Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The present history of Greek religious tension

1 Comment


For someone who is often in a wobbly state of doubt, I spend a lot of time in churches. Perhaps seeking an end to doubt? Perhaps.

church of St John the Baptist HeraklionA visitor to Heraklion, Crete, I discovered the Catholic church of St John the Baptist quite accidentally. A sign in the main drag points to a grimy little alley, and there the modest little building sits, rather unfortunately located opposite an ugly parking bay.

There has been a Catholic church in Heraklion since 1888, but the original structure was badly damaged in the 1959 earthquake and was rebuilt in the early 1960s. I pushed open the heavy wooden door, and found myself quite alone: recorded chants were playing, providing a welcome sense of peace.

For I had just come from the mighty and crowded edifices of St Titus, who had been a friend of the apostle Paul and became first bishop of Crete, and St Minas, the Egyptian martyr and wonder-worker who is the patron saint of Heraklion. These churches are overwhelming in their richness: the gold and silver of the icons, the huge size of the dazzling chandeliers, the soaring domes, the sheer scale of the buildings themselves.

In contrast, the Catholic church is very simple: the ceiling is curved, while natural light streams through the windows and shows plain wooden pews, framed paintings of the Stations of the Cross, and Vincenzo Marinelli's painting of the Baptism of Christ above the altar. The only three-dimensional representation is a small crucifix above a prie-dieu close to the entrance.

Today's Greek Catholics, many of whom live in wholly Catholic villages on the islands of Tinos and Syros, are mostly descended from the Venetians, who ruled large swathes of Greece from 1204 until 1669, and from the Bavarians who accompanied the German King Otto when he became the first king of the modern Greek state in 1833.

In the past it was estimated that there were between 50 and 70 thousand Catholics in Greece, but it is thought that now there are as many as 200,000. The expansion started in the 1990s, with immigration from eastern Europe, particularly from Poland, and from the Philippines.


"When a classmate of my son's informed their teacher that she had been baptised into both Catholicism and Orthodoxy because she has a French mother, the teacher drew a sharp breath and crossed herself fervently."


Inside the church were leaflets printed in Polish, and notices outside were in both Greek and Polish. On 11 August a Mass was held, rather early in the year, to commemorate the centenary of Poland's independence from Austria, Germany and Russia.

On Sunday I missed the start of Mass, but a peep through misted windows showed me that the church was full. And when I returned later, post-service socialising was in progress in the lush and beautiful gardens of the parish offices next door. These offices stand on the site of a Capuchin monastery, also wrecked by earthquake.

The Venetians came to power in this part of the world after the fourth crusade, during which Constantinople was sacked: this episode is still spoken bitterly of in Greece. The Venetians made many attempts to suppress Orthodoxy, so that prejudice lingers.

Indeed, when a classmate of my son's informed the religious studies teacher that she had been baptised into both Catholicism and Orthodoxy because she has a French mother, the teacher drew a sharp breath and crossed herself fervently.

But that was long ago, and in any case, Orthodox and Catholics have been entitled to attend each other's churches for many years. These days change is evident. I was interested, for example, to read the church's leaflet entitled Catholics and Orthodox: Are we so divided?

The anonymous author concedes that most differences are the result of historical, political and geographical influences, with a significant difference being that of leadership: Catholics stress the primacy of the Pope, while Orthodox take direction from the ecumenical synod and the Patriarch.

The separation of Catholicism and Orthodoxy dates officially from 1054, the year of the Great Schism between west and east. It was not until 1965 that the matters of mutual anathemas and excommunication were dropped. Reconciliation, alas, did not follow, the issue being an extremely complicated one.

'But,' the author concludes, neatly skirting the complications, 'the day will surely come' when Orthodox and Catholics 'will find themselves to be brothers and sisters again.' Let us hope so.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Greece, Catholic Church, Heraklion, Crete



submit a comment

Existing comments

Any story of reconciliatory moves - as you seem to be suggesting in train between Catholic (of Rome) and Orthodox Catholic - always fill my heart with hope. Just to-day I've been in Canberra. A bunch of cyclists (a peloton?) had cycled up over some 19 days from Melbourne bearing with them the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the ICAN group - founded a decade or so ago in Melbourne - but because of its anti-nuclear stance not a word of celebration from the warmongers of our current Federal Parliament. But speaking at the rally in front of the Parliament House - after ringing the Peace Bell nearby at the Lakeside - were Robert TICKNER (Red Cross CEO - further back a Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs; Anthony ALBANESE; Sue WAREHAM - ICAN President; Aunty Sue from the Indigenous community near Ceduna - speaking on the terrors unleashed on her peoples lands in South Australia by the British bomb "tests" in the 1950s; and Tim Hollo - new Greens candidate for the seat of Canberra; and among those in the crowd - some said 60,000 present - others of keener eye thought maybe 100~150 - Peter Garrett, Dierk von BEHRENS, Akira KAMADA (sculptor from Jervis Bay), Benny ZABLE (performance artist dressed in apocalyptic mode) and others of Japanese, Congolese, Thai, US and other backgrounds. Robert TICKNER spoke of the importance of the movement to have support from across the political spectrum - that was one of those reconciliatory moments.

Jim KABLE | 20 September 2018  

Similar Articles

Bad habits die hard in Australia and Syria

  • Justin Glyn
  • 18 September 2018

What do the Liberal leadership spill and the Syrian War have in common? Both demonstrate how force of habit, like any other force built up over a long period of time, is very difficult to stop, even when the results are plainly self destructive.