Eparch or Bishop? A brief explanation of the Oriental Hierarchical Terminology

Eparch or Bishop?

A brief explanation of the Oriental Hierarchical Terminology

   Applicable to the Catholic Metropolitan Church sui iuris in Eritrea

According to the beautiful expression of the late Pope St. John Paul II the Catholic Church breathes with two lungs, namely with the Oriental and the Latin traditions. We may use the same metaphor also for AMECEA (Association of Memebers of Episcopal Converences in Eastern Africa). Even if most of its members belong to the Latin Tradition, it is important to recognize the existence of two members that belong to the Oriental Tradition. Until January 19, 2015, there used to be only the Metropoitan Church suiiuris of Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, with suffragan eparchies in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. From that date on the Holy Father, Pope Francis, with the Papal Bull “MultumFructum” elevated also the Catholic Church in Eritrea to a Metropolitan Church suiiuris. Hence, Addis Abeba and Asmara have become two seats of Metropolitan Archeparchies(Archdioceses) lead by their respective Metropolitan Archeparchs (Archbishops). The present Archeparch of Addis Abeba, His Eminence Cardinal Berhaneyesus D. Souraphiel was also made Cardinal in 2015.

The above sister Churches follow the Alexandrian tradition and they have the Ge’ez Rite. Ge’ez is the ancient language that developed in Eritrea and Ethiopia, which now is mainly used in classical studies and liturgical celebrations. It is a Semitic language, with its own alphabet, similar to Hebrew and Arabic from which derived the modern day languages of Tigrinya, spoken language in Eritrea; and Amharic, the spoken language in Ethiopia.

It is also important to note that, even if with slight differences, the terminology used to name ecclesiastical jurisdictions and the hierarchical institutions in the two Metropolitan Churches suiiuris is that of the Oriental Churches and it goes as follows:

Oriental Terminology Ge’ez           Equivalent Latin Terminology

Eparchy                    ኤጳርቅና Diocese

Archeparchy                 ርእሰ ኤጳርቅና Archdiocese

Eparch                ኤጳርቃ-ጳጳስ Bishop

Archeparch                ሊቀ ጳጳሳት Archbishop

Council of Hierarchs       ጉባኤ ጳጳሳት Episcopal Conference

Note: The Latin term sui iuris means self administering or autonomous.

        In Ge’ez it may mean ርእሰ ምኅድርት

Historical Background

 Here is a brief explanation on the development and the meaning of Oriental Hierarchical Structure as given by John D. Faris in A GUIDE TO THE EASTERN CODE, A commentary on the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, edited by George Nedungatt, S.J. (Rome 2002), pp 207-2026.

The hierarchical structure of the Church developed gradually in the setting of the civil division of the Roman Empire, first made by Emperor Diocletian and later perfected by Constantine I.

The first great division of the Empire was into Eastern and Western Empires, each of which was subdivided into two prefectures: Oriens and Illiricum, Italia and Gallia.

The prefectures were further divided into dioceses, which were again subdivided into eparchies or provinces.

The prefecture was governed by Praefectus praetorio, the diocese by Vicarius, and the eparchy or province by Praeses or Rector urbis

Each province was governed from the metropolis (mother city), usually the capital city.

As Christianity first reached the major cities and from there evangelization fanned out into the neighbouring districts, subordinate centers called “parochia, parish” were formed in the country side (rural district), cared for by a chorbishop appointed by the bishop of the metropolis or metropolitan. The other cities or towns were cared for by suffragan bishops.

The Episcopal sees of the first major cities developed further into patriarchates exercising power over the metropolitans.

At the time of the Council of Nicea I there were 2 half-empires, 4 prefetures, 14 dioceses and 116 civil provinces in the Roman civil Adminstration. The Church structures firstly followed almost exactly this civil pattern

The powers of the metropolitans were defined by the early synods and ecumenical councils. However, under some patriarchs they lost some of their powers. In the west, from the time of Pope Nicholas I (858-867), they were reduced to being no more than appointed informers to the Apostolic See of Rome (CIC 1917 cc 272-279). The revised canons (CIC cc. 435-437) hardly differ from the older ones and assign to the metropolitan “no power of governance in any suffragan diocese” (CIC c 436.3)

Categories of Catholic Oriental Churches

According to the Corpus Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium (CCEO)  the Oriental Catholic Churches sui iuris are of four categories. The Canons of the Oriental Churches, cc55.150. speak of Patriarchal Churches; cc. 151-174speak of Major Archepiscopal Churches; cc. 155=176 speak of Metropolitan Churches sui iuris; and Canons cc. 174=176 speak of Other Churches sui iuris.

Patriarchal Churches:

The patriarchal church is the full-grown form of an Oriental Catholic Church. It is a community of the Christian faithful joined together by a patriarchal hierarchy. The patriarch together with the synod of bishops has the legislative, judicial and administrative powers within the ecclesiastical territory, without prejudice to those powers reserved, in the common law to the [[pope]] (CCEO 55-150). Among the Catholic Oriental churches the following hold patriarchal status: Maronite, Chaldean, Coptic, Syrian, Melkite, Armenian.


