Catholicos, plural Catholicoi, is a title used for the head of certain churches in some Eastern Christian traditions. The title implies autocephaly and in some cases is borne by the designated head of an autonomous church, in which case the holder might have other titles such as Patriarch. In other cases a catholicos heads a Particular Church and is subject to a patriarch or other church head. The word comes from ancient Greek καθολικός, pl. καθολικοί, derived from καθ' ὅλου (kath'olou, "generally") from κατά (kata, "down") and ὅλος (holos, "whole"), meaning "concerning the whole, universal, general"; it originally designated a financial or civil office in the Roman Empire.[1] The name of the Catholic Church comes from the same word.

The Church of the East, some Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox churches, and some Eastern Catholic Churches historically use this title;[2] for example the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church. In the Church of the East, the title was given to the church's head, the Patriarch of the Church of the East. While in the Syriac Orthodox Church the Catholicos of the East was given to the Maphrian, historically an office below the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.

Origin of the title

The earliest ecclesiastical use of the title Catholicos was by the Bishop of Armenia, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, in the 4th century[1] while still under the Patriarchate of Antioch.[3] Among the Armenians, catholicos was originally a simple title for the principal bishop of the country; he was subordinate to the See of Caesarea in Cappadocia.[3]

Sometime later, it was adopted by the bishops of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in Persia, who became the designated heads of the Church of the East. The first claim that the bishop of Selucia-Ctesiphon was superior to the other bishoprics and had (using a later term) patriarchal rights was made by Patriarch Papa bar Gaggai (or Aggai, c. 317-c. 329). In the 5th century this was claim strengthened and Isaac (or Ishaq, 399-c.410), who organized the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, used the title of bishop of Selucia-Ctesiphon, Catholicos and Head over the bishops of all the Orient.[4] This line of Catholicos founded the Church of the East and the development of the East Syrian Rite.

In the beginning of the fourth Century Albania and Georgia (Iberia) were converted to Christianity, and the principal bishop of each of these countries bore the title of catholicos, although neither of them was autocephalous. They followed the Armenians in rejecting the Council of Chalcedon. At the end of the sixth, or beginning of the seventh, century the Georgian catholicos asserted his independence and came back to orthodoxy. Henceforward the Georgian Church underwent the same evolutions as the Greek. In 1783 Georgia abolished the office of its catholicos, and placed itself under the Holy Synod of Russia, to which country it was united politically in 1801. The Albanian catholicos remained loyal to the Armenian Church, with the exception of a brief schism towards the end of the sixth century. Shortly afterwards Albania was assimilated partly with Armenia and partly with Georgia. There is no mention of any catholicos in Albania after the seventh century. It is asserted by some that the head of the Abyssinian Church, the Abuna, also bears the title of catholicos, but, although this name may have been applied to him by analogy, there is, to our knowledge, no authority for asserting that this title is used by the Abyssinian Church itself.[3]


Autocephalous churches of East Syrian Rite

The following are autocephalous churches of East Syrian Rite that claim succession to the Catholicos of the East of Selucia-Ctesiphon from the Church of the East. Referred to as Nestorian in Western texts, the term Nestorian was formally renounced in 1976 by Dinkha IV.

Assyrian Church of the East

As of September 27, 2015, Gewargis III is the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East. One of the oldest Christian churches, it is a modern successor of the historical Church of the East, also known as the Persian Church, having emerged from a split with the Chaldean Church in the 16th century. It traces its origins to the See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in central Mesopotamia, which tradition holds was founded by Saint Thomas the Apostle (Tooma Shlikha) as well as Saint Mari and Saint Addai in AD 33 as asserted in the Doctrine of Addai.

It is one of the three Churches of the East that hold themselves distinct from Oriental and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Assyrian Church of the East does not use the word "orthodox" in any of its service books or official correspondence, nor does it use any word which can be translated as "correct faith" or "correct doctrine," the rough translation of "orthodox". The adjectives "holy," "catholic," and "apostolic" were officially added to the Assyrian Church of the East's title in conformance with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed which declares, "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." In this context, "holy" refers to being set apart for a purely sacred purpose; "apostolic" means founded by one of Jesus's own apostles; and "catholic" is the Greek word for "universal," indicating a worldwide church. In India, it is more often called the Chaldean Syrian Church. In the West it is often called the Nestorian Church, due to its historical associations with Nestorianism, though the church itself considers the term pejorative and argues that this association is incorrect. The church declares that no other church has suffered as many martyrdoms as the Assyrian Church of the East.[4]

The founders of Assyrian theology were Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, who taught at Antioch. The normative Christology of the Assyrian church was written by Babai the Great (551–628) and is clearly distinct from the accusations directed toward Nestorius: his main christological work is called the 'Book of the Union', and in it Babai teaches that the two qnome (essences, or hypostases) are unmingled but everlastingly united in the one parsopa (personality) of Christ.

Ancient Church of the East

As of February 20, 1972, Addai II is the Catholicos of the Ancient Church of the East, which split off from the Church of the East in the 1960s.

