ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

The Traveling Shepherd of Tinos

Father Roccos Psaltis tends to the spiritual needs of the Greek Catholic population of this beautiful isle.

Father Roccos Psaltis practices what the apostle Peter instructed the elders of early Church communities: “Be the shepherds of the flock of God that is entrusted to you: watch over it, not simply as a duty but gladly, because God wants it; not for sordid money, but because you are eager to do it.” (1 Peter 5:2)

His flock is scattered over the low yet rugged 75 square miles of Tinos. This land of doves, olive trees, and 750 churches is a haven of peace in the virgin blue Aegean. Known as the “people’s island” and “the holiest island of Orthodoxy,” it has two renowned Marian shrines, the Catholic Panayia Vrisi (the Pilgrim Church of Our Lady) and the Orthodox Panayia Evangelistria (Our Lady of Good Tidings).

Catholic Tinos dates back to the Venetian crusaders and counts Venetian doges among its ancestors. Over eight centuries the population has been transformed from international traders and power brokers to simple farmers tilling vineyards and lemon groves.

Today these Greek Catholics face the spiritual test of the modern world intruding on their rural isolation. The native clergy guides the transition facing Tinos’s Catholic community, which numbers 3,000 out of the island’s population of 8,000. One bishop and eight priests tend to their spiritual needs. Father Roccos Psaltis is one model of evangelical dedication among this group.

Tinos is in the blood of Father Roccos. He knows what his first bishop called its “Catholic stones,” the Catholic villages and every dovecote of his Venetian forebears. The coastline, hills, and Tiniot persistence are his inheritance.

For twenty-five years he has served as a priest in the Catholic villages, and for the last five he has ministered in Tinos Town, the island’s capital. Saint Nicholas is the church where he celebrates liturgy for the summer tourists. Still, the Catholic countryside is his real parish.

Father Roccos’s duties make him a “circuit-riding priest.” Even in a July heatwave, he relishes his travels. He has a full schedule of people to see and the liturgy to celebrate. A missionary among his own people, he is a teacher, a pastor, and a Catholic advocate – a man enthusiastically spreading the Good News.

His friend, Father Jules, is visiting from Cairo on this occasion and joins him as he leaves behind the harbor and spires of Tinos Town. The landscape becomes a wide horizon of sloping, tan hills. Driving by instinct through this land he knows so well, Father Roccos notes the churches, Venetian landmarks, and natural points of interest for his companion. At a country crossroads, people wave and shout greetings, and Father Roccos responds in kind. This Christian messenger is known and loved by the faithful.

Bouncing and swaying over a rough, ungraded road, the priests reach their first destination and park on an uncleared hillside. Panayia Vrisi is a special sanctuary of the Blessed Mother. Stavros, the unofficial caretaker, greets them with a wide smile and profuse thanks for coming to celebrate the liturgy.

As they enter the simple yet impressive shrine, heads turn and faces brighten in greeting. Father Roccos knows everyone by name and greets each warmly. Crossing toward the sacristy, he shows Father Jules a plaque with the familiar profile of John XXIII. In 1937, when the future pope was apostolic delegate to Greece, he led the procession of the miraculous icon of the Panayia on the feast of the Assumption. Recalling that day, Father Roccos gestures beyond the altar to the icon itself, which was discovered beneath the site of this church in 1615 after a holy nun named Pelagia had a vision.

Although the number of worshipers is small and the heat is stifling, Father Roccos and Father Jules bring to the liturgy the dignity worthy of a great cathedral. Like the majority of Catholics in Greece, they follow the Latin rite with some portions and incorporate hymns in vernacular Greek. The priests and the country people pray with deep fervor. The Eucharist is shared in an atmosphere of spiritual unity, a true communion.

The reception following the liturgy offers Greek hospitality, with generous portions of orange drink, homemade pastries, laughter, and serious conversation. Everyone is introduced to Father Jules, but two lay people are singled out: Iosif, the housekeeper who restored a seventeenth century chapel, and Maria, the Yugoslav – her family only a hundred years on Tinos – who prepared the refreshments. The priests and laity warmly discuss parish life, from a recent wedding to church finances. Before the congregants disperse, Father Roccos receives exuberant thanks and the parish donation.

Father Roccos and Father Jules remain behind with Stavros to examine the church outbuildings in need of repair. Some of the buildings have been disturbed recently; Stavros has new locks to install. They pause on the wide terrace to admire a panoramic view of the plateau and the long drop to the sea. Father Roccos fondly speaks of his youth, when 2,000 people feasted here in honor of Pentecost and the Assumption.

