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Flickers of Catholic-Orthodox Unity

Interview With President of Greek Bishops' Conference

SYROS, Greece, MAY 8, 2006 (Zenit) - Small signs of unity between Catholics and Orthodox are coming from Greece. The celebration of Easter on the same date is but one example of this.

Bishop Frangkiskos Papamanolis, president of the episcopal conference of Greece, head of the Diocese of Syros and apostolic vicar of the island of Crete, explained that for 34 years the celebration of Easter has been coordinated with the Orthodox.

In this interview with us, Bishop Papamanolis talks about daily relations between Greek Catholics and Orthodox believers and explains how, with the enlargement of the European Union, the number of Catholics has increased sevenfold.

Q: Does the Catholic Church in Greece celebrate Easter with Orthodox brothers throughout the country or is it optional?

Bishop Papamanolis: It is a decision our bishops made in the years 1968-1972. The first to ask for permission from the Holy See in 1968 was the then archbishop of Corfu, Monsignor Antonio Varthalitis.

He was followed by the then archbishop of Athens and apostolic administrator of Thesaloniki, Monsignor Benedetto Printezis, in 1970.

The bishops of the Cyclades, Naxos-Tinos, Syros and Santorini islands, seeing the good climate that this initiative had created, also asked the Holy See for permission to celebrate Easter together with their Orthodox brothers and thus, since 1972, we celebrate Easter on the same date as our Orthodox brothers.

On the island of Crete, however, where there is an infinitesimal number of Catholics -- some 60 faithful in Canea, four in Rettimnon, and some 20 in Iraklion -- the bishop of Syros, who was also apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Crete, left parish priests free to choose one or the other date.

They opted for celebrating Easter on the same date as Rome because, being two parishes with much tourism, there were many tourists who attended the Holy Week services.

In Rettimnon there was not even Mass on Easter Sunday: They had no priest, the church was half destroyed, and Catholics, or rather Catholic women, were four at most.

In Iraklion there was a priest and some 20 parishioners, while tourists participating in the celebrations were the great majority.

In Canea it was almost the same. Undoubtedly, now that Catholics in Crete are about 3,500 spread throughout the island, the situation must be reviewed. And I myself am the bishop responsible for rethinking it, as apostolic administrator of Crete. I am waiting for the opportune moment.

Q: How could Easter be unified with the Orthodox at the world level?

Bishop Papamanolis: I do not see how Easter can be celebrated on the same date. Though the Catholic Church might want to change the way of setting the date and decide to follow the Orthodox Church, she would separate herself from the Reformation Churches [Protestants], the Anglicans, etc.

The only solution is that all the leaders of the Churches decide on the same way of setting the date of Easter, or choose a Sunday in April to celebrate Easter together.

Q: Benedict XVI recently received a delegation of the "Apostoliki Diakonia" and showed that he was disposed to dialogue with the Orthodox. What problems and benefits in daily life does this dialogue have for you?

Bishop Papamanolis: Dialogue is always beneficial, but it must be true dialogue and not remain at the level of discussion, in which each one says what he thinks, tries to convince the other and accepts his opinion, and then everyone continues to think what they did before.

And, in saying this, I am not thinking only of the Orthodox Church but also of our Catholic Church. I do not doubt the fact that the Orthodox Church has many things to correct, but our Catholic Church also has many things to correct.

In the 2001 Synod of Bishops, I spoke openly and very clearly. For me the problem of dialogue between the churches is a problem of ecclesiology. We have texts that we refer to, the documents of Second Vatican Council. If what the fathers of Vatican II had said had been put into practice, we would now have taken enormous steps toward unity.

In regard to the problems and benefits that this dialogue would bring us in daily life, without a doubt it creates problems, but the benefits, which are not comparable, are much greater. Dialogue, even if it is transformed into debate, always creates a good climate in interpersonal relations, which in reality is at the base of all dialogue.

In my Diocese of Syros, for example, Orthodox and Catholics live in a very harmonious climate, so much so that they say that we want to create a pilot church on how a united Church would live. Neither I nor my counterpart, Monsignor Doroteos, had thought of it, but if this is the result, welcome.

Yesterday, in the church of Rettimnon, in my Diocese of Crete, of which I am apostolic administrator, at the end of the Easter Mass, to the great surprise of the celebrant and the faithful, the Orthodox bishop of the city, Monsignor Anthimos, came in, with his vicar general, the prefect of the province of Rettimnon.

When the Mass was over, they asked the celebrant priest if they could congratulate the faithful for Easter, which they did, and they, though still observing Palm Sunday as Orthodox, sang the "Christ Has Risen."

Q: Some Greek Catholic parishes have more non-Greek faithful than native. Is it still part of the mentality of the Greek citizen to think that to be Greek means to be Orthodox?

Bishop Papamanolis: Yes. Not only do some parishes have more foreigners than natives but in the whole Catholic Church in Greece non-Greeks are the majority. We Greeks are a minority of around 18% within the Catholic Church here.

In regard to your question if it is still part of the Greek mentality to think that to be Greek means to be Orthodox, sadly I must say yes.

Last year, during a meeting at the Ministry of Public Education and Worship, of our episcopal conference with executives of the same, a directress of a ministerial section, in fact, repeated this. And, some years ago, I was told this by the vice minister of public education and worship. Imagine what the people must think.

Q: In your opinion, what would be the greatest challenge for Greek Catholics and in what way can the universal Church help in this matter?

Bishop Papamanolis: The greatest challenge at present is to incorporate our Catholic brothers who have come from outside Greece's borders and who have given us a 700% growth. With the opening of the borders of member states of the European Union, brothers from the West have arrived.

Because of the fall of Communism, brothers from the north have arrived, especially Poles and Albanians. Because of the instability of peace in the Near East, brothers from the East and also from Africa have arrived.

This increase has been sudden and unforeseen and has caught us unawares without having prepared us to put ourselves at their service, especially in this period in which, on one hand, the lack of priestly and religious vocations is acutely felt and, on the other, we are unable to make our problem understood by those who could and even should help us.


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