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Italy’s Byzantine Catholics

The Byzantine Catholic Church in Italy – historically a link to the Byzantine Orthodox Church.

The Byzantine Catholic Church in Italy is characterized by a unique phenomenon. Although Byzantine, this church has been under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome, the pope, since the sixth century – except for a period of 400 years beginning in 731.

This Byzantine presence in southern Italy knows two phases: Italo-Greek and Italo-Albanian. These phases are clearly distinct for historical, cultural, ethnic and linguistic reasons, reflecting the general consciousness of the nation’s Byzantine Catholics.

The Italo-Greek Phase. The byzantinization of southern Italy began during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565) with a military campaign launched by General Belisarius in 535. In time a Greek Church developed that had, at the peak of its power and influence in the 10th century, a number of dioceses and two metropolitan seats.

The Greek Church had a substantial religious influence on southern Italy. The most recent studies of Italo-Greek saints, history, music and liturgy verify this influence with abundant documentation. Studies have also revealed that Greek monasticism, rivaling the monastic centers of the Byzantine East, thrived in 10th-century Calabria.

The confluence in Italy of people from all over the empire – especially at the time of the seventh century Arab invasions – brought to Italy a variety of eastern, Byzantine traditions. Since provinces tend to be more conservative than city centers, southern Italy may be a true archive of ancient Byzantine traditions.

Byzantinists have rescued exceptional documentation from oblivion. Recently, Enrica Follieri of the University of Rome published “The Life of St. Fantino the Younger,” which is now an obligatory resource for those who want to pursue the study of Italo-Greek monasticism. This study is of interest to Catholics, but above all to the Orthodox. This was demonstrated when the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies in Thessaloniki published a monograph on the monasticism and spirituality of the Italo-Greeks. In addition, “The Life of St. Nilus of Rossano,” a medieval biography of the founder of the monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata – which was written in Italy, although in Greek – was translated into modem Greek and published by an Orthodox monastery with a preface by a superior of a Mount Athos monastery.

Another fertile field is liturgy. For some time the Pontifical Oriental Institute of Rome has been promoting the study of the liturgical manuscript sources contained in the typica (monastic codes) and euchologion (liturgical prayer books) of the Byzantine Church. This year two young researchers from the Oriental Institute printed the most important Italo-Greek Byzantine prayer book, Euchologio Barberini Gr. 336, first copied in Byzantine Calabria in the eighth century. This codex is believed to be the oldest remaining manuscript of the Byzantine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

In the eighth century, communication between southern Italy and Constantinople was constant. And because of the pro-icon position assumed by the pope, who opposed the iconoclastic policy of the Byzantine emperor, southern Italy was drawn closer to Constantinople’s orbit. Leo the Isaurian removed Illyria, Calabria and Sicily from the pope’s jurisdiction and placed these areas under the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople. At that time, the patriarch was strong-armed into accepting and implementing the emperor’s unpopular ruling against the creation and veneration of sacred images. Rome considered this act an abuse of power, but nevertheless maintained a level of influence with the Italo-Greek community.

Under pressure from the Arabs, whose troops were advancing well into Sicily and Calabria, groups of Italo-Greek monks fled to the north. One sainted monk, Nilus of Rossano, founded the monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata in 1004. This monastery, located just outside Rome, is the only Italo-Greek monastic institution to have survived – a living testimony to the continuity of the Byzantine tradition in the Roman Church.

The Italo-Greeks remained under Constantinople’s jurisdiction until the Norman re-established the jurisdiction of the pope in the 11th century. After the Normans seized the Byzantines’ southern Italian possessions in the late 11th century, this Italo-Greek Church declined slowly. To consolidate their power the Normans substituted Latin bishops for every Greek bishop who died. Hence, by the 15th century, this church had more or less disappeared.

The Italo-Albanian Phase. Modern Italy’s Byzantine culture, although ethnically and linguistically principally Albanian, is represented by two Italo-Albanian dioceses and one exarchate:

• the Eparchy of Lungro (near Cosenza), which has jurisdiction over the arbëreshë (this is what the Italo-Albanians call themselves) of Calabria and continental Italy.

• the Eparchy of Piana of the Albanians (near Palermo), which has authority over the arbëreshë of Sicily.

