Overview of the Church in Greece before the Pope’s visit

After visiting Cyprus from December 2-4, Pope Francis will travel to Greece where he will visit Athens and the island of Lesvos, which he visited in 2016. We provide an overview of the Catholic community in this predominantly Orthodox country and the challenges facing the local Catholic Church today.

By Lisa Zengarini

The Orthodox Church has played a major role in Greek history. Membership of this Church, which has been autocephalous (ecclesiastically independent) since 1850, was established as a feature of Greek ethnic identity in the first constitution at the beginning of the 19th century, when Greece gained independence from the Empire. Ottoman.

The Orthodox Church

Its primacy was confirmed in subsequent constitutions and also in the new democratic constitution of 1974, which established the Orthodox Church as the “predominant” religion in the country, although it recognizes religious freedom for all faiths. 90% of Greeks still identify as Greek Orthodox today, although not all of them are practicing believers.

Religious minorities include Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, as well as Muslims (1%) concentrated on the border with Turkey, and a small Jewish community.

Official figures of the Catholic population

According to the latest Vatican figures, Catholics, mainly of the Latin rite, represent 1.2% of the population (or 133,000 out of some 11 million inhabitants), most of whom are not of Greek origin. However, local figures show higher numbers, including several thousand immigrant workers with temporary residence permits, refugees and asylum seekers. In 2018, the Greek Catholic Church estimated the number of Catholics living in the country at 400,000.

Many foreigners

The largest foreign groups are Polish nationals (40,000) and Filipinos (45,000). In addition, the number of Catholics in the Middle East has increased dramatically because of the war, especially in Iraq and Syria. Other ethnic groups include Albanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and Armenians. In addition, immigration has caused an increase in Eastern Rite Catholics.

Significant Catholic communities are found in the Cyclades Islands (especially Syros and Tinos) as well as Corfu, Patras, Giannitsa, Thessaloniki, Kavala, Volos and several other cities in mainland Greece.

Pastoral challenges

The local Church performs intense pastoral and social work. However, the geographic dispersion of the Catholic community and its heterogeneous composition, in the midst of declining local vocations, made this work more difficult.

Immigration has undoubtedly enriched the local Church, but also requires increased human and financial resources to meet growing pastoral and social needs, as well as to integrate newcomers into local parish communities.

The current economic crisis that has hit the country since 2009 has further aggravated these difficulties. The fiscal tightening imposed on Greece by the “European troika” (IMF, ECB and European Commission) has also severely strained the finances of Catholic dioceses, parishes and charities committed to supporting impoverished Greek families, as well as the thousands of immigrants and refugees fleeing war and poverty.

With increased spending and lower Sunday Mass offerings, the Catholic Church (which, unlike the Orthodox Church, does not enjoy state support) must pay considerably higher taxes than in the past.

Active role in supporting the most vulnerable

Greek Catholic bishops have repeatedly drawn attention to these difficulties, also criticizing the austerity policies imposed by Brussels which have increased poverty throughout the country, as confirmed by the local Caritas network.

Indeed, Caritas Greece, in collaboration with Caritas Internationalis and other Catholic charitable organizations, has been on the front line to respond to the crisis and support the needs of the poor and the most vulnerable, including migrants in the islands of the sea. Aegean and mainland Greece. This work continued during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ecumenical relations

Ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and the majority Orthodox Church in Greece have made some progress in recent years. An important step forward was the Jubilee pilgrimage of Saint John Paul II in the footsteps of Saint Paul the Apostle in 2001.

It was the first visit of a Roman pontiff to the country. The culmination of this historic event was the Pope’s request for forgiveness for the sack of Constantinople during the crusade in 1204 and the signing of a joint declaration on the Christian roots of Europe with the Greek Orthodox Primate Christòdoulos, the May 4, 2001.

Seeking closer collaboration

Since then, the Holy See and the Autocephalous Church of Greece have sought closer collaboration in the pastoral field and on practical matters of common interest, in particular in the context of the European Union. This was further evidenced by the joint declaration signed by Pope Francis, the Greek Orthodox Primate Ieronymos II and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, during their visit to the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, the April 16, 2016.

In this statement, the three Church leaders joined in calling on the international community “to use all means to ensure that individuals and communities, including Christians, remain in their homelands and enjoy the fundamental right to live. in peace and security ”, while committing themselves“ firmly and wholeheartedly ”to intensify their efforts“ to promote the full unity of all Christians ”.

Most recently, during his visit to the country in November 2019.

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