By MARIO RINVOL UCRI
MT Sunday I visited Ermoupolis, a little quayside town on the Aegean island of Syros, the traditional stronghold of Catholicism in Greece which many Greeks call "Pope's island".
On the crown of the steep hill overlooking Ermouplis is the Catholic cathedral and the Bishop's palace.
To visit the Bishop I climbed a stairway of 500 steps which zig-zagged up through a maze of low, flat-roofed houses.
Bishop Henopoulon is a youngish 40, small and bright-eyed, and he received me with a tiny cup of strong Turkish coffee.
He told me that half Greece's 40,000 Catholics . live on the islands and 7.000 of them on Syros. (His visits his out-lying parishes on a motor-cycle).
The total population of Syros is 18,000 and the total population of Greece 8.5 million. There are eleven villages on the island which arc almost entirely Catholic and the whole of the hill on which the bishop's palace stands is Catholic. with the exception of five Orthodox families.
The Catholic islanders form a tight, self-sullicicnt community. Most of them work as fishermen, or as farmers specialising in early vegetables for the Athenian markets.
Syros is one of the only places in Greece boasting a Catholic primary school which is non-feepaying. It was started 40 years ago by French Christian Brothers and now has 90 boys. The Vincent de Paul nuns provide a similar establishment for girls.
A law passed in 1938 forbids Orthodox children from attending Catholic primary schools, but they may attend Catholic secondary schools. Article k of the Constitution forbids any attempt to convert Orthodox faithful to other religions.
I asked the bishop whether there were many mixed marriages. "Just occasionally someone gets away with it" he told me.
The clergy are instructed to preach against such marriages and the bishop very rarely gives permission for one. He told me that the rule of excommunicating Catholics who married outside the Church was strictly enforced in his diocese.
The Catholics of the islands show great devotion to the Latin of the Mass and resist any attempt to have the Mass said in Greek. They feel that the use of Latin makes clear the difference between themselves and Greeks who do not belong to the Ortholic Church.
For many of them, fidelity to Latin is equivalent to fidelity to their century-old and much tried Faith.
The Bishop of Syros told me that the clean shaven Catholic clergy have practically no contact with their Orthodox counterparts. They do not attend each others' services, and social contact is not favoured by either side. it should be added that most of the Orthodox are ill prepared for contact with the Catholic clergy since only six of the Orthodox "papades" on Syros have received a secondary education. The Catholicism of the islanders I met is both loyal and sincere, but they are as yet untouched by the "wind of change" now blowing from Rome which requires a more understanding and concilitary approach towards the Christians of t h c Orthodox Church. The way the Bishop of Syros used the word "schismatic" when speaking of the Orthodox is characteristic of the outlook of the Catholic community on the Greek islands.
ONE of the most striking features of modern Greece is the growth of her towns, in particular Athens (1.5 million) and Salonika (500,000). Many of the Catholics who formerly lived on the islands have migrated to the towns. Athens. Salonika a n d Patras have between them an estimated Catholic population of 20.000.
Most of these people were originally fishermen or agricultural workers, and when they arrived in a city like Athens they found themselves able to do only the most unskilled jobs. Many of the men work as navvies. building labourers or porters in blocks of flats. Their women folk earn generally low wages as domestic servants.
Many of them lose the Faith when they find themselves surrounded by the attractions and temptations of the city. There is also a considerable "leakage" through Catholic girls marrying Orthodox men.
There are no Catholic schools in the towns within the pocket of the ■ cracc working man. Fee
paying schools run by the Christian Brothers and the Ursulinc nuns are mostly attended by foreign Catholic children (especially American) and by Orthodox children whose parents can afford the fees. Greek Catholic children receive religious instruction from their parish priest in Sunday school daises.
There is virtually no Catholic middle-class in the towns. and an Orthodox finds it easier than a Catholic to have a successful career as a lawyer or a politician. The number of lay Catholic students at Athens University may be counted on the lingers of one hand.
In Greece Catholics arc looked on very much as "papists" and foreigners.. The Catholic Archbishop of Athens, Mgr. Senasmiotaton, told me that in the last war he was a private in the army fighting the Italians in Albania. One day his commanding officer said to him: "Oh, you're one of those Italian priests aren't you?"
The Greeks have a strong feeling of nationality and the accusation of foreigners effectively keeps them from joining or even front wanting to find out more about the Catholic Church.
To remedy this, the Congregation of Oriental Churches in the Vatican has given yigourous support to the 2.000 strong community of Byzantine rite Catholics who say the Mass in Greek.
The Byzantine rite or Uniat Catholics are determined to convince their Orthodox brethren that Catholicism is a religion for
for all Greeks. not to be cherished only by a tiny minority. All their liturgy is in Greek and their churches are full of beautiful ikons of the Virgin and Child, in the old Greek tradition. The photo accompanying this article shows their new reinforced concrete (stone faced) church in Athens which has been built in the circular Greek style. (Most of the Latin rite churches are built like Western churches in the shape of a long cross).
The Uniat fathers run a hospital and print a Catholic weekly newspaper_ They also run several hostels for University students, regardless of whether they are Catholic or Orthodox (the vast majority of them are Orthodox). The Uniat priest does not shave his beard, he wears the same robes as the Orthodox “pappas" and is allowed to marry.
The whole organisation of the Uniat Church gives the visitor the impression of high-powered efficiency and drive.
Proof that the Uniats are, though still small in numbers, a force to be reckoned with, is the strenuous opposition they have aroused in Orthodox circles. The Orthodox regard the Uniats as dangers because they publicly demonstrate that the only fundamental difference between the Greek Orthodox and the Greek Catholic is that the latter accepts the primacy of Rome and the infallibility of the Pope.
The Orthodox Church would much prefer to keep the Catholics at hay, as it has done for so long, by simply labelling them "foreigners", -the Uniat Catholics contribute a lively 'and positive element to Greece's otherwise rather conservative Catholic community.