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The Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church

by John D. Faris

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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.

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Tags: Eastern Christianity Church history Byzantium Haghia Sophia Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church