Byzantine Catholics in Italy

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

Walking along the rocky, wooded hillside you can see the soaring ruins of a temple in the distance. The Greek gods are long gone, but the soft chant and incense of the Byzantine liturgy waft down the valley.

Where in the Mediterranean are you? Why in Sicily, of course.

For so many of the centuries of its long history, the island of Sicily – and even much of southern Italy – was Greek in its language and culture.

In classical times it was part of Magna Graecia. As late as the early medieval period Greek was still spoken. In fact, for about 300 years before the Norman invasion in the 11th century the whole area was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, not the Pope, the Patriarch of the West.

Today the last remnant of that ancient Italo-Greek church is the monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata, just outside Rome. The abbot, often a bishop, has jurisdiction over the Basilian monks of the monastery and local faithful.

Once there were hundreds of these Byzantine Catholic monasteries throughout southern Italy. Gradually, after the Norman conquest, the monasteries, monks and people were absorbed into the Latin or Roman Church.

It was one of those curious accidents of history that led to a revival of Byzantine Catholicism in Italy. As the Ottoman Turks spread their empire throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, many Christians chose to emigrate rather than live under an Islamic regime.

In the 15th century two large groups of Christian

Since the northern Albanians were Latin Catholics, they felt very much at home and quickly blended with the local Latin Catholic population.

The southern Albanians were Orthodox and kept apart from the Italian Catholics. They built their own churches and for several decades even had their own Orthodox bishop.

In 1596, these Orthodox Albanians came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and Pope Clement VIII constituted them as a separate Eastern Rite or Eastern Catholic Church, as we would say today.

Presently there are two dioceses belonging to this Italo-Albanian Catholic Church in addition to the monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata. Although these dioceses are of fairly recent foundation, the roots of these Italo-Albanian communities go back centuries.

The diocese of Lungro near Cosenza in Calabria was established in 1919. It has 27 parishes and 33,500 people and is served by a bishop and 31 priests.

The diocese of Piana degli Albanesi near Palermo in Sicily was founded in 1937. It has 15 parishes and 30,000 people and is served by a bishop and 29 priests.

Grecian ruins are scattered about the Sicilian countryside, vestiges of a glory long past. But, the faith of Byzantium still flourishes in Sicily and Calabria in the living Italo-Albanian Catholic Church.

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA

Tags: Catholic Albania Italy Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church