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Children of the Odegitria: Italy’s Byzantine Catholics

The Byzantine Catholic rite in Italy continues to flourish as it has for thousands of years.

It is January 6, the day that Byzantine Rite Christians call the Theophany, which means “Manifestation of God.” Unlike the West, which commemorates the revelation of the Christ Child to the Magi on this day, the East celebrates the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by St. John. This day is called “Manifestation of God” because

When You were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed: for the Father’s voice bore witness to You, calling You Beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the steadfastness of His word.

The East loves this day perhaps even more than Christmas. By being baptized, Jesus “sanctified the nature of water.” Water symbolizes life; if Jesus hallows water, then all of creation has begun its upward ascent to restoration. To mark this drama of cosmic redemption, Easterners walk in procession to a fountain, river, lake, or ocean, where they symbolically reenact the Baptism of Jesus. In a sense, they also recommit themselves to the task of their own baptism: the work of their salvation and the salvation of the whole world.

The cross leads the procession, flanked by two candle-bearers. The servers follow in the brilliant robes known as stikharia; they accompany the deacon, who carries the smoking censer. The priest, wearing a damask vestment called the phelonion, bears aloft the jeweled hand-cross. The entire parish family follows him.

The head of each household carries a small jug which he will fill with the “Jordan” water. He will sanctify his home by sprinkling the water, and his family by giving it to them to drink. The womenfolk don their festive holy-day dresses with characteristic silver-embossed belt buckles, many of which have an icon of St. George in the center.

The deacon intones the great litany, to which the people harmoniously respond with the two-thousand-year-old chant of Kyrie eleison. After the great consecratory prayer of St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, the climactic moment arrives. The priest immerses the handcross three times in the “Jordan.” When the chanting people come to the words, “and the Spirit in the form of a dove…,” the elder of the community releases a pure white dove from its cage, to the squealing delight of the children – both young and old!

With great reverence, each person steps forward to kiss the hand-cross and to be blessed with the “Jordan” water by the priest. The families fill their vessels with the water and piously drink it, saving an ample supply for the entire year to be drunk in time of temptation, illness, or strife. Later, the priest and deacon will visit each home to bestow the blessing of the Jordan-the grace of regeneration-on each household.

This scene could have taken place in any of the countries whose faithful, Catholic or Orthodox, follow the Byzantine Rite: in Greece, Russia, the Balkans, or the Middle East. But two items, the release of the dove and the silver buckles with the image of St. George, identify the communities in question with two locations: Southern Italy and Sicily. Some may be astonished to find that the Byzantine Rite is flourishing in Italy, and has done so for nearly two thousand years. But this is not surprising when one recalls that Southern Italy and Sicily were known in antiquity as Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece. Many of the great cities of the area were colonies of the brilliant Hellenic city-states, and inherited their language and culture.

When St. Paul exercised his apostolic ministry among the Greek-speaking peoples on the shores of the Mediterranean, the Greeks of Magna Graecia were not neglected. Churches were founded at Campagna, Calabria, Apulia, Basilicata, and Sicily, and Greek civilization was blended with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. These churches thus became a formative influence in that extraordinarily beautiful means of leading the Christian life that is known as the Byzantine Rite. To this day there is a monastery of the Italian Byzantine Rite at the very gates of Rome, at Grottaferrata.

For over a thousand years the countryside of the mezzogiorno – the region of Italy that lies south of Rome – was dotted with monasteries and convents following the holy rule of St. Basil the Great. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, however, these communities began to fall on lean days. When the power of the Byzantine Empire failed to maintain political control in its Western outposts, Normans, Angevins, Spaniards, and others filled the gap. In the beginning, this meeting of East and West created one of the most brilliant “ecumenical” civilizations the world has ever known. Its heart was Palermo, where Greek learning and spirituality coexisted with Jewish and Arabic science, under the aegis of the Norman King Roger and his successor, Emperor Frederick II.

Gradually the Western conquerors began to impose the Western or Latin Rite in their newly acquired domains. Eventually this spread even to the monasteries and parishes. In fact, the Byzantine Rite would have died out entirely, were it not for a singular act of Divine Providence.

In the fifteenth century an Albanian Christian nobleman, George Alexander Castriota, known as Skanderbeg, succeeded in freeing much of his homeland from Turkish domination. At that time, his Albanian countrymen were largely Catholics of the Byzantine Rite. After his death the Turks reconquered Albania, and many of Skanderbeg’s freedom fighters fled to Italy and Sicily. Here they were given heroes’ welcomes, along with grants of land to settle. From this time dates the renaissance of the Byzantine Rite in Italy – just when its prospects looked grimmest.

To secure the ecclesial survival of this noble remnant, a college was founded in Rome in 1577 – the Pontificio Collegio Greco. Within a short period of time a descendant of the Albanian freedom fighters, Gian Francesco Albani, was elected bishop of Rome as Pope Clement XI (1700-1721). One of his successors, Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) exercised much care for the preservation and authenticity of the Italo-Greek or Italo-Albanian Catholics in their adopted homeland.

At the present time, Catholics of the Byzantine Rite number nearly 70,000 in Italy and Sicily. They are grouped into two dioceses, or eparchies, as they are known in the East: the eparchy of Lungro in Calabria and the eparchy of Piana degli Albanesi near Palermo in Sicily. At least as many faithful are to be found abroad in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia.

A heroic attempt to implant the Church in America was made by Father Ciro Pinnola. He founded a small storefront church in Manhattan at the turn of the century, Our Lady of Grace on Stanton Street. From this modest headquarters he strove to gather his community, which was scattered in Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

From 1900 to 1910, 10,000 Byzantine Italians emigrated to the United States. Because large families were customary then, there are surely more than 100,000 Italians of the Byzantine Rite in the United States today. Unfortunately, no one has continued the work of Papas Ciro since his death in 1946. Most of his beloved people and their descendants have melted into the Latin Rite parishes, with only their family names as mute witnesses to the glorious history of which they are heirs. Names like Greco, LiGreci, Marchiano, Albanese, or Minisci – or names beginning with Papa, which indicates a priestly family – echo their Greek or Albanian ancestry.

An Italian priest of the Byzantine Rite remarked, “Is it possible that our tradition has survived two thousand years, nearly faced extinction during the Middle Ages, and enjoyed revival by the Albanian Crusade, only to become extinct in the prosperity and freedom of the New World?” Only God can say. On our part we offer a prayer to the Mother of God, the Odegitria, She-Who-Shows-Us-the-Way. As she has accompanied these radiant souls on their journey for two millenia, may she continue to keep them in her care, faithful to their sacred calling, until her Son comes again in glory.

Father Romanos is Director of the Office of Educational Services of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts.

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