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Preserving Albanian Heritage: Byzantine Catholics in Italy

Unlike their brothers and sisters in Albania, Byzantine Catholics in Italy can – and do – celebrate their culture and faith.

The remote hilltop hamlet of Lungro in southern Italy looks just like any other bustling, modern, apparently prosperous Calabrian village tucked away in the mountains. Political posters plaster the town walls, just as they do in Rome or Palermo, and men gather to play cards under the banner of their preferred political party. An unknowing visitor might never realize Lungro was Albanian and its religion firmly of the Byzantine rite. The religious fidelity of these Albanian descendants evokes what those on their native soil have lost: the right to open religious expression.

Southern Italy’s 40,000 Albanian Byzantine rite Catholics trace their history in Italy back to the middle of the 15th century. Emigration across the Adriatic began in 1448 when Alfonso I of Naples invited Albanian mercenaries led by Demetrio Reres to help put down a revolt among the nobles. For their services, the king awarded Reres and his men lands in that part of Italy known today as Puglia, in the heel of the Italian boot. Of those who remained, two of Reres’ sons soon led a portion of the community to Sicily, where their descendants live today in Italy’s other Albanian diocese of Piana degli Albanesi, not far from Palermo.

Turkish incursions into Albania itself precipitated further large-scale migration to Italy. Inspired by their heroic leader, Georgios Kastriotes, universally known as Scanderbeg, the Albanians launched a fierce, though ultimately unsuccessful resistance against the Turks, which was to last for nearly a century.

In 1459, during a brief respite, Scanderbeg came to Italy to help Alfonso’s successor put down another revolt. Again, the king rewarded the Albanian leader and his followers with large tracts of land. Many members of Scanderbeg’s family and entourage established themselves permanently. When one of his relatives became a princess of Calabria in 1470, a large contingent of Albanians followed her to that mountainous region in the toe of Italy. Among other places, they founded Lungro.

Scanderbeg’s death in 1468 was the signal for the Turks to invade Albania in earnest. Though resistance was strong, the violence forced steady streams of soldiers and peasants to flee their native land to join their countrymen in Puglia, in Calabria, and in Sicily. Many of their descendants preserve the Byzantine rite and the Albanian language and culture in Italy today.

Maintaining an identity has been difficult. Contact with Albania itself effectively ceased after the Turks consolidated their power in the 1550s. Over centuries, Puglia’s Albanians steadily merged into the mainstream of Italian life, so that now not even the language remains. Calabria’s poor roads and forbidding countryside, on the other hand, were far more conducive to the conservation of an Albanian identity and, most importantly, of the Byzantine rite.

Originally Orthodox, over the years these Christians gradually allied themselves with Rome, though they never made a formal break with Constantinople. They kept the Byzantine rite and endured centuries of difficulties as they attempted to preserve that allegiance.

For over 300 years, the Italo-Albanians pressed Rome for a bishop of their own. Local Latin-rite bishops, though, jealously guarded their prerogatives. Whenever a Byzantine-rite priest died, a Latin priest was sent to replace him. The Byzantine-rite bishops whom Rome appointed beginning in 1595 were given no pastoral authority, but merely the power to ordain. While the papacy paid lip service to the notion of equality between the rites, Byzantine-rite priests remained under the hostile jurisdiction of Latin-rite bishops.

Without strong pastoral guidance, the number of priests inevitably declined, as did their level of education. The Byzantine rite suffered from this neglect. Still, partly due to the establishment of an Albanian seminary, it survived, but barely.

The Albanian community never stopped pressuring Rome for a “real” bishop. Finally, on February 13, 1919, Benedict XV issued the bull Catholici Fidelis, creating the Eparchy of Lungro. The pope at last nominated an Albanian bishop of the Byzantine rite with full pastoral authority.

The Eparchy of Lungro now has 27 parishes and some 35 priests. The bishop, bearded, bespectacled, energetic 72-year-old Giovanni Stamati, estimates that 50,000 people of Albanian origin live in the diocese, 80% of whom follow the Byzantine rite. The remainder, partly through assimilation, partly because of a lack of priests, have gradually turned to the Latin rite, although they still speak Albanian. In the Sicilian diocese of Piana degli Albanesi, created by Pius XI in 1937, an additional 30,000 follow the Byzantine rite.

Allegiance to the Byzantine rite dominates the consciousness of Lungro’s populace. Townspeople proudly point to their lovely cathedral, San Nicola di Mira, and take time to lead visitors to all the little churches in town. Over and over again in casual conversation, ordinary citizens refer to the rite as the bulwark of Albanian culture. When casual reference is made to a nearby village, one teenager almost contemptuously responds, “Rito Latino,” as if the abandonment of the Byzantine rite is equivalent to betraying “Albanian-ness” itself.

Culturally, Italy’s Albanians have preserved their language, songs, and most famous of all, their colorful costumes. Only a few of the oldest women still wear traditional costumes on a daily basis. At Easter, though, the whole village dresses up in full array for the unforgetable ceremonies of the Byzantine rite.

Cultural nationalism has become stronger and stronger in recent years. This ethnic awakening has as its goal the salvation of Albanian heritage. The preservation of the Byzantine rite is the cornerstone of the movement, together with the maintenance of the Albanian language.

The rise in cultural awareness has led to a dramatic increase in contact with Albania, despite its government’s xenophobic policies. Professors from the University of Tirana pay frequent visits to Lungro to study first-hand what they believe to be the genuine Albanian language of the 15th century. A large number of Italo-Albanians, in turn, visit the land of their ancestors, and occasionally even priests are permitted to go under academic auspices.

The Albanian cultural identity remains firm in Italy. If you ask any resident of Lungro their nationality, the answer is unhesitatingly “Albanian.” And if you ask any resident what religion he or she practices, the answer is never just “Catholic.” Invariably, proudly, the response comes, “Byzantine rite!” Though across the Adriatic in Albania the faithful cannot even whisper such expressions, at least in Lungro their distant cousins loudly and joyfully proclaim them.

Daniel Morneau is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.

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