Archimandrite Fortino distributes the
Eucharist at a Liturgy in St.
Athanasius Church, Rome.
The immigration of these Byzantine Albanians to the south of Italy was an ideal complement to the preceding Italo-Greek community. The reception was rather positive, economically and spiritually. The new immigrants filled the population void precipitated by disease and the effects of an earthquake that devasted southern Italy in the 15th century. Spiritually this new wave of Byzantine Christians settled in an area open to the Byzantine tradition; the memory of the Greek Church was still alive.

The Albanians migrated to Italy after the Council of Florence (1439) declared the union between the Church of Rome and several Eastern churches, including the Church of Constantinople. This movement of population came at the time of an "existing union," which facilitated a positive acceptance of the Orthodox Albanians. And it explaiins the fact that the "capitulations" (contracts between the local feudal powers and the representatives of the new immigrants) were often signed by abbots of monasteries or by local Catholic bishops.

Thus, the unique case of the presence of two ecclesiastical traditions within the direct jurisdiction of the pope continued.

Tensions developed nevertheless. The Byzantine and Latin traditions found themselves side by side - in liturgy, discipline, rites, customs, spirituality, calendars, fasts and popular devotions. With clear consciences these new immigrants believed themselves to be members of the Byzantine portion of the universal Church. This occurred at a time when forces in both the Roman and Byzantine churches began to draw lines of distinction and division. The attitudes of the Latin ecclesiastical authorities regarding these new immigrants were inconsistent. Periods of tolerance followed intervals of distrust. Alternating canonical dispositions of "concessions of privileges" and "restrictions of rights" were obviously presented as "limitations of abuses."

For the Italo-Albanian Church, one may define three clear and distinct stages of canonical norms.

The Byzantine Albanian community received positive guarantees for the conservation of their cultural and religious authonomy after their arrival. At the time a metropolitan archbishop - with the title of archbishop of Agrigento - was nominated for the Italo-Albanians by Prochoro, the Archbishop of Ohrid. Prochoro also bore the title of Archbishop of Albania with jurisdiction over Albanians of the Greek rite in Italy. Remarkably, this appointment was confirmed by the patriarch of Constantinople, with the authorization of the pope, in 1553; after the decrees of the Council of Florence were declared null and void by the Orthodox. With a Papal Brief to Archbishop Pafnuzio of Agrigento, Pope Julius III affirmed the Archbishop's freedom to exercise his ministry; no one could prevent him from doing so.

However, just 10 years later, the Council of Trent signaled a change. With the application of the council's decrees, new conditions radically altered the regime established by the Council of Florence. Byzantine communities were placed under the jurisdiction of the local Latin ordinaries. Ordinations had to be done by the hand of the Latin ordinary at the time, or by his appointed delegate. For all practical purposes, Italy's Byzantine Catholic Church was absorbed into the Latin Catholic Church, keeping only its particular liturgy and disciplines such as a married clergy. Had these practices continued, Italy's ancient Byzantine Church would have been extinguished.

Tensions between the Italo-Albanians and the Latins ran high, and the consequences were felt in Rome. Pope Gregory XIII (1573) established a congregation of cardinals to study the issues affecting all members of the Byzantine community: Albanians and Greeks, laity and clergy. The congregation finished its work with the publication (1596) of the Perbrevis Instructio. This recommended, among other things, the creation of a bishop, without jurisdiction, with the right to ordain clergy of the Byzantine Church in Italy. This instruction guaranteed at least the principle that the liturgical tradition would be respected.

For more than a century, the Italo-Albanian Church continued to decline, as individuals, families and communities veered to the Latin rite. Only in the 18th century was it possible to establish seminaries in Calabria (1732) and Sicily (1735) and the creation of bishops with ordination rights for Calabria (1735) and Sicily (1787). These institutions brought essential support to the Byzantine Italo-Albanians, but it was not enough to hold the scattered group together.

Finally, with the proclamation of the bull Catholici Fideles in 1919, the aspirations of Italy's Byzantine Catholics were fulfilled. Pope Benedict XV created an eparchy, or diocese, for the Byzantine Italo-Albanian faithful of Calabria and southern Italy with its seat at Lungro. In 1937, Pope Pius XI, in the bull Apostolica Sedes, created the Eparchy of Piana of the Albanians in Sicily. The same pontiff elevated the monastery of Grottaferrata to an exarchate monastery, or territorial abbey.

Mosaic copies of the icon of the
Mother of God, which is enshrined in
the monastery church in Grottaferrata,
may be found throughout the village
that surrounds St. Nilus's ancient abbey.
In 1940, these three ecclesiastical territories held an intra-eparchical synod at Grottaferrata to coordinate and assure the consistent use of rites and disciplines.

Currently, the eparchy of Lungro numbers 33,000 faithful in 27 parishes; the Eparchy of Piana of the Albanians, 28,000 faithful and 15 parishes. The monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata has 40 monks and aspirants in four houses. The theological formation of clergy takes place at the seminary founded by Pope Benedict XV in 1918 near Grottaferrata, while the students of theology attend the Pontifical Greek College of St. Athanasius in Rome.

The Italo-Albanian Church follows the Typicon of Constantinople and is presently renewing its authentic traditions, which had deteriorated under Latin jurisdiction. The monastery of Grottaferrata has its own ancient liturgical tradition and is a source of study for specialists of Byzantine liturgy. Beginning in 1910, the Basilian monks of Grottaferrata published the magazine Roma e l'Oriente, which anticipates many of the trends of modern ecumenism, especially with regard to relations with the Orthodox.

The Italo-Albanians have never completed an official act of rottura, or breaking, with the Orthodox Church. During the course of integration with Italian culture and with the Catholic communion, the Italo-Albanians have always maintained a rapport of congeniality - not just sentimentality - with the Orthodox Church. The Italo-Albanians consider themselves in solidarity with the great Eastern traditions of which they feel themselves a part, not only with the Orthodox people of Albania, with whom they share their ethnic and cultural origin, but with the entire Byzantine commonweath. One must also keep in mind that the Italo-Albanian Church, which now celebrates the liturgy in its own Albanian language, regularly used Greek as a liturgical language and contines to use regularly some books of Greek origin in its liturgy. For together with its own Albanian tradition, the Italo-Albanian Church refers to her Byzantine Greek and patristic past.

At that first intra-eparchical synod in Grottaferrata, a delegation from the autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church, composed of eight members and presided over by a bishop, participated as observers. This was more than 25 years before the ecumenical spring brought forth by Vatican II.

In October 1973, a delegation from the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church made an official visit to the Eparchy of Piana of the Albanians. A highlight of the visit was an ecumenical liturgy, with the delegation from the Greek Orthodox synod participating with the Italo-Albanian bishop, clergy and faithful.

At the time, the Editor of the official magazine of the Greek Orthodox Church, Professor Constantine Bonis, affirmed that this church, "with admirable vigor and patience has conserved until today the holy traditions of our church." Previously, Professor Bonis had studied the Italo-Albanian community. At the international and interecclesiastical congress of Bari in 1969, he summed up his thoughts in this manner, "the actual idiorrhythms [that is, following their own particular rite] of southern Italy...should for no reason be considered uniates," an expression that acknowledged the authentic and orthodox use of traditional Byzantine customs by the Italo-Albanians.

Although the history of Italy's Byzantine Church, Greek and Albanian, is charged with misunderstandings, tension and diversities, the Catholic Church has kept alive, within its central Roman adminstration, the respect demanded of legitimate diversity - an essential component of modern ecumenism.

Archimandrite Fortino, a member of the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church, is the Undersecretary for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

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