Uniatism, i.e. people of Orthodox tradition joining the Roman Catholic Church while keeping their Eastern Christian rituals and rules, is one of the most contentious issues in relations between the Holy See and Orthodox Churches. Many Orthodox see the uniate approach as a way of creating confusion, or even deceiving people, and often suggest that uniatism is not the result of pure spiritual motivations. Uniates, on the other hand, would like to consider themselves as a bridge between Eastern and Western Christianity, and claim to be moving toward a recreation of the undivided Church as it was before the separation in 1054. Among the majority, Latin-rite Roman Catholics, uniatism has been seen under various lights: from enthusiastic support to suspicion, not infrequently resulting in feelings that uniates were second-class Catholics. After the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), uniatism became a less-favoured approach of finding ways toward unity by the Roman Catholic Church.
Considering the significance of the uniate issue, any new research shedding light on episodes of uniatism is welcome, since it helps us to understand some of the current issues and to put them in historical perspective. A recently published book by an Albanian-born scholar, Ines Angeli Murzaku, entitled Returning Home to Rome: The Basilian Monks of Grottaferrata in Albania (2009; to which all page references refer), makes interesting reading for anybody interested in the history of uniatism and current debates around it.
The book offers a history of uniate attempts in Albania from the 17th to the 20th century. It links it especially with the role of the Basilian monastery of Grottaferrata in Italy, a centre of Eastern-rite Catholicism for centuries – although, as Murzaku rightly remarks, the monastery itself cannot be described as “uniate” in the strict sense of the word, since it is an uninterrupted descent of a Byzantine presence in Southern Italy from the 1st millennium; having been founded in 1004 (half-a-century before the formal separation between Rome and Constantinople), Grottaferrata never broke from an existing Eastern Patriarchate for the purpose of joining Rome (p. 51).
A chapter of the book is actually devoted to the Byzantine communities in Italy, at one time flourishing, but gradually diminishing and passing over to the Latin rite, until – when nearly extinct in the late 15th century – they received a new lease on life from Albanians of the Byzantine rite settling in Italy, but retaining their language, rites and customs. There are today two dioceses in Italy for Italo-Albanians – one in Calabria and the other one in Sicily. This presence should apparently have created favourable circumstances for developing uniate communities in Albania, since it meant there were already Albanian-speaking, Byzantine-rite Catholics in Italy who could easily communicate and find common ground with people sharing with them a common ancestry.
But the reasons for people to switch allegiance to Rome often appear to be more complex than a mere spiritual choice. If one reads Murzaku’s research, secular considerations seem to have often played a key role: during the period of Ottoman domination in the Balkans, for example, people considering union with Rome were seeking support and resources for gaining more freedom from their rulers; after Albanian independence, in the 20th century, nation building represented a significant consideration – and uniate tendencies accordingly declined when the creation of an national Albanian Orthodox Church became a reality.
In the case of Albania, initiatives to seek the union “came from below, from the Orthodox faithful” (p. 18) – more exactly, from a few of them. The first initiatives appeared in the 16th century in the montainous region of Himarrë, opposite the island of Corfu, an area having frequent contacts with the West, primarily through the Venetians. These initiatives were clearly meant to obtain help from the West, with conversion to Catholicism being offered in exchange (indeed, until today, not only in Albania, leaning toward Catholicism or toward Orthodoxy has been perceived as a way of being connected to “the West” or to “the East”, independently of one’s geographic location). In the case of Himarrë, the fact that religious affiliation was very much used for political purposes is made quite evident by approaches toward the Patriarchate of Constantinople two centuries later, using Orthodoxy on this occasion, in the hope of securing Russian protection at a time when Rome and the Western powers seems to have lost interest in the area.
Rome was quite aware of the many difficulties of developing a uniate presence in Himarrë province through the work of Basilian monks: while several missionaries went there to work between 1632 and the second half of the 18th century, it was never a massive effort and it lacked long-term planning.
However, in the late 19th century, another initiative came from the area of Elbasan, when Archimandrite Germanos announced that a number of people were willing to join the Roman Catholic Church. To his surprise, he did not get an answer from Rome for several years, something that did not help the union movement and discouraged a number of people. Once clergy from Rome were sent to Elbasan, the Russian consul and the Orthodox clergy of the area acted to counteract the trend toward Catholicism. Moreover, some of the clergy sent to assess the situation did not appreciate the Eastern rite and wanted potential converts to Catholicism to switch to the Latin (Western) rite, something that apparently disappointed a number of such potential converts.
