The Congregation for the Oriental Churches began as part of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide pro negotiis ritus orientalis, established by Pope Pius IX on January 6, 1862 with the Apostolic Constitution Romani Pontifices. Pope Benedict XV declared it independent on May 1, 1917 with the Motu Proprio Dei Providentis and named itCongregatio pro Ecclesia Orientali. Pope Paul VI with the Apostolic Constitution RegiminiEcclesiae Universae of Augsut 15, 1967 changed the name to Congregatio pro Ecclesiis Orientalibus.
As an institution this Dicastery received from the Supreme Pontiff the mandate to be in contact with the Oriental Catholic Churches for the sake of assisting their development, protecting their rights and also maintaining whole and entire in the one Catholic Church, alongside the liturgical, disciplinary and spiritual patrimony of the latin rite, the heritage of the various Oriental Christian traditions.
Its responsibilities were notably increased by Pope Pius XI with the Motu Proprio Sancta Dei Ecclesia of March 25, 1938. More recently Pope Paul VI (Regimini Ecclesiae Universae) and Pope John Paul II (Pastor Bonus) further clarified the scope of the Dicastery, which exercises, ad normam iuris, the same authority over eparchies, bishops, clergy, religious and faithful of the Oriental Rite as do the Congregations for the Bishops, for the Clergy, for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life and for Catholic Education respectively over the dioceses, bishops, clergy, religious and faithful of the Latin Rite. In addition, it has exclusive authority over the following regions: Egypt and the Sinai peninsula, Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia, Southern Albania and Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Turkey.
The Congregation is made up of a Cardinal Prefect (who directs and represents it with the help of a Secretary) and 27 Cardinals, one Archbishop and 4 Bishops, designated by the Pope ad quiquennium. Members by right are the Patriarchs and the Major Archbishops of the Oriental Churches and the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Unity among Christians.
The work of the Cardinal members, gathered in special ordinary and plenary assemblies, is to define the most important questions, while regular issues are dealt with by H. Em. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, assisted by the Secretary His Excellency Cyril Vasil’, S.I., and by the Undersecretary Mons. Maurizio Malvestiti in collaboration with the Officials and Consultors. In addition, the everyday work of the Dicastery is being carried out by the Supervisor P. Paolino Rossi, ofm cap, Writers, Secretaries, Technicians, Typists and Receptionists for a total of 30 people.
According to the different fields of competency the Dicastery is assisted by a College of about 50 Consultors who offer professional advice on particular questions or matters of great significance. The Congregation furthermore coordinates the work of three Commissions of experts: The Special Commission on the Liturgy, which seeks to deal with the matters reserved by the Code of Canons for the Oriental Churches to the Holy See concerning the liturgy of the oriental Catholic Churches; The Special Commission for the Studies of the Christian East, which undertakes to study the collection of documents and initiatives with the purpose of bringing knowledge of the East to Western Catholicism and of deepening the awareness of the patrimony of the Oriental Churches; The Commission for the Formation of the Clergy and Religious, which promotes the formation of oriental students in Rome or elsewhere according to the custom of their institute.
The complex reality of the Oriental Churches with respect to their geographical, cultural and social conditions requires that the great Catholic community will share its resources, which can help the Orientals to keep alive and to develop the most genuine traditions of their Churches according to the instructions of the Second Vatican Council, the norms of the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches and the directives of the Supreme Pontiffs.
The assistance of the Congregation on behalf of Catholic Oriental clergy and faithful in Rome and in their different countries of origin is made possible thanks to the financial contributions from the Holy See, from international aid agencies and from private sponsors. The R.O.A.C.O. (“Riunione Opere Aiuto Chiese Orientali” that is the “Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches”) is a committee which unites funding agencies from various countries around the world for the sake of providing assistance in different areas of life from worship buildings to scholarships, from houses of study and formation to social and health care facilities. The President of the committee is the Prefect of the Congregation and the Secretary of the Dicastery functions as its vice-president. Apart from the “Catholic Near East Welfare Association” (C.N.E.W.A.) located in the United States of America and approved by Pope Pius XI in 1928, and apart from the “Pontifical Mission for Palestine” created in 1949 and also located in the United States, many other aid agencies from Germany, France, Switzerland, Holland and Austria are part of this committee.
The S.I.C.O. (“Servizio Informazioni Chiese Orientali” that is the “Information Service of the Oriental Churches”) is the magazine which publishes annually the speeches of the Holy Father on the Christian East and a record of the activities of the Congregation on behalf of the various Oriental Catholic Churches. In addition, the publication includes information from the local Churches, news on the nomination of new Hierarchs and Apostolic Nuncios, on the pastoral and missionary efforts of the Churches and on the work of Synods and their decisions. To these are added reports on the liturgical life, on study and formation, on projects by R.O.A.C.O. and on the result of the annual collection of the particular churches Pro Terra Sancta. The magazine is a way to keep up to date, continuously and quickly, on the many activities of the Dicastery.
The Congregation for the Oriental Churches is located in Rome on the Via della Conciliazione 34 in the building called Palazzo dei Convertendi, built by Bramante in the old Piazza S. Giacomo, also called Scossacavalli, and in which Raffaello Sanzio lived during the last years of his life from 1517 to 1520.