the apse beyond and above it. Robed in symbolic red and blue, Mary opens her arms wide in prayer and shows us Jesus, whom she carries. Golden rays radiate behind the Theotokos — the "God-Bearer" or "Birth-Giver of God" — as Mary is known in the Eastern rite. This particular icon is technically called the Platytera, which means, "More Spacious Than the Heavens," according to Father Thomas Loya, pastor of Annunciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Parish in Homer Glen, Ill., himself an iconographer. This name is given to the icon because it portrays the liturgical text, "He whom not even the entire universe could contain was contained within the womb of a Virgin." Therefore, Mary is more "spacious than the heavens."

"As Christ’s presence is in the tabernacle, so, too, Christ is present in the Mother of God," the priest explains. "So she becomes the mystical or human tabernacle." Annunciation imagery is on prominent display because it reminds the faithful that Gabriel brought Mary the news that she was to be the "God-Bearer."

Icon screens always have an icon of Christ the Teacher to the right of the "royal doors" and the Theotokos to the left of the doors. Like every iconostasis, the arch spanning the doors contains several icons. At the top is Christ the King robed in red and blue. Directly below him is the Last Supper. At the pinnacle is the crucifix, with Mary on one side and John on the other. Overall, the magnificent iconography is a mini Catechism.

Colors are essential throughout the cathedral and all Eastern-rite churches. Red garments symbolize heaven; blue garments stand for earth. Jesus and Mary wear both colors — reversed: Jesus’ red garment means he started in royal divinity in heaven and took on an earthly nature (blue cloak). Mary in blue means she began on earth and then was assumed into heaven (red mantle).

Distinctive Byzantine elements are also featured in the aforementioned Annunciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Parish in Illinois (

Annunciation’s onion-shaped domes and graceful arches for both the exterior and interior of the church symbolize the meeting of heaven and earth.

Inside, elaborate icons help the faithful contemplate the Divine. The Ascension of Our Lord is illustrated in the archway above the icon screen, and on the wall above it is the Holy Trinity. Angels abound in the sanctuary. They form a great circle in the dome to surround the Pantocrator. Christ the Teacher and the Blessed Mother with Christ are beautifully present on the church’s elaborate icon screen.

Father Loya painted nearly all of the floor-to-ceiling icon murals, while the design and fabrication of the icon screen as well as the icons on it were all done by Eikona, Inc. of Cleveland, a church design firm owned by his brother Nicholas.

By the altar, the Theotokos is majestic. The angle of the apse and arch make the Mother of God look as if she is hovering in prayer over the tabernacle and sanctuary. Below, our Blessed Mother is shown in a magnificent icon that depicts the Twelve Apostles looking in awe towards Christ. Other icons fill the walls. One shows the dormition of Our Blessed Mother in beautiful reds, blues, greens and golds. Saints, too, are portrayed, including John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Cyril and Methodius and George.

Says Father Loya of his home church: "When you’re entering an Eastern church, you’re stepping into another reality — that’s heaven on earth. Everywhere you look, your eyes are raised to heaven."

Joseph Pronechen is the

Register’s staff writer.


Eastern Rite 101

Since the majority of 1 billion-plus Catholics worldwide belong to the Roman or Latin rite of the Church, many may not know about Eastern-rite Catholics, not to be confused with the Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox and Eastern rite’s common roots trace back to the time when the apostles brought the faith to the Middle East. There, the celebration of the sacraments, or liturgical rites, varied somewhat from Rome.

As the apostles spread Christianity in the ancient world, "the faith was expressed in the language and cultural traditions found in the various locales," explains Father John Fields, archpriest and director of communications for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia.

This liturgical style was common in Eastern churches beyond the bounds of Constantinople and Antioch, and the large Greek Orthodox Church has "a lot of similarity to the various groups of Byzantine Catholics because they all use the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom," notes Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, host of EWTN Live, who can say Mass in both Eastern and Latin rites.

So why is one Catholic and the other not?

By the ninth century, Eastern Catholic rites spread north into Europe, when the Greek priests Sts. Cyril and Methodius brought the faith to the Slavs.

After a millennium of brotherly concord within the rites, the Great Schism happened in 1054: That’s when the Orthodox Church broke from Rome.

The political empire’s establishment of Latin-speaking Rome (the center of the Latin Church) as the capital of the West and Greek-speaking Constantinople (the center of the Eastern Churches) as the capital of the East helped to cause the major divide.

After the rift between Rome and Constantinople, all of the Eastern-rite Churches split from Rome, except for one — the Maronite rite, which has always been in union with the Holy Father.

Churches in the West were then called "Catholic," while the Eastern Church that split from Rome became known as "Orthodox."

"Certainly, one of the issues is that the Catholic Eastern-rite Christians are in union with the Pope, and the Orthodox are not," explains Father Pacwa.

But how did other rites join the Maronites with Rome?

There are 23 rites that comprise the Roman Catholic Church. One is the Latin rite. Of the 22 others, which are Eastern rites, the Byzantine tradition is the largest overall.

It is important to note that Eastern rites and the Orthodox Church both refer to the Mass as the Divine Liturgy. Roman Catholics may receive the sacraments in the Eastern Catholic rites due to their inclusion in the Roman Church.

Sometime after the Great Schism, the division began to heal, as some of the separated Eastern Churches reunited with Rome and re-established union with the See of Peter.

Parts of the Eastern Church that did not agree to the reunification were called the Orthodox Church.

Joseph Pronechen