Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from Pope Leo XIII’s papal encyclical Orientalium Dignitas, which was promulgated on November 30, 1894. Nearly half-a-century earlier, Blessed Pius IX dispatched his Epistle to the Easterners which, among other things, invited the patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Church to reestablish communion with Rome. These efforts would be continued during the reigns of St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII, all of whom took positive action to both uphold the rights and dignity of the sui iuris Eastern Catholic churches in communion with Rome and extend a hand of friendship toward the non-Catholic populations of the East in the service of unity.
The Churches of the East are worthy of the glory and reverence that they hold throughout the whole of Christendom in virtue of those extremely ancient, singular memorials that they have bequeathed to us. For it was in that part of the world that the first actions for the redemption of the human race began, in accord with the all-kind plan of God. They swiftly gave forth their yield: there flowered in first blush the glories of preaching the True Faith to the nations, of martyrdom, and of holiness. They gave us the first joys of the fruits of salvation. From them has come a wondrously grand and powerful flood of benefits upon the other peoples of the world, no matter how far-flung. When blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, intended to cast down the manifold wickedness of error and vice, in accord with the will of Heaven, he brought the light of divine Truth, the Gospel of peace, freedom in Christ to the metropolis of the Gentiles.
It has most especially been the habit of the Roman Church, the head of all the Churches, to render to the Churches of the East a great degree of honor and love in remembrance of the Apostles, to rejoice in her turn in their faithful obedience. Amidst changing and difficult times, she has never failed in any way in farsightedness and acts of kindness to sustain them against the forces that would strike them again and again, to hold fast to those that were overwhelmed, to call back those in discord with her. Nor was it the last expression of her watchfulness that she guard and preserve in them whole and entire forever the customs and distinct forms for administering the sacraments that she had declared legitimate in her wise jurisdiction. Examples of this are the many decisions of Our Predecessors, in the first place Pius IX of happy memory, promulgated in their own pontifical acts or through documents issuing from the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. We ourselves have felt the prompting of no lesser zeal. At the very beginning of Our Pontificate, We turned eyes full of love towards the Christian nations of the East. We made haste, in fact, to direct Our solicitude to alleviating their state of want. We then saw the beginning of other opportunities for bearing witness to Our feelings of kind regard and expressing them in deeds. But nothing was nor is more important, nothing more sacred than to kindle the ardor, to elicit fruitfulness in the Faith in those souls in union with the Apostolic See, so that they shine forth as renewed proofs of the excellence and glory of their ancestors.
It has been possible to offer these Churches some assistance. We have founded in this very City a college for the formation of Armenian and Maronite clergy, likewise at Plovdiv and Edirne for those of the Bulgarian rite. We have decreed the construction of the Leonianum in Athens. We have fostered in larger measure the Seminary of St. Anne that was begun for the instruction of the Greek Melkite clergy in Jerusalem. Our activity includes increasing the number of Syrian students in the Urbanianum, restoring the Athanasianum for the Greeks to its pristine condition. This is the institute that Gregory XIII, its generous founder, wisely wished built. From it have issued men of great renown. We ardently wish—now all the more intensely—that We shall be able to cause and see with Our own eyes more activity of this and like type. God willing, We shall bring this plan long considered to completion by a unique letter of appeal to all leaders and peoples of the world, calling them to blessed unity in the divine Faith. Clearly, out of all the Christian nations that have been torn away from Us, We have striven to call out to the Christians of the East in the first place, to exhort them, to beseech them with the most heartfelt and paternal love.
We have begun to have hope, We are fostering it because its realization would be a great cause for joy, and, it is a fact, We are pursuing more strenuously this work so profitable for the salvation of many. Our goal is to discharge to the utmost degree whatever may be hoped for from the prudent direction of the Apostolic See. The reasons for rivalry and suspicion must be removed; then the fullest energies can be marshaled for reconciliation. We consider this of paramount importance to preserving the integrity proper to the discipline of the Eastern Churches. For Our part, We have ever rendered extreme attention and concern for this endeavor. In this vein, We have already given instructions for establishing schools to form young clerics of their nationalities. We shall give a like instruction for erecting other institutes. In them the students will cultivate their rites with the greatest devotion, observe them, and have full knowledge of their usages. In point of fact there is more importance than can be believed in preserving the Eastern rites. Their antiquity is august, it is what gives nobility to the different rites, it is a brilliant jewel for the whole Church, it confirms the God-given unity of the Catholic Faith.
For that very reason, even as her Apostolic origin is all the more proven especially by these Churches of the East, at the selfsame moment there shines out and is made manifest these Churches’ original, complete unity with the Roman Church. Nothing else, perhaps, is so breathtakingly effective for illustrating the mark of Catholicity in God’s Church than that striking sight of differing forms of ceremonies and noble examples of the tongues of the ancient past—made all the more noble by their use by the Apostles and Fathers—rendering their submission to the Church. This is almost an image of that most excellent submission that was rendered to the newly-born Christ, the divine Founder of the Church, when the Magi were drawn from the different regions of the East and came to adore Him (Matt. 2:2).