Interestingly, such requirements were in opposition to Pope Leo XIII’s (d. 1903) own policy toward the Eastern rite, as evidenced by his constitution Orientalium Dignitas (1894): some Latin clergy, Murzaku suggests, were posing “a passive resistance to the application of the constitution” (p. 102). Even without such considerations, one can see the Holy See advancing with caution in the area during the following decades, even after southern Albania came fully under Italian control during the second half of the First World War, with the expulsion of the Greek bishops (seen as agents of Greek influence) as a consequence. Emissaries of Rome sent to Albania in 1920 became aware, however, that leading figures seemed more eager to establish their own, Albanian national Church, leaving the option of uniting it with Rome to a later stage in the process, rather than to unite immediately with the Roman Catholic Church, which was a more marginal phenomenon and a second option only, although “Rome was considered by many a potential companion in constituting their civil and national lives” (p. 124).
Following the war, Albania finally became independent, although Italian influence would grow and culminate in the 1939 invasion. The religious situation in Albania after the First World War was quite complicated, and efforts toward union with Rome or reactions against such efforts were unavoidably connected to a variety of political considerations as well as various types of national awareness, as has often been the case with uniatism. Murzaku sunmmarizes it in this way:
“On one hand, [there] were the Orthodox nationalists who were struggling for autocephaly and fighting against their co-nationals and co-religionists who were pro-Phanar [i.e. the Patriarchate of Constantinople]. The Muslims, on the other hand, were in search of the right strategy that would separate them from Constantinople; and the Bektashi were fighting to break away from the tutelage of Ankara, seat of the Supreme Bektashi, as well. The Catholics were more on the patriotic-nationalist side of the spectrum. They found in their Catholic faith a ferment in fulfilling their national sentiment, and in Rome a dual succor. Furthermore, elements from both the Orthodox and the Muslim communities were uncomfortable with a possible prevalence of Catholicism in Albania, should the union movement … be successful” (p. 125).
Moreover, in 1922, the independence of the Albanian Orthodox Church, with the use of Albanian as a liturgical language, was proclaimed, which made the Eastern-rite Catholic option less attractive than ever (there remained a pro-Greek party within Albanian Orthodoxy, however). From time to time, some emissaries were sent from Rome to the aspiring Greek Catholics in Elbasan. But it was not before 1928 – some 30 years after the first calls from Elbasan – that an Italian-Albanian priest, Pietro Scarpelli, was sent there for the purpose of building a church for the community. The least that one can say is that Rome proceeded with complete caution in the matter. The newly built church was finally consecrated in 1929 (one year after Archimandrite Germanos’ death!), but by that time strong opposition came from the newly independent Albanian Orthodox Church, which perceived union with Rome as a threat to its own future. Scarpelli was expelled less than a month after the new church’s consecration.
Indeed, at the very time that the Albanian Orthodox had switched to the use of the national language in the liturgy, the Eastern-rite Catholic group was using Greek as its liturgical language! In itself, this was making it an object of suspicion in the view of the Albanian government, since it could be seen as encouraging nostalgia for the religious use of the Greek language. To make the situation even more complicated, the Catholic Eastern-rite priests were seen as tools of Italian interests. Since the Catholic Church – due to its transnational nature – could not be nationalized, the government had no intention of supporting it.
The Autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church experienced many problems, however, and alienated some of its members, thus giving rise to new initiatives of individuals (including some priests) toward union with Rome. This was not only done with the Eastern rite: in some cities, it was reported that many people attending Latin-rite masses were Orthodox believers who felt attracted to Catholicism. Beside problems in the Albanian Orthodox Church, there were a variety of reasons for such attitudes, including – again – a feeling that becoming Catholic was a way “to join the Christian European culture” (p. 169). Concerns about the growth of pan-Islamic theories are also reported by Catholic observers of the time as having played a role, since union with Rome could be seen as a way of reinforcing Christianity in Albania more than merely supporting a local, national Church.
