The Traveling Shepherd of Tinos

Father Roccos’s duties make him a “circuit-riding priest.” Even in a July heatwave, he relishes his travels.

by Mark Leeds
photos by Dee Leeds

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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.

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