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The Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church

To most of us, it may come as a surprise that there were and remain Italians who adhere to the rites and traditions of the Byzantine Christian East.

Commonly identified as either “Italo-Greek” or “Italo-Albanian,” the church is now quite small, comprising only two eparchies, an exarchal monastery and a few parishes in the Americas with a total population of approximately 70,000 faithful. However, the history of this 1,500-year-old church – with its highs and lows – offers insights into possible models for church unity between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East.

Magna Graecia. The presence of Greeks in southern Italy and Sicily began nine centuries before Jesus, when Greeks settled along the coast, establishing flourishing colonies. They regarded these colonies as an integral part of their culture, naming the region Magna Graecia Greater Greece.

“We are so accustomed,” observed Adrian Fortescue, the great historian of Eastern Christianity, “to look on Italy as one land that perhaps we forget what any map of Europe will show – namely, how near the south of Italy is to Greek lands across the water. The cities of the east coast of Italy, at any rate, are much nearer to Macedonia and Epirus than they are to Rome.”

These rich agricultural lands drew many hopeful occupiers. There were the Romans who, by 241 B.C., had conquered the entire peninsula. As was their practice, the Romans imposed their own legal system, but permitted the Greeks of Magna Graecia to retain their own language and culture. And then there were the Christian apostles, Peter and Paul.

The church in southern Italy and Sicily proudly claims apostolic foundations. On an Alexandrian ship bound for Rome, the Apostle Paul stopped at Syracuse for three days and continued on to Rhegium (modern Reggio di Calabria, a port on the Strait of Messina), then sailed to Puteoli (on the Gulf of Naples), where he stayed for seven days with fellow believers, before finally arriving in Rome (Acts 28:11-14). There is no scriptural account of Peter’s travels to Rome, but he probably would have taken a similar route.

Magna Graecia’s early Christians, primarily Greek-speaking, observed the rites that originated in Jerusalem and later were nurtured in the city of Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians.

The Greek identity of the region was reinforced in the year 330, when the Roman emperor, Constantine I, moved his government to the small Greek port of Byzantion on the Bosporus. Officially christened “New Rome,” the imperial capital of Constantinople (the city of Constantine, today known as Istanbul) grew in size and wealth. The city also took on a distinct Christian identity, turning its back on pagan Rome. And though Constantinople proudly retained its Roman identity, even until its collapse in 1453, Greek had long since supplanted Latin as the language of state.

Though under the ecclesiastical and political governance of Rome, the Greeks of southern Italy and Sicily gravitated to Constantinople, its church, culture and rites. These liturgical practices – which originated in Antioch but, after the sixth century, matured in Constantinople’s Great Church of the Haghia Sophia – are now commonly referred to as Byzantine.

Security and a common language prompted the loyalty of the peninsula’s Greeks to Constantinople. Germanic tribes eventually overran the Italian peninsula, forcing the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, to flee his capital of Ravenna in 476. Led by their king, Theodoric, the Germanic Ostrogoths united the entire peninsula and Sicily. Their kingdom eventually collapsed, however, as the Eastern Romans (Byzantines), under generals Belisarius and Narses and supported by the local Greeks, reestablished imperial authority in the middle of the sixth century.

The reassertion of imperial authority, marking the beginning of the Byzantinization of southern Italy and Sicily, was quickly challenged, however, as the Lombards, another tribe from beyond the Alps, invaded Italy, dividing the peninsula into rival spheres. The Byzantines remained strong in Calabria, Puglia and Sicily, while the Lombards ruled from their strongholds, Milan in the north and Benevento, near Naples. Like the Ostrogoths, the Lombards had embraced a different form of Christianity, Arianism, setting them apart from the established church of the empire. A seventh-century pope, St. Gregory I, later received them into the Catholic Church.

The ecclesiastical organization of the region reflected the principle that there could be only one bishop in a city. Greek and Latin bishops had faithful from both churches subject to them.

Though provincial structures had been created in other parts of the empire, they did not exist in southern Italy or Sicily. All bishops were directly responsible to the bishop of Rome, who ordained them and summoned them to provincial meetings. Such an arrangement meant that the entire church – bishops, clergy and faithful – looked to the bishop of Rome, not only as the primatial head of the church and patriarch of the West, but also as the metropolitan of this vast territory.

Iconoclasm and Byzantinization. In 730, Byzantine Emperor Leo III banned the veneration of sacred images, launching an iconoclastic movement that would violently dominate church and state for more than a century.

