An article on Greek Catholics
December 14, 2007
The following article was published last month in The Tablet; I thought it was worth reprinting here. The Archbishop of Corfu, Yannis Spiteris, has published a couple of articles on John Bekkos (“Giovanni Beccos: Un convinto sostinetore dell’unità tra la chiesa greca e quella latina. A sette secoli dalla sua morte (1297-1997),” Studi Ecumenici 16:4 , 459-491; also, “Il Patriarca Giovanni Beccos, Un Uomo ‘Ecumenista’ (+1297) : Demetro Cidone: Un teologo Bizantino ‘Tomist’ (+1398), Lateranum 65 ), as well as a number of books, on Palamism, ecclesiology, and other things, in Greek and in Italian. Someone proficient in Italian ought to set about translating some of them into English.
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Feature Article, 3 November 2007
Outsiders in their own land
What the tourists don’t see on the idyllic holiday island of Corfu is a divide, typical of all of Greece, between the minority Catholic population and the Greek Orthodox, for to be Orthodox is seen as a mark of national identity. Now, migration from abroad will challenge this prejudice
In the church of St Spiridon, in Corfu town, a crowd of tourists, instantly recognisable by their pale skins and brightly coloured shorts, wander around the dark interior, some queuing to peer at the relic of the miracle-working saint lying in his ornate silver casket.
A bus halts in the street outside and disgorges a different crowd – leathery-skinned country folk, the women all in headscarves, headed by two purposeful Orthodox clerics swathed in black. They sweep in, scattering the tourists, for some voluptuous relic-kissing. The tourists are delighted. At last, “authentic” Greece, the lost world of Gerald Durrell and Captain Corelli, has sliced across the bows of their package tour. And what can be more truly Greek than this? To be Greek is to be Orthodox.
However, that’s just the kind of talk that makes Ioannis Spiteris, seated yards away in his small office above a clothes store, roll his eyes. While the Archbishop of Corfu looks, sounds and is as Greek as anyone else, he is the Catholic – not the Orthodox – archbishop of the Ionian island and, mild-mannered as he is, both he and his brother bishops have had enough. After years of silence, they have begun to speak out against a culture of exclusion that threatens the very survival of Catholicism in its ancient heartlands on the Greek islands.
“It’s difficult to understand if you’re not from here,” the archbishop says, pointing to the nearby tower of the ruined Augustinian abbey, where Mass was first said in the fourteenth century. “We are here in Greece, we feel Greek, are Greek, but among other Greeks there is this strong identification of Greek and Orthodox. As a result, when I take part in official ceremonies, they say ‘He’s not a bishop! He is not Orthodox.’ ”
This isn’t merely a question of bruised feelings over precedence at public festivals. According to the archbishop, “It has created a bad psychological situation among Catholics. Often, they don’t even want to baptise their children as Catholics. They say, ‘When he grows up, I don’t want him to have problems’.”
One problem is a kind of casual, thoughtless discrimination that young men face in particular during military service, when they are obliged to take an oath of allegiance. Greece’s Catholic bishops were irritated recently when two Catholic recruits were told to take their oaths over a copy of the Qur’an – the Bible being reserved for those of the Orthodox faith. “They felt really terrible,” the archbishop maintains. “It’s not really the Government, it’s a culture that starts in schools, and in history books that speak badly about the Catholics.”
If Greek history books speak roughly about Catholics, it is not surprising, of course, as Spiros Gaoutsis, an active lay Catholic Corfiot and historian, freely admits. “We were always a foreign body,” he says, strolling past the Cathedral of St James and pointing out the imposing white stucco portals of the national bank, which once served as the grandiose palace of the Catholic archbishops.
The position of the former palace at the heart of the city tells its own story about the former position of the Catholic Church on Corfu, as well as on other islands, which has left behind it a legacy of bitterness. It was seized by the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. Even the common term in Greece for a Catholic – “Frangos”, or “Frank” – is suggestive.
For Catholicism was a religion of conquest in Greece, arriving on the backs of the Fourth Crusade. “And that’s still an issue here with the Orthodox,” Mr Gaoutsis confirms.
The Orthodox – the bishops, at any rate – have not forgotten how the mainly Frankish and German crusaders desecrated and occupied the Orthodox mother city of Constantinople in 1204, driving out their clergy and establishing a necklace of Latin bishoprics there and across the Greek Cyclades.
A second wave of Latin “conquistadors” followed in the fourteenth century, when Venice seized Corfu and other islands. Again, where Venetians went, Latin bishops followed.
The result was the same kind of religious standoff that prevailed in post-Reformation Ireland: a state Church with palaces and cathedrals but small congregations and a popular Church with no status but a great deal of prestige.
On a few islands, especially Syros and Tinos, Catholics became the majority, thanks partly to Jesuit activity. On Corfu, Rhodes and elsewhere, the bulk of the population remained loyal to their former faith. The Catholic bishops were mainly absentees, too, drawing their handsome incomes while residing in Italy. According to Mr Gaoutsis, the Venetians positively obstructed the few archbishops who tried to minister in their diocese, seeing them as nuisances.