Father Roccos seems lost in thought as the priests continue their journey. Passing through the ancient villages of Ayios Marina, Tarabados, and Bambos, he speaks of the old faith of Catholic Tinos. He calls it “innocent.” Now, with people working on the mainland, with the older children leaving the island for secondary education, and with the influences of radio and television, people question their faith and the Church’s authority. Still, Father Roccos sees their questions as a search for a deeper faith which they understand. He recalls Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Instead of the spirit of the world, we have received the Spirit that comes from God, to teach us to understand the gifts He has given us.”

Father Roccos makes a brief stop at the archbishop’s former residence in Hynara. This magnificent complex of whitewashed buildings includes a church and seminary. It has been deserted since the archbishop moved to Tinos Town and the seminary closed. Father Roccos comes here regularly to open its sanctuary and rooms for light and air. He also waters its plants and flowers. You can tell he loves this place, and it is no wonder. For three years he lived here in partial isolation and learned the joys of contemplative life.

Soon, they move on to the convent of the Ursuline sisters. The stone structure looks as solid as the faith of its active, if aging, community. Sister Theresa welcomes the two priests and ushers them into a hall. Its walls are filled with pictures and posters illustrating the sisters’ good works with the youth of the island.

A Protestant convert established the Convent School of Loutro in 1862 to serve the Greek Catholic enclave. At one time the convent had 60 sisters and many more boarders. Although the convent is no longer run on such a scale, it retains the spirit and dedication of its founder in nurturing the faith and character of the island’s youth.

One workroom contains large frame looms strung with thick thread. Here girls are taught to weave, and this skill gives them the employment which enables them to stay in their communities. Down the corridor is the auditorium where Tinos’s Catholic youth gather every week to promote spiritual unity and their Catholic identity. At the center of the convent is the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, where you can usually find a sister kneeling and saying her rosary.

Some of the elderly sisters are in declining health. They look forward to Father Roccos’s frequent visits. Sister Angela, the mother superior, has a special joy in seeing him because he is her nephew. His cheerful voice brings nuns out of their simple chambers. One is his former math teacher, who proudly calls him her “model pupil.” Father Roccos speaks to each sister with reverence and love. He finds special satisfaction in serving those who have given their lives to serve the island’s population.

Colymbithra is the final destination of Father Roccos’s route. This handsome village overlooks the sea and contains some of the island’s richest farmland. A woman hanging clothes spots him approaching, and soon shouts of recognition and welcome come from all sides. He has to refuse all invitations. He still has a pastoral call and a meeting with Father Antonius.

It is a steep climb to the Church of Saint Zacharius, where Father Roccos once served. Father Jules is out of breath by the time he takes the hand of the church’s cleric. Father Antonius is youthful and outgoing. His informal manner matches his informal dress; unlike Father Roccos, he does not wear a cassock. Father Roccos enjoys the younger man’s company and thinks he is the best person to head the Young Catholic Men’s Organization of Tinos.

Tonight Father Roccos listens to the younger priest and empathizes with the joys and frustrations of working with the young. From his own experience he can share the disappointment of stillborn projects and of promise gone astray, as well as the indescribable satisfaction of this ministry. At the same time, he identifies Father Antonius’s responsibility by recalling the Second Letter of Timothy: “You have been trusted to look after something precious; guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”

As darkness falls over the village, a weary Father Roccos pushes on to be with Demetrius, who requires the reassurance of his “old priest.” This local character is unsettled by new faces, so Father Jules waits by the car. Though Father Roccos was needed to arrange a memorial Mass, Demetrius really wants to talk about his own mortality. The priest offers him the strength found in the Resurrection of Christ.

Driving back to Tinos Town, Father Roccos seems reinvigorated as he talks about his vocation while Father Jules listens. “The Church is not just another party,” he says emphatically. “We should talk of love, justice, and charity – not of old sins. We should pray, not talk of prayers!” He pauses to take a breath, then reflects on this typical day: “Sunday is not a day of obligation; it is a festival!”

With a peacefilled smile, he stares out into the distance as the lights of Tinos Town appear on the horizon. As his smile widens, he crosses himself.

Father Roccos and the other men and women ministering to their flock on Tinos confidently face modernity’s challenges. With prayerful fidelity to the core of their traditions, they rely on the Spirit who sustains Christ’s followers through the centuries. The community of faith on Tinos remains strong in its simple yet rich heritage.

Mark Leeds, a freelance writer living in London, has a special interest in Christians of the eastern Mediterranean.

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