Article reprinted with the kind permission of Archimandrite Robert L. Stern,
Editor of "Catholic Near East", Vol. 21, #6


Italy's two Byzantine Catholic eparchs:
Bishop Sotir Ferrara of Valley of the
Albanians and Bishop Ercole Lupinacci
of Lungro
The Byzantine Catholic Church in Italy is characterized by a unique phenomenon. Although Byzantine, this church has been under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome, the pope, since the sixth century - except for a period of 400 years beginning in 731.

This Byzantine presence in southern Italy knows two phases: Italo-Greek and Italo-Albanian. These phases are clearly distinct for historical, cultural, ethnic and linguistic reasons, reflecting the general consciousness of the nation's Byzantine Catholics.

THE ITALO-GREEK PHASE. The byzantinization of southern Italy began during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565) with a military campaign launched by General Belisarius in 535. In time a Greek Church develped that had, at the peak of its power and influence in the 10th century, a number of dioceses and two metropolitan seats.

The Greek Church had a substantial religious influence on southern Italy. The most recent studies of Italo-Greek saints, history, music and liturgy verify this influence with abundant documentation. Studies have also revealed that Greek monasticism, rivaling the monastic centers of the Byzantine East, thrived in 10th-century Calabria.

The confluence in Italy of people from all over the empire - especially at the time of the seventh century Arab invasions - brought to Italy a variety of eastern, Byzantine traditions. Since provinces tend to be more conservative than city centers, southern Italy may be a true archive of ancient Byzantine traditions.

The mosaics in Rome's church of
Santa Maria in Trastevere reveal
the influence of Byzantine art and
spirituality in the Latin church.
Byzantinists have rescued exceptional documentation from oblivion. Recently, Enrica Follieri of the University of Rome published, "The Life of St. Fantino the Younger," which is now an obligatory resource for those who want to pursue the study of Italo-Greek monasticism. This study is of interest to Catholics, but above all to the Orthodox. This was demonstrated when the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies in Thessaloniki published a monograph on the monasticism and spirituality of the Italo-Greeks. In addition, "The Life of St. Nilus of Rossano," a medieval biography of the founder of the monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata - which was written in Italy, although in Greek - was translated into modern Greek and published by an Orthodox monastery with a preface by a superior of a Mount Athos monastery.

Another fertile field is liturgy. For some time the Pontifical Oriental Institute of Rome has been promoting the study of the liturgical manuscript sources contained in the typica (monastic codes) and euchologion (liturgical prayer books) of the Byzantine Church. This year two young researchers from the Oriental Institute printed the most important Italo-Greek Byzantine prayer book, Euchologio Barberini Gr. 336, first copied in Byzantine Calabria in the eighth century. This codex is believed to be the oldest remaining manuscript of the Byzantine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

In the eighth century, communication between southern Italy and Constantinople was constant. And because of the pro-icon position assumed by the pope, who opposed the iconoclastic policy of the Byzantine emperor, southern Italy was drawn closer to Constantinople's orbit. Leo the Isaurian removed Illyria, Calabria and Sicily from the pope's jurisdiction and placed these areas under the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople. At that time, the patriarch was strong-armed into accepting and implementing the emperor's unpopular ruling against the creation and veneration of sacred images. Rome considered this act an abuse of power, but nevertheless maintained a level of influence with the Italo-Greek community.

Under pressure from the Arabs, whose troops were advancing well into Sicily and Calabria, groups of Italo-Greek monks fled to the north. One sainted monk, Nilus of Rossano, founded the monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata in 1004. This monastery, located just outside Rome, is the only Italo-Greek monastic institution to have survived - a living testimony to the continuity of the Byzantine tradition in the Roman Church.

A 19th-century
statue of St. Nilus,
founder of Grottaferrata,
dominates the abbey's
The Italo-Greeks remained under Constantinople's jurisdiction until the Normans re-established the jurisdiction of the pope in the 11th century. After the Normans seized the Byzantines' southern Italian possessions in the late 11th century, this Italo-Greek Church declined slowly. To consolidate their power the Normans substituted Latin bishops for every Greek bishop who died. Hence, by the 15th century, this church had more or less disappeared.

THE ITALO-ALBANIAN PHASE. Modern Italy's Byzantine culture, although ethnically and linguistically principally Albanian, is represented by two Italo-Albanian dioceses and one exarchate:

  • the Eparchy of Lungro (near Cosenza), which has jurisdiction over the arbëreshë (this is what the Italo-Albanians call themselves) of Calabria and continental Italy.
  • the Eparchy of Piana of the Albanians (near Palermo), which has authority over the arbëreshë of Sicily.
  • the monastery at Grottaferrata
It is the two eparchies, however, that properly constitute the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church. Grottaferrata has its own unique history: however, it draws vocations from the Italo-Albanian community and renders spiritual service to it. Thus the monastery at Grottaferrata is also included in the historical and spiritual reality of the Italo-Albanian Church.

This modern, Albanian phase of the Byzantine tradition in southern Italy began when the Ottoman Turks moved through the Balkans in the 14th and 15th centuries and wiped out the Albanian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Serbian states. The Albanian resistance collapsed after the death of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, the chief of the Albanian unsurgency. Rather than serve the Ottoman sultan, thousands of Albanian refugees poured into such diverse Italian regions as Abruzzi and Molise, Basilicata, Calabria, Puglia and Sicily. Those Albanians from the northern portion of the country - primarily Latin Catholics - were quickly absorbed into Italian culture. Southern Albanians were Byzantine Christians who maintained ties to the Church of Constantinople, which was reduced to a subordinate condition following the collapse of Constantinople in 1453.


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