The decree placed Leo at odds with Pope Gregory III, who anathematized and excommunicated the emperor and his sympathizers a year later. In retaliation, the emperor confiscated valuable properties belonging to the papacy and placed the Christian faithful of southern Italy, Sicily and the western part of the Balkan peninsula under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, not Rome. This was done under the pretense that Rome had fallen to barbarians and that responsibility for the governance of the region with its Greek population was the responsibility of New Rome, Constantinople.

The emperor created Syracuse as the metropolitan see of the province of Sicily and raised Tauromenion (modern Taormina) to the dignity of an archeparchy, but without any bishops subject to it. The archbishops of these cities were ordained by the patriarch of Constantinople and subject directly to him.

Direct imperial and patriarchal governance, which continued for the next four centuries, did not protect the region from invaders. Over time, Arab Muslims took all of Sicily, establishing a foothold in the heart of the Mediterranean by the end of the ninth century. While many Greek Christians remained on the island – helping the Arabs to establish one of the most progressive, sophisticated and wealthy cultures of medieval Europe – others sought refuge in Calabria and Puglia. A descendent of one of these Greek families, St. Nilus of Rossano (died 1004), founded a monastery, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, near Rome. A living relic of southern Italy’s rich Byzantine heritage, Santa Maria di Grottaferrata remains an important ecumenical and pilgrimage center.

The Arab invasions of Sicily diverted imperial attention to Calabria and Puglia, where two ecclesiastical provinces were erected in Calabria – Rhegium and Sancta Severina – and a third in Puglia, Hydrantum (modern Otranto). These metropolitan structures, created by the Byzantine emperor, remained in place even after the Latin Catholic Normans, who forged a kingdom in the 12th century, returned the territory to the bishop of Rome.

Despite schisms between Constantinople and Rome, one of which marks the beginning of the current division between the Catholic and Orthodox churches (1054), the Italo-Greeks remained in full communion with both patriarchates throughout the imperial period. Though only a few Italo-Greek Byzantine monuments survive – the catacombs and church in Stilo, Calabria, and St. Peter Church in Otranto, Puglia, for example – Byzantine monasteries and hermitages, following the rule of St. Basil the Great, flourished throughout the south.

Norman invasion. Norman warriors, descendents of a Viking community in present-day northern France, began to settle in southern Italy in the early 11th century. As mercenaries hired by the Lombards, the Normans pushed the Byzantines from the south, crushed their former patrons, consolidated their power in Calabria and Puglia and eventually took Sicily a century later. Crowned as King of Sicily in 1130, the Norman Roger II governed a diverse kingdom of Italo-Greek Byzantine and Latin Catholics, Jews and Muslims. While religious tolerance for each community was the official position, increasing papal influence changed this confluence of cultures.

Eventually, the Normans abandoned tolerance, implementing a severe process of Latinization. Latin bishops replaced Byzantine bishops and Latin rites replaced the ancient Byzantine rites of the Italo-Greek community. This process was accelerated in Sicily, where many eparchies stood vacant since the Arab invasion. By the 15th century, the Byzantine rite had all but disappeared in the region.

Italo-Albanians. Byzantium did not die in southern Italy and Sicily. After the death of their warrior-leader, George Kastrioti, or Skanderbeg (1468), Albanian families fled their Ottoman occupiers for the Italian peninsula and Sicily. Latin Catholic families from the north quickly assimilated into Italian culture. Southern Albanian families, however, with their strong ties to Byzantium, practiced the liturgical rites of Constantinople, revitalizing the Byzantine rite that practically had disappeared in the region. These people lived their Catholic faith according to a liturgy, culture and discipline that originated in Rome’s primary rival, Constantinople.

Since the immigration took place subsequent to the 1054 schism between Constantinople and Rome, the welcome given to the Byzantine Albanians by Roman authorities merits examination. Archimandrite Eleuterio Fortino, undersecretary for the Council for Promoting Christian Unity and a priest of the Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church, asserts the arrival of these Byzantine Albanians took place in the “existing union” of the Western and Eastern churches achieved at the Council of Florence (1431-39).

Presuming the faithful were in communion with the bishop of Rome, Archbishop Procorus of Ohrid sent Bishop Pafnuzius to provide pastoral care for the Italo-Albanians. Named archbishop of Agrigento by Pope Julius III, Pafnuzius celebrated the sacred mysteries according to the rituals of the Church of Ohrid and exercised judicial power as needed. Although the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople had already declared the Council of Florence null and void, he confirmed Pafnuzius’ appointment, achieving, if only for a short time, an undivided church.