Today the Catholic Church in Greece struggles to counter the ingrained prejudices that this long and tortuous struggle for religious supremacy left behind, especially among the hardline Orthodox monks on Mount Athos who have rejected all attempts by the Vatican to engage in ecumenical dialogue.
As the Athens-based journalist Helena Smith wrote some years ago, many Greeks “still relate to the notorious declaration of the Byzantine commander Loukas Notaras (uttered days before the sacking of Constantinople in 1453) that it would be better to see the Turkish turban in the city than a cardinal’s mitre”. That mood, stiffened by the religious dimension to the Balkan wars of the 1990s, has hardly softened at all. Smith told me: “This is still a country that is very ethnocentric, where minorities are seen as a threat to the state and where to be 100 per cent Greek you must be Orthodox.”
As Smith recalls, in return for past services as the guardian of Hellenism, the Orthodox Church remains privileged in the eyes of the state to a degree that would be unimaginable in western Europe. “Clerics are employed by the state, get state salaries and oversee the swearing-in of the Government.”
The Catholics’ failure to shake off their alien tag has had other side effects. “Unlike the Orthodox Church we don’t exist as a juridical body in Greece,” Archbishop Spiteris explains. This lack of a corporate identity in the eyes of the Greek courts, the bishops feel, has encouraged people to encroach on Catholic property and triggered numerous lawsuits. The Church rarely won these cases until Bishop Papamanolis of Syros – fed up with litigation – took a landmark case involving some disputed property to the European Court of Human Rights in 1997 and won – a judgment that Catholics hope has injected a new spirit of caution into those who see Catholic property as fair game.
The ruined Augustinian monastery lying over the road from the diocesan office in Corfu provides another example to the archbishop of how Catholics come last – or well behind the Orthodox – when it comes to obtaining state aid for restoration. The abbey was a casualty of a German bombing raid in 1943, not neglect. “We believe Cervantes stayed in this monastery,” the archbishop said, suddenly excited, unscrolling his restoration plans from a drawer. “We would like to turn it into a truly European monument. We have all the plans ready, too, but – no! There is no help from Athens. They once promised 300,000 euros (£210,000) but nothing ever happened.”
That same apparent spirit of official reserve towards Catholic projects extends itself to the work of the island’s one Catholic convent. The Franciscan house, established a century ago on the edge of Corfu town, runs a popular and admirable project, looking after old people who don’t want to end their days in a hospital ward.
For years, the sisters have sought funds to rebuild the home, so that the women can be put together on the same floor and at the same time enjoy more privacy.
But Sr Monica says work has been painfully slow because the Catholic Church is small and poor and officialdom won’t give anything. “I don’t feel it’s fair,” she says, pointing at the concrete foundations of the new site. “It’s not as if we only look after Catholics. Of the 24 women here, 19 are Orthodox.”
The sisters are hale and hearty but, like their archbishop, they are getting on. The Catholic Church is ageing and dying on all the islands. “We pray every day – ‘Send us some young sisters!'” laughs Sr Monica. Archbishop Spiteris and his brother bishops in Athens, Syros and Naxos must make the same prayer. In his sixties, he is a stripling: his vicar general is almost 80. There is no longer even a seminary in Greece, which means seminarians are sent to France or Italy and don’t always come back. Most dioceses already rely on foreign priests to keep things going – in Spiteris’ case, from Romania, Poland and the Philippines.
With its old Greek element slowly fading, the future no longer lies with the ageing and scattered Greek-speaking island congregations that the archbishop tirelessly visits by boat and plane. It lies with foreign newcomers.
Paradoxically, as the Church dies on the islands, the number of Catholics has suddenly hugely increased in the mainland cities where once it was negligible. Overnight, the 50,000 or so Greek Catholics have become a minority in their own Church, outnumbered five or even six to one by a surge of immigrants from the Philippines, Poland, Africa and Albania, which has a large Catholic community in the north. There are echoes of the situation in early-nineteenth-century England here, where an old, small and indigenous Catholic community was transformed, not altogether harmoniously, by massive Irish immigration.
Archbishop Spiteris’ new congregations in Thessaloniki comprise at least 59 nationalities, as of the last count. In Athens, the situation is more complex still. No wonder Bishop Papamanolis recently likened the Catholic Church in Greece to “a laboratory”.
The influx poses hard questions about coherence and identity. At evening Mass in Corfu cathedral, the Greek-speaking priest struggled through one part of the service, rendered in English for the benefit of assorted tourists and possibly the Filipinos, while the latter fidgeted – and some walked out – when the service flipped back into Greek.
But there is no way back to the old, tightly bound, very Greek, Church of the past. Spiros Gaoutsis is philosophical. “Most of us descend from immigrants who came here at some time or other,” he said, recalling his distant Maltese ancestors who came to Corfu in 1836.
Back in his office, the archbishop concurred. “We have got to become really Catholic, meaning universal,” he said. “We were never really considered true Greeks anyway. Now we have to be brothers to all those coming from outside. It is the future of the Church – no Greek, no Jew, but all one in Christ. That could be something to be proud of.”