Major Archiepiscopal Churches:

Major archiepiscopal churches are those oriental churches which are governed by major archbishops, assisted by a respective synod of bishops. These churches have almost the same rights and obligations of patriarchal churches. A major archbishop is the is head of Major Archepiscopal Church; he is chosen by the Pope or recognized by him, and presides over an entire Eastern Church sui iuris. What is stated in common law concerning patriarchal churches or patriarchs is understood to be applicable to major archiepiscopal churches or major archbishops, unless the common law expressly provides otherwise or the matter is obvious. (CCEO.151, 152). The four major archiepsicopal churches are: the Syro Malabar, the Ukrainian Byzantine, the Syro Malankara Catholic and Romanian Byzantine.


Metropolitan Churches:

This is a church which is governed by a metropolitan “sui iuris.” Such a church is presided over by the metropolitan of a determined see who has been canonically elected and confirmed by the pope. He is assisted by a council of hierarchs according to the norms of law (CCEO. 155§1). The CCEO has restored much of the ancient discipline following the conciliar directives (OE 6), distinguishing metropolitans presiding over provinces of Patriarchal Churches (cc.133-139) from those presiding with power of governance (cc. 157-161) over Metropolitan Churches sui iuris, of which there are five today, namely Asmara (Eritrea), Addis Abeba (Ethiopia), Pittsburgh (USA), Presov (Slovenia), Hajdudorog (Hungary).

Other Churches sui iuris

Churches that are neither Patriarchal nor Major Archepiscopal nor Metropolitan sui iuris but entrusted to a hierarch to  preside over according to the norm of common law as well as the particular law established by the Roman Pontiff belong under the caption “Other Churches sui iuris” (c. 174).

MetropolitanChurches sui iuris (c. 155)

These Churches are immediately subject to the Roman Pontiff unlike those Metropolitan Churches that are actually provinces of some Patriarchal or Major Archepiscopal Church.

The Metropolitan Church sui iuris is presided over by a metropolitan, he is appointed by the Roman Pontiff and assisted by a Council of Hierarchs.

1.1The Pallium (c.156)

In order for the metropolitan to function as such, it is necessary for him to obtain the pallium. In the Latin Tradition the pallium has become the symbol of the full communion of the metropolitan with the Roman Pontiff and the supra-episcopal authority exercised by the metropolitan (CIC c. 437).The same applies today to the pallium conferred on the head of an Eastern Catholic Metropolitan Church sui iuris (CCEO c.156).

1..2Metropolitan Power (c.157)

The metropolitan exercises powers that are both episcopal and supra-episcopal, ordinary (joined to his office), proper (exercised in his own right and not vicariously) and personal (attached to the person of the metropolitan) c. 157.

The power of the metropolitan is not immediate; the metropolitan governs his Church through the mediation of the eparchial bishops and cannot exercise jurisdiction directly over the faithful who are subject to eparchial bishops except in specific cases delineated by law or legitimate custom. In his own eparchy, the power is of the metropolitan is immediate and is identical to that of any other eparchial bishop (c. 158.2).

The metropolitan and the Council of Hierarchs can exercise administrative, legislative and judicial authority validly only inside the territorial boundaries of the Metropolitan Church

The Metropolitan Church sui iuris is a juridic person and, as such, must have someone to represent it in juridic and ecclesiastical affairs (c. 922.2 no.4). Bu virtue of the law itself, the metropolitan is designated as the representative of the Metropolitan Church suiiuris, who acts in the name of the Church (c. 157.3).

1.1.3Metropolitan See (c. 158)

The office of the metropolitan is attached to a specific see; appointment to that see automatically brings with it the office of head of the Metropolitan Church.

1.1.4Rights and Obligations of Metropolitans (c.159)

-common or particular law

A liturgical role in his Church (consecrating bishops)

Convoking the Council of Hierarchs

His personal participation is required

Has the right to determine what matters will be discussed in the sessions and to prepare the agenda.

The particular law of the Metropolitan Church can make such provisions (c.171).

Exclusive competence of the Metropolitan to transfer, prolong, suspend or dissolve any session of the Council of Hierarchs (c.159.2

His archeparchial tribunal serves as the appellate tribunal for sentences of the eparchial tribunals (c. 1064.1) of the Metropolitan Church.

It is the right and obligation of the metropolitan to exercise

vigilance in the area of faith and ecclesiastical discipline over the entire province (c. 159 no.4) involving dialogue and reminder, besides the duty to report to the Roman Pontiff as a last resort.