A certain degree of tension between Latins and Byzantines throughout southern Italy and Sicily, however, warranted papal intervention. In 1521, Pope Leo X decreed that Italo-Albanian bishops and faithful should be able to live according to their own Byzantine traditions. He threatened sanctions on those who interfered by rebaptizing Byzantine faithful or who prohibited priests from marrying, having a beard or using fermented bread in the Divine Liturgy. These papal affirmations in favor of the Italo-Albanians were confirmed by Pope Clement VII and Pope Paul III.

Reversals. Never popular among the churches of the East, the accord brought about by the Council of Florence died when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in May 1453. Division among the Western and Eastern churches returned as the normal state of affairs. Though the Council of Trent (1545-1563) did not deal directly with the Italo-Albanians, the application of the decisions of this council reflected a drastic reversal in the attitude of the papacy – actually a different ecclesiology – toward the Italo-Byzantines.

It is important to reiterate that subsequent to the Council of Trent, with rare exception, to be Catholic was to be a Catholic of the Latin rite. The only Eastern Catholics were the Byzantines in southern Italy and Sicily, the Maronites of Mount Lebanon and the Chaldeans of Mesopotamia – the rest of the Eastern churches were not in communion with Rome.

Responding to complaints from Latin bishops that Byzantines refused to use the Roman calendar, denied the existence of purgatory and gave Communion to infants, Pope Pius IV subjected all Italo-Byzantine bishops, clergy and faithful, their churches, monasteries and sacred places to local Latin ordinaries. No longer were Italy’s Byzantine Catholics a distinct church. Now they were simply Catholics who followed a rite other than the Latin rite (officially designated by Pope Benedict XIV as the “preeminent rite and the teacher of all other rites”). This understanding of the Eastern churches and rites was to form the basis of the relations between Rome and the Eastern Catholic churches for the next four centuries. Not until the early 20th century would the papacy restore the hierarchy of the Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church.

Two important institutions, however, were born during this period. In 1573, Pope Gregory XIII established the Congregation for the Greeks, a committee of cardinals who addressed issues relating to the Greeks in southern Italy and Sicily in the hope of resolving tensions between Greeks and Latins. This congregation was the predecessor of the modern Congregation for the Eastern Churches, the department of the Holy See responsible for oversight of the Eastern Catholic churches throughout the world.

In 1576, the same pope established the Pontifical Greek College of St. Athanasius (popularly known as the Greek College) in Rome, which he charged with educating Italo-Byzantine clerics.

Modern Byzantine Italians. The cultural, ethnic and linguistic background of the Italo-Byzantine community today is largely Italo-Albanian. This community takes pride in their fidelity to the pope and the Catholic Church. But it also never severed its bonds with the Orthodox Church in Albania or in Constantinople. For this reason, the Byzantines in Italy have served as a bridge between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Servant of God Father Giorgio Guzzetta (1682-1756) cultivated bonds between Italo-Albanian Byzantines and Albanian Orthodox, both of whom shared a common liturgical and cultural patrimony.

This community today comprises:

  • The Eparchy of Lungro (near Cosenza, Calabria), created in 1919 for Byzantines of Calabria and continental Italy, comprises 29 parishes with 32 priests and 33,000 faithful
  • The Eparchy of Piana degli Albanesi (near Palermo), created in 1937 for Byzantines in Sicily, comprises 15 parishes with 30 priests and 28,500 faithful
  • The Monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata, elevated to the status of an exarchal monastery in 1937, has 40 monks and aspirants in four houses.

Despite the absence of reliable statistics, a number of Italo-Byzantine Catholics, of both Albanian and Greek descent, emigrated to the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While some held on to their Italo-Byzantine traditions, most (especially in the United States) eventually assimilated into the larger Italian-American community.

From 17 October 2004 through 14 January 2005, an intereparchial synod drew 120 priests and monks, male and female religious and laity to Grottaferrata. They developed a program of pastoral renewal, encompassing Scripture, liturgy, catechesis, religious formation, interritual relations, ecumenism and the missions. This was the second such assembly. The first, held in October 1940, included a delegation from the Albanian Orthodox Church, which acted as observers – all this 25 years before the ecumenical initiatives of Vatican II.

The challenges for Italy’s Byzantine community have always been twofold: It struggles to remain faithful to the Church of Rome, even though it has been misunderstood and treated with suspicion. It also labors to retain ancient Byzantine traditions, planted by Greeks and nurtured by Albanian exiles, rites rich in language, culture, song and folklore. The fact that they exist today – Eastern and Catholic – is an indication they have met both challenges with success.

Chorbishop John D. Faris is CNEWA’s Associate Secretary General.

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