Eastern Catholic Churches are mostly found in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Southern India. Each of the Eastern, i.e. not-Roman, Catholic Churches has its unique history, often closely tied to a specific ethnic group. There are four main branches to the Rites of the Catholic Church: Roman, Alexandrian (Egyptian), Antiochian (Syrian), and Byzantine. Each of these branches in turn has a great diversity of rites within it. Most rites have been reunited with the heavyweight Roman church after settling theological (or perhaps political?) differences, while others have been in communion their whole history. All have rich histories and many claim roots going back to the original twelve apostles. For example, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, found in the southern Indian state of Kerala, claims it was founded by the missionary efforts of Thomas the apostle.
The Maronite Catholic Church fits under the Syrian branch and is one (of two?) churches which have never been separated at any time from the Roman church. Maronites trace their history to St. Maron, a monk who lived toward the end of the 4th century in what is today Lebanon. Its liturgy is based on the Liturgy of St. James, and is traditionally given in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Today most Maronite Catholics live in Lebanon where they comprise 20% of the population. Carlos Slim Helu, currently the 3rd richest person in the world, is a Maronite Catholic.
Back in December I visited St. Mary's Greek Orthodox church and was struck by the beauty of its liturgy as well as the similarities it had with the Roman Catholic tradition I grew up with. I began wondering what diversity there was within my own Catholic tradition, in particular whether liturgies of eastern Catholic churches seemed more Orthodox or Catholic to me. And so I decided to visit St. Maron's.
Overall the liturgy was more similar than I expected to the Roman liturgy I grew up with. The liturgy followed nearly the same pattern as the Roman rite. There was more incense used, and each prayer was longer than I'm used to, plus there was a choir which led the responses to the prayers. Unlike the Roman Catholic churches I'm used to (but similar to the Orthodox church I visited), there were no hymnals, and the congregation never sang more than a short response to a prayer. However, like the Roman Catholic churches I'm used to, the choir did sing during communion, and at the end of the liturgy.
One parishioner proudly told me Mass at St. Maron's is an especially beautiful example of a Maronite liturgy, and I could see why. The actions of the liturgy were performed with a simplicity and reverence which can only come from routinely performing a sacred right for the Most High. There was less processing around the altar and/or church than in an Orthodox liturgy, but a bit more than I'm used to. Unlike Orthodox Christianity, and like other Catholic traditions, women are allowed on the altar, however they cannot be priests. In most Maronite Catholic churches the priest faces away from the congregation during the eucharistic celebration, however at St. Maron's he faces toward the congregation. Apparently the direction is left up to the parish to decide.
So what's the biggest difference between a Roman and a Maronite Catholic liturgy? For me it was how communion (the Eucharist) was celebrated. I'm used to receiving a single piece of bread (the Body of Christ), then having a choice whether or not to take a sip from the communal cup of wine (Blood of Christ), and having the whole thing said in my native language. At St. Maron's the readings and homily were said in English, many prayers were said in Arabic (reminding me that Christians and Muslims worship the same Allah), while the consecration was said in Aramaic. According to Catholic teaching, the priest literally changes bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus during the consecration when he speaks the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper "This is my body which is given for you...". Hearing the words of the consecration spoken, not in translation, but in the language of Jesus, was certainly powerful.
Communion used unleavened bread just like the Roman Catholic church, but was delivered by intinction, meaning the priest took a wafer of bread, and dipped it in a small chalice before reverently placing it in the communicant's mouth. The priest held a silver platter on which the bread wafers and the chalice rested, the communicant would hold their chin over the platter when receiving communion, and not a single crumb dropped to the floor.
An interesting moment for me was during a prayer before communion when the priest prayed for Pope Francis, the Eparch of Los Angeles, and the Archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis. Afterwards I asked if the Maronite churches in the area are organizationally connected with the Archdiocese (they are not). Both Roman and Maronite Catholics regard Pope Francis as their spiritual head, below the pope our hierarchical structures differ, yet our spirit is one. May this spirit be a truly catholic (universal) spirit which, as John Wesley said, knows no church boundaries.