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Greece’s Eastern Catholic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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In modern Greece at least one legacy remains of the Crusaders’ sack of Constantinople in 1204 and their subsequent occupation of Greece: Most Catholics in Greece — some 50,000 people — are Latin. However, as many as 2,500 people share the rites of the dominant Orthodox Church and are in full communion with the pope.

No larger than a typical North American suburban parish, this Eastern Catholic church is sui juris, or autonomous, within the Catholic communion of churches and is led by two apostolic exarchs, based in Athens and Istanbul, respectively. If not for the humanitarian and pastoral works of one of its leaders, Bishop George Calavassy (1920-57), this church would barely merit a footnote in the annals of church history.

Origins. As the Romans consolidated their gains in the eastern Mediterranean in the first century, Christianity took root in the Greek-speaking world. The apostle Paul’s work among the Colossians, Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians and Thessalonians is well documented. Whether in the Roman provinces of Achaea, Epirus and Macedonia or in the communities of greater Greece, these Greek-speaking Christians formed churches that developed into important centers of the faith.

An integral part of the Greek world, these Christians provided the philosophical foundation and theological vocabulary that helped define the teachings of Jesus among non-Jews. As this church grew throughout the empire, a distinctly Greek school of theology developed alongside a Syriac school dominant among learned Semitic Christians.

Often characterized as cosmopolitan, the Greek school eventually asserted its preeminence when the Roman emperor, Constantine I, moved his government from Rome to Byzantion in the year 330, christening the small Greek port, “New Rome.“ This new imperial capital took on a distinct Christian identity, particularly after Emperor Theodosius I established Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 394.

While the power of old Rome waned, New Rome grew. The Christians of what is now Greece, though technically under the authority of the pope in old Rome, gravitated to the culture, church and liturgy of New Rome, popularly called Constantinople. These liturgical rites, which originated in the Syrian city of Antioch but after the sixth century matured in Constantinople’s Great Church of the Haghia Sophia, are now commonly referred to as Byzantine.

Byzantine Greece. After the Arabs seized the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 641, the Greek city of Thessalonica assumed cultural, ecclesiastical, economic and political prominence second only to Constantinople. Two sons of the city, Cyril and Methodius, were charged by the head of the Byzantine church, the ecumenical patriarch, to work among the pagan Slavs to the north. The brothers created a distinct alphabet, translated Scripture and transcribed the liturgy into Slavonic. Eventually, their ministry (and that of their successors, Sts. Clement and Naum) won the Eastern Slavs to Christianity in its Byzantine form.

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Tags: Christianity Church history Greece Byzantium