• the monastery at Grottaferrata.

It is the two eparchies, however, that properly constitute the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church. Grottaferrata has its own unique history: however, it draws vocations from the Italo-Albanian community and renders spiritual service to it. Thus the monastery at Grottaferrata is also included in the historical and spiritual reality of the Italo-Albanian Church.

This modem, Albanian phase of the Byzantine tradition in southern Italy began when the Ottoman Turks moved through the Balkans in the 14th and 15th centuries and wiped out the Albanian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Serbian states. The Albanian resistance collapsed after the death of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, the chief of the Albanian insurgency. Rather than serve the Ottoman sultan, thousands of Albanian refugees poured into such diverse Italian regions as Abruzzi and Molise, Basilicata, Calabria, Puglia and Sicily. Those Albanians from the northern portion of the country – primarily Latin Catholics – were quickly absorbed into Italian culture. Southern Albanians were Byzantine Christians who maintained ties to the Church of Constantinople, which was reduced to a subordinate condition following the collapse of Constantinople in 1453.

The immigration of these Byzantine Albanians to the south of Italy was an ideal complement to the preceding Italo-Greek community. The reception was rather positive, economically and spiritually. The new immigrants filled the population void precipitated by disease and the effects of an earthquake that devastated southern Italy in the 15th century. Spiritually this new wave of Byzantine Christians settled in an area open to the Byzantine tradition; the memory of the Greek Church was still alive.

The Albanians migrated to Italy after the Council of Florence (1439) declared the union between the Church of Rome and several Eastern churches, including the Church of Constantinople. This movement of population cane at the time of an “existing union,” which facilitated a positive acceptance of the Orthodox Albanians. And it explains the fact that the “capitulations” (contracts between the local feudal powers and the representatives of the new immigrants) were often signed by abbots of monasteries or by local Catholic bishops.

Thus, the unique case of the presence of two ecclesiastical traditions within the direct jurisdiction of the pope continued.

Tensions developed nevertheless. The Byzantine and Latin traditions found themselves side by side – in liturgy, discipline, rites, customs, spirituality, calendars, fasts and popular devotions. With clear consciences these new immigrants believed themselves to be members of the Byzantine portion of the universal Church. This occurred at a time when forces in both the Roman and Byzantine churches began to draw lines of distinction and division. The attitudes of the Latin ecclesiastical authorities regarding these new immigrants were inconsistent. Periods of tolerance followed intervals of distrust. Alternating canonical dispositions of “concessions of privileges” and “restrictions of rights” were obviously presented as “limitations of abuses.”

For the Italo-Albanian Church, one may define three clear and distinct stages of canonical norms.

The Byzantine Albanian community received positive guarantees for the conservation of their cultural and religious autonomy after their arrival. At the time a metropolitan archbishop – with the title of archbishop of Agrigento – was nominated for the Italo-Albanians by Prochoro, the Archbishop of Ohrid. Prochoro also bore the title of Archbishop of Albania with jurisdiction over Albanians of the Greek rite in Italy. Remarkably, this appointment was confirmed by the patriarch of Constantinople, with the authorization of the pope, in 1553; after the decrees of the Council of Florence were declared null and void by the Orthodox. With a Papal Brief to Archbishop Pafnuzio of Agrigento, Pope Julius III affirmed the Archbishop’s freedom to exercise his ministry; no one could prevent him from doing so.

However, just 10 years later, the Council of Trent signaled a change. With the application of the council’s decrees, new conditions radically altered the regime established by the Council of Florence. Byzantine communities were placed under the jurisdiction of the local Latin ordinaries. Ordinations had to be done by the hand of the Latin ordinary at the time, or by his appointed delegate. For all practical purposes, Italy’s Byzantine Catholic Church was absorbed into the Latin Catholic Church, keeping only its particular liturgy and disciplines such as a married clergy.

Had these practices continued, Italy’s ancient Byzantine Church would have been extinguished.

Tensions between the Italo-Albanians and the Latins ran high, and the consequences were felt in Rome. Pope Gregory XIII (1573) established a congregation of cardinals to study the issues affecting all members of the Byzantine community: Albanians and Greeks, laity and clergy. The congregation finished its work with the publication (1596) of the Perbrevis Instructio. This recommended, among other things, the creation of a bishop, without jurisdiction, with the right to ordain clergy for the Byzantine Church in Italy. This instruction guaranteed at least the principle that the liturgical tradition would be respected.