Eastern Catholic Churches of East Syrian Rite

The following are Eastern Catholic Churches of East Syrian Rite that claim succession to the Catholicos of the East of Selucia-Ctesiphon of the Church of the East:

Chaldean Catholic Church of the East

As of February 1, 2013, Louis Raphaël I Sako is the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church of the East (in full Communion with the Pope.)

The Chaldean Catholic Church is an Eastern church of the Catholic Church, maintaining full communion with the Bishop of Rome and the rest of the Catholic Church. It is descended from the historical Church of the East and became independent following a 16th-century split with the Church of the East. The Chaldean Catholic Church presently has an estimated 2.5 million Chaldean Christian members. They are indigenous people of Iraq and descended from the ancient Mesopotamians. They retain Aramaic as a native tongue.

Eastern Catholic Churches of West Syrian Rite

The following are Eastern Catholic Churches of West Syrian Rite that claim succession to the title of Catholicos:

Syro-Malankara Catholic Church

The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church which was raised to the status of a Major Archiepiscopal Church sui iuris on February 10, 2005 received the supra archiepiscopal title of Catholicos according to the tradition of Malankara Church and according to the norms of Motu Proprio "Cleri Sanctitati" Can. 335. The Holy See of Rome has approved of this by giving recognition to the "Code of Particular Canons of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church" which very well illustrates the title Catholicos according to the tradition and history of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.[5]

Oriental Orthodox Church

In the 6th century, on the initiative of Jacob Baradaeus, a hierarchy of the Syrian Orthodox was erected in the area now known as Iraq to serve the Christians who were not placed under the Catholicate of the Church of the East. The main See was located in Tikrit and the rite used was that of Antioch, i.e. the West Syrian Rite. The first head of this hierarchy was the Great Metropolitan Ahudemeh (559-575). The title used from about the 7th century was Maphrian (or Maphryono). In the 12th century the See was moved to Mosul and in the 13th century the title became Catholicos of the East. After the massacres of Tamerlane, the Maphrian was forced to leave Persia and this title was used for the general vicar, with nominal right of succession, for the Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church.[6]

In the 17th century many Christians of the Kerala region in India decided to leave the Church of Malabar—the local Church that had been connected to the Church of the East and since the second half of 16th century was under Portuguese control—and to align themselves under the hierarchy of the Syriac Orthodox Church. They moved from the East Syrian Rite and adopted the West Syrian Rite. The title of Catholicos of the East as an Indian hierarchy was used from the 20th century. The following heads of the Orthodox Church claim succession to the Catholicos of the East.

Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church

Baselios Marthoma Paulose II is the current Catholicos of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and is based at Devalokam near Kottayam in Kerala State.

His title is Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church also called Indian Orthodox Church.

Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church

Baselios Thomas I is the current Catholicos of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church and is based at Puthencruz near Ernakulam in Kerala State. This Church in India is under the Holy See of Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch headed by HH Ignatius Aphrem 2nd (The Patriarch) based at Damascus in Syria.

His title is "Catholicose"

Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

In 1959, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria granted autocephaly to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Abuna Basilios was consecrated the first Patriarch Catholicos of the Ethiopian Church by the Coptic Pope Cyril VI at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo on 28 June 1959. The title is "Patriarch and Catholicos of Ethiopia, Ichege of the See of St. Tekle Haymanot, Archbishop of Axum".

Armenian churches

Armenian Apostolic Church

The head of the One Holy Universal Apostolic Orthodox Armenian Church bears the title Catholicos.

The Catholicos of Etchmiadzin presides over the Supreme Spiritual Council of the Armenian Apostolic Church and is the head of the world's 7 million Armenian Orthodox Christians.

There is a Catholicos residing in Antelias, Lebanon:

The primacy of honour of the Catholicossate of Etchmiadzin has always been recognized by the Catholicossate of Cilicia.

There once was a Catholicos in Akhtamar, a position that has since been abolished:

Armenian Catholic Church

Georgian Orthodox Church

The title of catholicos is also used in the Georgian Church, whose head carries the title Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia.

Caucasian Albania

Historically, the title of Catholicos was also used by the chief bishop of Caucasian Albania. With the Islamic invasion this church deteriorated and the provinces came under the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin.

See also


  1. 1 2 Wigram, p. 91.
  2. The Motu Proprio Cleri Sanctitati Canon 335
  3. 1 2 3  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Catholicos". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
  4. Yar-Shater, Ehsan; Fisher, W. B. (1983). The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods. p. 931. ISBN 978-0-521-24693-4. Retrieved 2009-02-22.
  5. The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, The Code of Particular Canons of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, Major Archiepiscopal Curia, Trivandrum, 2012, xi
  6. King, Archdale (1997) [1947/8]. The Rites of Eastern Christendom. p. 84. ISBN 978-1-59333-391-1.
  7. Official Website of the Armenian Church Archived July 5, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.


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