At this place it is opportune to notice the fact that the sacred rites, although not instituted specifically for proving the truth of the dogmas of the Catholic Faith incontrovertibly, are effectively the living voice of Catholic Truth, the oft-sounded expression of it. For that very reason the true Church of Christ, even as she shows great zeal to guard inviolate those forms of divine worship—since they are hallowed and are not to be changed—sometimes grants or permits something novel in the performance of them in certain instances. This she does especially when they are in conformity with their venerable antiquity. By this means, her vitality does not appear ever-aging; she stands out more wondrously as the very Bride of Christ whom the wisdom of the Holy Fathers recognized in prefigurement in the words of David: The queen stood at your right hand arrayed in apparel embroidered with spun gold, she is clothed with embroidery of diverse figures and spun gold fringe (Ps 44:14-15).
Inasmuch as this diversity of liturgical form and discipline of the Eastern Churches is approved in law, besides its other merits, it has redounded tremendously to the glory and usefulness of the Church. They ought not figure any less as subjects of Our charge. So much is this the case that it is in the best interest of all that their discipline not haphazardly borrow anything that would be ill-suited from Western ministers of the Gospel whom love for Christ compels to go to those peoples. The decisions that Our illustrious Predecessor Benedict XIV in his wisdom and foresight decreed in the Constitution of 24 December 1743 remain in force. This constitution was addressed as a letter to the Greek Melkite Patriarch of Antioch and to all the Bishops of that rite subject to him. The truth is that in the long course of time, given that the state of affairs has changed in those regions, that Latin rite missionaries and institutes have multiplied there as well, it now happens that some of the special concerns of the Apostolic See on the new conditions should be set out.
Frequently in recent years We recognized that this would be very useful: Our Venerable Brethren, the Patriarchs in the East, confirmed Our desires in very similar terms more than once in correspondence. That the result of this deliberation might be made more plain and intelligible and that well-suited, far-sighted plans be defined, We thought it well to invite those same Patriarchs to Rome and confer with them over what they might advise. Then We convened in Our presence a meeting with them that was well attended by some of Our beloved sons, the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, to deliberate on this matter. After weighing carefully and with due reflection all those matters that were put forward and discussed in conference, We resolved to make more explicit and far-reaching certain of the measures set out in the Constitution of Benedict XIV that would be more in keeping with the new state of affairs prevailing in these nations. For the execution of this, We single out this directive from among them as their fundamental condition for success: Latin rite priests are to be sent to those regions by the Apostolic See only for the purpose of assisting or helping the Patriarchs or Bishops there. The former are to be careful not to use the faculties granted them for acting in a way prejudicial to the Patriarchs or Bishops or for reducing the number of their subjects (Const. Demandatam, 13) By the force of these laws, evidently, the duties of the Latin clergy are to be kept within their proper limits in their relations with the Eastern rite hierarchy.
[Leo XIII then sets forth rules and regulations governing the relationship between Latin and Eastern churches, including the extension of the Greek Melkite Patriarch’s canonical jurisdiction to the entire Ottoman Empire. These rules have since been substantially modified by the 1990 Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium.]
Assuredly, Our Venerable Brethren, the Patriarchs, Archbishops, and Bishops of whatever Eastern Catholic rite will undertake with all reverence and obedience each and every of these Our decrees in virtue of that piety that they manifest for the Apostle’s Chair and for Ourselves, as also in virtue of their solicitude for their own Churches. In their zeal they will cause their complete observance by those whom these decrees concern. The abundance of fruits that may thereby then rightfully and with certainty be expected will come forth especially from the labor of those who represent Our Person throughout the Christian East. It is Our will that the Apostolic Delegates respect with due reverence the traditions established by the ancestors of these nations as a highly esteemed prize.
They are to pay suitable honor to the authority of the Patriarchs, and take pains that this honor be given. In the conduct of their duties with them, they will follow the Apostle’s counsel: Anticipate one another with honor (Rom. 12:10). They are to act with enthusiasm and good will for the bishops, clergy, and people, recalling in themselves that spirit with which the Apostle John conducted himself when he gave the Apocalypse to the seven Churches that are in Asia, greeting them: Grace be to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come (Rev. 1:4).
In every course of action let them show themselves true heralds and peacemakers of holy unity between the Eastern Churches and the Roman Church, which is the center of unity and charity. In accord with what We herein exhort and command, Latin rite priests who go to these excellent labors in the regions of the East for the eternal salvation of souls are to display like sentiments, conduct themselves in like fashion. God will truly give abundant increase to those who toil religiously in obedience to the Roman Pontiff.
Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s, the thirtieth of November, in the year of Our Lord’s Incarnation one thousand eight hundred ninety-four, the seventeenth of Our Pontificate.