For more than a century, the Italo-Albanian Church continued to decline, as individuals, families and communities veered to the Latin rite. Only in the 18th century was it possible to establish seminaries in Calabria (1732) and Sicily (1735) and the creation of bishops with ordination rights for Calabria (1735) and Sicily (1787). These institutions brought essential support to the Byzantine Italo-Albanians, but it was not enough to hold the scattered group together.

Finally, with the proclamation of the hull Catholici Fideles in 1919, the aspirations of Italy’s Byzantine Catholics were fulfilled. Pope Benedict XV created an eparchy, or diocese, for the Byzantine Italo-Albanian faithful of Calabria and southern Italy with its seat at Lungro. In 1937, Pope Pius XI, in the bull Apostolica Sedes, created the Eparchy of Piana of the Albanians in Sicily. The same pontiff elevated the monastery of Grottaferrata to an exarchate monastery, or territorial abbey.

In 1940, these three ecclesiastical territories held an intra-eparchical synod at Grottaferrata to coordinate and assure the consistent use of rites and disciplines.

Currently, the Eparchy of Lungro numbers 33,000 faithful in 27 parishes; the Eparchy of Piana of the Albanians, 28,000 faithful and 15 parishes. The monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata has 40 monks and aspirants in four houses. The theological formation of clergy takes place at the seminary founded by Pope Benedict XV in 1918 near Grottaferrata, while the students of theology attend the Pontifical Greek College of St. Athanasius in Rome.

The Italo-Albanian Church follows the Typicon of Constantinople and is presently renewing its authentic traditions, which had deteriorated under Latin jurisdiction. The monastery of Grottaferrata has its own ancient liturgical tradition and is a source of study for specialists of Byzantine liturgy. Beginning in 1910, the Basilian monks of Grottaferrata published the magazine Roma e l’Oriente, which anticipates many of the trends of modem ecumenism, especially with regard to relations with the Orthodox.

The Italo-Albanians have never completed an official act of rottura, or breaking, with the Orthodox Church. During the course of integration with Italian culture and with the Catholic communion, the Italo-Albanians have always maintained a rapport of congeniality – not just sentimentality – with the Orthodox Church. The Italo-Albanians consider themselves in solidarity with the great Eastern traditions of which they feel themselves a part, not only with the Orthodox people of Albania, with whom they share their ethnic and cultural origin, but with the entire Byzantine commonwealth. One must also keep in mind that the Italo-Albanian Church, which now celebrates the liturgy in its own Albanian language, regularly used Greek as a liturgical language and continues to use regularly some books of Greek origin in its liturgy. For together with its own Albanian tradition, the Italo-Albanian Church refers to her Byzantine Greek and patristic past.

At that first intra-eparchical synod in Grottaferrata, a delegation from the autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church, composed of eight members and presided over by a bishop, participated as observers. This was more than 25 years before the ecumenical spring brought forth by Vatican II.

In October 1973, a delegation from the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church made an official visit to the Eparchy of Piana of the Albanians. A highlight of the visit was an ecumenical liturgy, with the delegation from the Greek Orthodox synod participating with the Italo-Albanian bishop, clergy and faithful.

At the time, the Editor of the official magazine of the Greek Orthodox Church, Professor Constantine Bonis, affirmed that this church, “with admirable vigor and patience has conserved until today the holy traditions of our church.” Previously, Professor Bonis had studied the Italo-Albanian community. At the international and interecclesiastical congress of Bari in 1969, he summed up his thoughts in this manner, “the actual idiorrhythms [that is, following their own particular rite] of southern Italy…should for no reason be considered uniates,” an expression that acknowledged the authentic and orthodox use of traditional Byzantine customs by the Italo-Albanians.

Although the history of Italy’s Byzantine Church, Greek and Albanian, is charged with misunderstandings, tensions and diversities, the Catholic Church has kept alive, within its central Roman administration, the respect demanded of legitimate diversity – an essential component of modern ecumenism.

Msgr. Fortino, a member of the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church, is the Undersecretary for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

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