ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Apostles of Reunion in Greece: The Catholic Exarchate of the Byzantine Rite

The Catholic Exarchate of the Byzantine Rite in Athens continues its work toward unity between the churches of Greece and Rome.

Greece is a country where Catholics are a very small minority: forty-five thousand in a total population of nine million.

It would be a mistake, however, to use these figures to judge either the strength or the importance of Hellenic Catholicism. For, in 1922, Greek Catholics entered into a new period of their history – with the institution of the Catholic Exarchate of the Byzantine Rite in Athens. Since that date, the Exarchate has been working continuously to reestablish the fraternal bonds which existed, at one time, between the Church of Greece and that of Rome.

Although it has not been possible to repair the damage of centuries in so short a time, the results achieved by the Exarchate, thus far, have been appreciable and encouraging.

As the first country of Europe to be evangelized by the Apostles themselves, Greece was held in particularly high esteem by the first Christians.

And significantly, the Church of Greece did not play any important role in the great theological struggles which tried Christianity during the first eight centuries A.D. In fact, during that period, Greece was not only in ecclesiastical communion with Rome, but it also formed part of the Roman Patriarchate.

When Greece was finally removed from the jurisdiction of Rome, in 733 A.D., the Church of Greece entered into the orbit of Byzantium – consequently undergoing its influence, and eventually following it into the Schism (at first provisional, in 868, and then definitive, in 1054).

Even as Christians of East and West were gradually becoming two separate worlds, though, talk of unity did not cease. And on two occasions, Ecumenical Councils were convened: in 1274 at Lyon, and again in 1430, at Florence.

Although both of these attempts at union were unsuccessful, they were nonetheless important…. The first gave birth to a line of great Unionists, (the “Enotiki” of Byzantium), who kept alive the ideal of Christian oneness. And the Council at Florence brought forth the great figures of Bessarion and Isidore of Kiev.

During the sixteenth century, the idea of unity began to gather ground once again – this time, though, in the form of a “dawning among the Greek people.” While they took no official step toward adhering to the Catholic Church, numerous faithful throughout the country lived the union de facto.

At that point in time, supporters of union might have been able to organize themselves and increase in numbers, except for one fact: Rome did not grant them a hierarchy of their own, a Greek Catholic hierarchy. A hierarchy for Latin Catholics had existed since the Crusades, and there was no desire to duplicate it by creating a Catholic hierarchy of the Byzantine Rite.

In fact, it was not until the twentieth century that a hierarchy for Greek Catholics was instituted – in 1911 at Constantinople, and 1922 at Athens.

The Byzantine Rite Catholics of Greece thus entered into a new period of their history on that day in 1922 when Bishop George Calavassy (“Kalavazis,” in Greek) arrived in Athens, to fill his post as Exarch in Greece. Two years earlier, Bishop Calavassy had succeeded Bishop Isaiah Papadopoulos as Exarch in Constantinople, and even after their deaths, both men serve as true inspiration to all Greek Catholics.

Although the early years of the Greek Catholic Exarchate were difficult, under the wise direction of Exarch Calavassy, the “newcomers” made rapid progress in both charitable and religious areas. The financial help which the Exarchate has received over the years, from friends in Europe and the United States – including the Catholic Near East Welfare Association – has also been an important factor in the expansion of its apostolate. (Interestingly, the birth of the Exarchate is closely linked with the founding of C.N.E.W.A.)

The corporal and spiritual works of mercy which they launched have served to make the Greek Rite known in Greece, and to convince their Orthodox brethren of the sincerity of the Exarchate’s purpose. From the outset, the Exarchate has turned towards both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Greeks, in a daring attempt to embrace them simultaneously…. And God has blessed this courageous venture.

Today, under the direction of the present Exarch, Bishop Anagiro Printesis, the Greek Catholic Exarchate tends the needs of a flock dispersed among the faithful of other denominations. Only two Greek Rite parishes exist in all of Greece, making the Exarchate’s ministry difficult – and possible solely because of the zeal of the clergy and the existence of various chapels.

Assisted by 16 priests and 29 Sisters of the Congregation of the Pammacaristos Theotokos, the Exarch oversees the operation of a Junior Seminary and Orphanage, a Center for Refugee Children, the Bethany House of Rest for the Aged, the Hospital of the Divine Providence, as well as Hostels for Students. At all these institutions Orthodox Christians, as well as Catholics, are welcomed.

In addition, the “Good Press,” an active part of the Exarchate since 1936, publishes numerous books and pamphlets, as well as printing the weekly religious newspaper, “Katholiki.”

One of the most important parts of today’s Exarchate is the Byzantine Rite Church of the Holy Trinity in Athens, which is both a concrete symbol of the unity sought after by the Greek Catholic Exarchate, and an historical monument. Completed in 1962, the cathedral is the first Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite to be built in Greece in several centuries – perhaps even since the Schism of 1054.

The Catholic Exarchate of the Byzantine Rite in Greece is the happy outcome of fidelity to the ideal of Christian unity which generations of men have pursued, at the price of great sacrifice…men who never forgot the timeless questions posed by Cardinal Bessarion at the Council at Florence:

“What valid justification will we have to present before God for an evil as great as that of our division, since it was to get rid of it and unite us all that Christ came on earth, became man, gave himself up to be crucified? What will be our excuse to coming generations, and more still, to the men of our time?”

Rev. Anthony Vakondios is currently living and working in Greece.

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