This scene could have taken place in any of the countries whose faithful, Catholic or Orthodox, follow the Byzantine Rite: in Greece, Russia, the Balkans, or the Middle East. But two items, the release of the dove and the silver buckles with the image of St. George, identify the communities in question with two locations: Southern Italy and Sicily. Some may be astonished to find that the Byzantine Rite is flourishing in Italy, and has done so for nearly two thousand years. But this is not surprising when one recalls that Southern Italy and Sicily were known in antiquity as Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece. Many of the great cities of the area were colonies of the brilliant Hellenic city-states, and inherited their language and culture.
When St. Paul exercised his apostolic ministry among the Greek-speaking peoples on the shores of the Mediterranean, the Greeks of Magna Graecia were not neglected. Churches were founded at Campagna, Calabria, Apulia, Basilicata, and Sicily, and Greek civilization was blended with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. These churches thus became a formative influence in that extraordinarily beautiful means of leading the Christian life that is known as the Byzantine Rite. To this day there is a monastery of the Italian Byzantine Rite at the very gates of Rome, at Grottaferrata.
For over a thousand years the countryside of the mezzogiorno the region of Italy that lies south of Rome was dotted with monasteries and convents following the holy rule of St. Basil the Great. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, however, these communities began to fall on lean days. When the power of the Byzantine Empire failed to maintain political control in its Western outposts, Normans, Angevins, Spaniards, and others filled the gap. In the beginning, this meeting of East and West created one of the most brilliant ecumenical civilizations the world has ever known. Its heart was Palermo, where Greek learning and spirituality coexisted with Jewish and Arabic science, under the aegis of the Norman King Roger and his successor, Emperor Frederick II.
Gradually the Western conquerors began to impose the Western or Latin Rite in their newly acquired domains. Eventually this spread even to the monasteries and parishes. In fact, the Byzantine Rite would have died out entirely, were it not for a singular act of Divine Providence.
In the fifteenth century an Albanian Christian nobleman, George Alexander Castriota, known as Skanderbeg, succeeded in freeing much of his homeland from Turkish domination. At that time, his Albanian countrymen were largely Catholics of the Byzantine Rite. After his death the Turks reconquered Albania, and many of Skanderbegs freedom fighters fled to Italy and Sicily. Here they were given heroes welcomes, along with grants of land to settle. From this time dates the renaissance of the Byzantine Rite in Italy just when its prospects looked grimmest.
To secure the ecclesial survival of this noble remnant, a college was founded in Rome in 1577 the Pontificio Collegio Greco. Within a short period of time a descendant of the Albanian freedom fighters, Gian Francesco Albani, was elected bishop of Rome as Pope Clement XI (1700-1721). One of his successors, Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) exercised much care for the preservation and authenticity of the Italo-Greek or Italo-Albanian Catholics in their adopted homeland.
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Tags: Church history Italy Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church