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Diocese of Athens

Details on Catholics in Athens

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Athens, MODERN Diocese of.—The Greeks have long regarded their religion as a national affair. This notion is so deep-rooted that they cannot understand how a citizen can well be a true Greek if he gives his allegiance to any religion which is not that of the Greek Church. At the present time the majority of Catholics who live within the Diocese of Athens are therefore foreigners, or of foreign decent. Of the foreigners who are Catholics, the greater part are of Italian nationality. Most of those who are of foreign descent have come into Athens and other portions of this diocese from the islands of the Aegean and Ionian seas. The Catholics of these islands are largely descendants of the Western conquerors who held possession of the islands for two or three centuries, or even longer, beginning with the Fourth Crusade. As a rule, they are of Venetian and Genoese descent. In these islands some of the native Greeks, on account of the higher social and political standing of the foreign element, accepted the Catholic Faith and obedience. From these converted Greeks some Catholics in the Diocese of Athens are now descended. On three or four of the islands, outside of the Diocese of Athens, there are many such Catholics who are pure Greeks, being descended from converts to Catholicism in the time of the foreign feudal governments. These Catholics from the islands are the nucleus of the future prosperity of Catholicism in Greece, for gradually they are identifying themselves with the good of the country and its worthier ideals. Although they are still conscious of their foreign extraction, or former foreign sympathies, they now feel that their residence of centuries in Greek territory has made them Greeks. The real foreign element is made up of those Catholics who have migrated into Greece since it has become a free country. These are chiefly Italians and Maltese. Most of them are laborers who came to find employment on the railroads and other public works, or to live as fishermen or boatmen in the larger seaport towns. The exact number of Catholics cannot easily be estimated. Possibly in the entire Diocese of Athens there are about 10,000, of whom about one-fourth attend church regularly. From amongst the members of the Greek Church no converts are made to Catholicity. At least, they are extremely rare. It is against the positive and explicit law of the State for any other church to make proselytes from the established Greek or Orthodox Church. In the first National Assembly, which was held at Epidavros in 1822, it was declared that the Orthodox Church is the State Church. This declaration was repeated in the Assembly at Trcezen in 1827. Such has been the strict law ever since. But, except that propagandism is severely prohibited, the Catholic Church is perfectly free, is fairly treated, and highly respected.

Otho of Bavaria, the first king of regenerated Greece, was a Catholic. In his reign the Catholics were few. But arrangements were made that the Catholics could have a place of worship wherever they existed in sufficient numbers. After Athens became the seat of government, in 1834, an abandoned Turkish mosque was given to the Catholics as a place of worship. It is still used as a church, and is attended chiefly by Maltese and Italians who live in and around the Old Market, near the Tower of the Winds. Mass is said there on Sundays and Holy Days by a priest from the cathedral. After the lapse of some years, in 1876, an archbishopric was established in Athens. Those who have occupied this see are Archbishops Marangos, Zaffino, De Angelis, and Delendas. De Angelis was an Italian; Zaffino a native of Corfu; all the other archbishops were born in the Egean Islands. Within the Diocese of Athens there are now eight churches. Of these two are in Athens, and there is one in each of the towns of Peiraeevs (the harbor of Athens); Patna, the chief town of the Peloponnesos; Volos, the seaport of Thessaly; Lavrion (Ergasteria), in the silver mines of Attica; Herakleion, a Bavarian settlement in Attika; and Navplion in the Argolid. Most of the Catholics, however, are concentrated at Athens, Peiraeevs, and Patna. Of the two churches in Athens, one is the ancient mosque which Otho donated to the Catholics, and the other is the cathedral of St. Dionysios. It is a stone structure in basilica style, with a portico in front supported by marble columns. The interior is divided into three naves separated from each other by rows of columns of Tenian marble. The apse has been frescoed. This cathedral was built with money sent from abroad, especially from Rome. Besides the regular parishes there are missions here and there. Some years ago there were missions at Kalamata, Pyrgos, and Kalamaki. The only considerable one at present is at Lamia. Within the Diocese of Athens there are at present eleven priests engaged in parochial work: four at the cathedral in Athens, two at Patr, and one at each of the churches of Peiraeevs, Lavrion, Volos, Herakleion, and Navplion. All of them are secular priests.

French sisters conduct schools for girls in Athens and at the Peiraeevs, and Italian sisters have schools for girls at Patrae. They have boarders as well as day scholars. In the town of the Peirieevs there is a good school for boys conducted by French Salesian Fathers. Boarders and day scholars are accommodated, and both classical and commercial courses are given. But the most important school of the diocese is the Leonteion at Athens, founded by Pope Leo XIII, to supply ordinary and theological education for all Greek-speaking Catholics. It embraces a preparatory department, an intermediate or “hellenic” school, a gymnasium or college, and an ecclesiastical seminary. The average number of pupils and students for the past five years is about 175. The faculty consists of both priests and laymen. In its character as seminary, the Leonteion receives students from other dioceses as well as from that of Athens. Previous to the establishment of the Leonteion, candidates for the priesthood were educated chiefly in the Propaganda, at Rome, and in a diocesan seminary which existed in the Aegean town of Syra. The seminary at Syra has been closed, and it is now intended that all clerical training be given in the Leonteion and the Propaganda.

The only publication of note for the Catholics of this diocese is the “Harmonic”, a periodical devoted to Catholic interests. The “Harmonia” is supported chiefly by a subsidy from Rome. One does not expect to find a large number of noted scholars in so small a Catholic community. But all the clergy are men of wide education. Every one of them, with other accomplishments, speaks two or three other languages as well as the vernacular Greek of the country. Amongst the laymen special mention should be made of the brothers Kyparissos Stephanos and Klon Stephanos. Kyparissos, a mathematician whose fame extended far beyond the confines of Greece, was made a professor in the National University. His brother Klon, an anthropologist of repute, engaged in special historical, archaeological, and anthropological researches, became director of the Anthropological Museum of Athens. There are in Greece no Uniat Greek Catholics. All are of the Latin Rite. This is because most of these Catholics are from the West, either by descent of by birth, and they have kept their own Western rite. It might be better for Catholicism in Greece if the Catholics were to adopt the native rite, and to have their liturgy in the liturgical language of the country. But many of the Catholics of Athens would never willingly accept such a change, which they would regard rather from a national than from a religious point of view, and would consider a denial of their Italian, or other Western, origin.


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