Canonical visitation

In case of vacancy in an Eparchy (if the college of consultors does not do it) he can nominate an administrator

If the eparchial bishop fails to appoint a financial officer he can make the appointment

Pass to the other eparchs communications transmitted to him by the Holy See

If an eparchial bishop wants to dissolve the presbyterial council he must consult first the metropolitan

1.1.5 Mutual Consultations (c.160)

The eparchial bishops are to consult the metropolitan with regard to extraordinary matters or those entailing special difficulty; and likewise the metropolitan will hear the opinions of the bishops.

1.1.6The Liturgical commemorations (cc. 161-162)

Remembering the Metropolitan in Liturgical celebrations is not only a prayer for him but also a public declaration of hierarchical communion with him.

1.1.7Visit to the Roman Pontiff (c. 163)

The ad Limina Apostolorum to the tombs of the Apostles. Optimally the Metropolitan would visit accompanied by all the bishops of his Metropolitan Church sui iuris

1.2 The Council of Hierarchs (cc. 164-171)

In the governance of the Metropolitan Church the metropolitan is assisted (c.155.1) by the Council of Hierarchs.

1.2.1 Terminology

The name “Council of Hierarchs” is not the best term to use… Consilium pastorale, consilium presbyterale, … The term “synodus metropolitana” would instead suit better here as a substitute for “consilium hierarcharum”

1.2.2 Bishops to be consecrated (c.164)

1.2.3 The obligation to Attend the Council of Hierarchs (c,165)

In a Council of Hierarchs with three members, with the absence of one there is no quorum, since at least three are needed to make up a collegial body

1.2.4. Quorum and Decisive Majority (c. 166)

1.2.5 The Ligislative Activity of the Council (c. 167.1-3)

The council of Hierarchs, in a more restricted manner, excercises legislative power in the Metropolitan Church sui iuris. It is for the metropolitan to promulgate (c.1488) a law or norm enacted by the Council of Hierarchs

1.2.6 Administrative Power of the Metropolitan (c. 167.4)

The Metropolitan is the superior administrative authority of the Metropolitan Church sui iuris and has the rights and obligations proper to that office. The metropolitan must have the consent of the Council of Hierarchs in order to perform administrative acts entrusted by common law to the superior authority of the Church sui iuris (c.167)

He can approve liturgical texts or translations of liturgical texts.

He can reserve to himself the absolution of certain sins

Receive in the Church a non-Catholic bishop (c. 898.1)

Erect a Catholic (or ecclesial) University (c. 642.1)

1.2.7 Appointment of Metropolitan and Bishops (c. 168)

The appointment process does not permit the members of the council to consult priests and other faithful about the suitability of any candidate, but only regarding the needs of the Church and the qualifications required to be a bishop in such a context.

1.2.8 Pastoral Responsibility of the Council of Hierarchs (c.169)

It is for the Council of Hierarchs to study the pastoral needs of the faithful or of the Metropolitan Church as a whole and to provide for them:

Increase of Faith

Cooperation in pastoral activities

Regulation of morals

Observance of the Rite and common ecclesial discipline

1.2.9 Frequency of Meetings (c.170)

At least once a year for an ordinary meeting

An act reserved to the Council of Hierarchs

An act is being considered that requires the consent of the Council

Special circumstances arise that require the convocation of the Council

1.2.10 Statutes

Since the Council of Hierarchs is a juridic person distinct from the individual members who participate in it, there is a need for regulations. The council is to draw up a set of statutes which is to treat matters such as a secretariat, commission and procedures to be employed by the council (c.171). The statutes can determine



Requirements for a quorum

The time and the manner laws are to be  promulgated

Decisions are to be published

Obligation of confidentiality to be imposed

Required commissions (liturgical, particular law, ecumenical and pastoral)


1.2.11Metropolitan Assembly (c. 172)

In order to address itself to the pastoral needs of the entire Metropolitan Church sui iuris, an assembly is to be conducted every five years (c.172).

Vacancy or Impeded Metropolitan See (c. 173)

During the vacancy of the metropolitan see of a Metropolitan Church sui iuris, the eparchial bishop senior according to episcopal ordination is to be the administrator of the Metropolitan Church.


We hope this explanation will be useful to all those who want to know and use the exact terminology customarily used in the two Metropolitan Churches sui iurs in our AMECEA region. We invite everyone to have a deeper knowledge of the ancient and duly inculturated Oriental tradition that has existed in East Africa since the fourth century AD. In Egypt there is the Coptic Catholic Patriarchal Church. Copt means Egyptian referring to the ancient dwellers of Egypt, before the Arab conquest. Coptic Christians, Coptic Church, Coptic Rite and Tradition are therefore, terms that exclusively pertain to the Catholic or/and Orthodox Christians and Churches in Egypt. Hence, it would not be correct to name Catholic or Orthodox Christians or/and Churches in Eritrea or Ethiopia buy that Egyptian name.

For the Council of Catholic Hierarchs in Eritrea (CCHE).

Devoutedly yours in Christ Jesus


Abune Menghesteab Tesfamariam, MCCJ

Metropolitan Archeparch of Asmara

Asmara, May 31, 2017