For over 300 years, the Italo-Albanians pressed Rome for a bishop of their own. Local Latin-rite bishops, though, jealously guarded their prerogatives. Whenever a Byzantine-rite priest died, a Latin priest was sent to replace him. The Byzantine-rite bishops whom Rome appointed beginning in 1595 were given no pastoral authority, but merely the power to ordain. While the papacy paid lip service to the notion of equality between the rites, Byzantine-rite priests remained under the hostile jurisdiction of Latin-rite bishops.
Without strong pastoral guidance, the number of priests inevitably declined, as did their level of education. The Byzantine rite suffered from this neglect. Still, partly due to the establishment of an Albanian seminary, it survived, but barely.
The Albanian community never stopped pressuring Rome for a real bishop. Finally, on February 13, 1919, Benedict XV issued the bull Catholici Fidelis, creating the Eparchy of Lungro. The pope at last nominated an Albanian bishop of the Byzantine rite with full pastoral authority.
The Eparchy of Lungro now has 27 parishes and some 35 priests. The bishop, bearded, bespectacled, energetic 72-year-old Giovanni Stamati, estimates that 50,000 people of Albanian origin live in the diocese, 80% of whom follow the Byzantine rite. The remainder, partly through assimilation, partly because of a lack of priests, have gradually turned to the Latin rite, although they still speak Albanian. In the Sicilian diocese of Piana degli Albanesi, created by Pius XI in 1937, an additional 30,000 follow the Byzantine rite.
Allegiance to the Byzantine rite dominates the consciousness of Lungros populace. Townspeople proudly point to their lovely cathedral, San Nicola di Mira, and take time to lead visitors to all the little churches in town. Over and over again in casual conversation, ordinary citizens refer to the rite as the bulwark of Albanian culture. When casual reference is made to a nearby village, one teenager almost contemptuously responds, Rito Latino, as if the abandonment of the Byzantine rite is equivalent to betraying Albanian-ness itself.
Culturally, Italys Albanians have preserved their language, songs, and most famous of all, their colorful costumes. Only a few of the oldest women still wear traditional costumes on a daily basis. At Easter, though, the whole village dresses up in full array for the unforgetable ceremonies of the Byzantine rite.
Cultural nationalism has become stronger and stronger in recent years. This ethnic awakening has as its goal the salvation of Albanian heritage. The preservation of the Byzantine rite is the cornerstone of the movement, together with the maintenance of the Albanian language.
The rise in cultural awareness has led to a dramatic increase in contact with Albania, despite its governments xenophobic policies. Professors from the University of Tirana pay frequent visits to Lungro to study first-hand what they believe to be the genuine Albanian language of the 15th century. A large number of Italo-Albanians, in turn, visit the land of their ancestors, and occasionally even priests are permitted to go under academic auspices.
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Tags: Cultural Identity Albania Italy Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church