In a context of renewed interest in Eastern Christianity on the part of Rome, the monastery of Grottaferrata, responding to invitations from the Congregation of Oriental Churches, decided in 1938 to open a missionary station in Albania, thus starting the second Basilian mission in the country, with its centre in Elbasan. The missionaries found a situation among the local Greek Catholics that was not always spiritually healthy, since many of them apparently were primarily motivated by the stipends they were receiving from Catholic clerics. The Basilian monks decided not to pursue such practices and to focus on converts with genuine motivations who were willing to learn about the Catholic faith. The hope was also to attract people from the local elites. They met with opposition not only from Orthodox clergy, but also from some Franciscan monks, who felt that uniates were “not [sufficiently] Catholic” (p. 193).
A number of Catholics first expected the Italian invasion in 1939 to boost Catholicism in Albania and to permit Greek-Catholic work to develop at last without hinderances. The missionaries at the same time realized that, whatever the background of potential converts (including nominal Muslims), a lot of work would need to be done in order to overcome their religious ignorance. Basilian monks as well as other clerics opened new missionary stations in various places in Albania. The Congregation for Oriental Churches in Rome – or at least some of its elements – was more proactive on this occasion.
In September 1939, the incident of the mass conversion of the village of Radoshtinë and its priest to Catholicism – returning, however, to Orthodoxy the day after the union, when the villagers discovered they would not receive the financial compensations that the village priest had promised them if they converted – did nothing to help the Catholic mission in Albania: the Italian authorities, seeing the strong reactions that the case provoked, became afraid that such moves would create problems and compromise stability in the newly conquered territories. They wanted to avoid any controversy linked to religion. During the last phase of the Italian presence in Albania, the authorities turned hostile to the pro-Rome movement.
Finally, the Holy See decided to postpone the Albanian union project. “The Vatican Congregation for Oriental Churches was deeply divided among those prelates who were concerned about the low intellectual level of the Albanian Orthodox clergy candidates for conversion and were supporting a more gradual and well-thought-out conversion. The other group was in favor of an instant or collective union with Rome, an incorporation of the Albanian Autocephalous Orthodox Church into the Roman Church. They were arguing that, after the formal union was effectuated, it would be possible to work more efficiently to raise the intellectual level of the Orthodox clergy” (p. 223).
Local Catholic missionaries were not removed, but were cautioned by the Apostolic Delegate not to be aggressive in their approach. Anyway, the political environment was changing rapidly, making any missionary work increasingly difficult.
The Communists seized power in Albania in late 1944. They considered religions as “reactionary” and restrictions on their activities were soon enforced. The new government wanted to establish a national Catholic Church, independent of Rome, but met with the refusal of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. By 1946, the Basilians were all expelled from Albania, and Catholic priests – as well as clerics of other religions – who continued to stay in the country would endure some of the harshest persecutions in communist-dominated Europe.
Looking at the number of conversions, the result of the Basilian (and other) missionary efforts to create a Byzantine Catholic Church in Albania were meagre and nothing like those of some other uniate churches (with completely different histories, however), such as the Greek Catholics in Ukraine, with several million followers and more than 3,000 parishes, not to mention a flourishing diaspora. Murzaku nevertheless sees a remaining legacy of Basilian missionary work, though rather in other fields: according to her, the Albanian mission had an impact of its own “on the Vatican’s changed attitudes toward Eastern Churches”, leading to new approaches at the time of the Second Vatican Council (p. 247). However, it seems difficult to assess the part played by that specific episode, but it makes sense as part of a bigger puzzle of events and experiences leading to new attitudes.
Today, the Apostolic Administrator for southern Albania, Bishop Hil Kabashi, is in charge of the small flock of Byzantine Catholics in the country. Among the more than 3,000 faithful in his diocese, the large majority follow the Latin rite. In the current context and with the current approaches toward uniatism, it is highly unlikely that there will be any revival of a Greek-Catholic mission in Albania today. But the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church in Sicily and southern Italy remains alive and well, with the two dioceses previously mentioned as well as the monastery of Grottaferrata. It is thus outside of Albania that a Greek-Catholic Albanian community continues to prosper to this day.
Ines Angeli Murzaku, Returning Home to Rome: The Basilian Monks of Grottaferrata in Albania, Grottaferrata, Monastero Esarchico, 2009, xxii + 310 pp.
The book cannot easily be found in bookshops or through major online booksellers, but it can ordered from the following website (payment through Paypal, US $60, postage included for North America and Europe): www.lissus.org