By John Sanidopoulos
Panagia Katholiki was built over the ruins of an ancient Byzantine church, and according to an inscription over the door of the narthex it was built in 1839. The epithet "Katholiki" implies that she is universally venerated.
Last week a strange phenomenon took place in Kremasti, Rhodes in the Cathedral of Panagia Katholiki a few days before its feast, which celebrates annually on August 23rd in honor of the Apodosis of the Dormition of the Theotokos. An oil lamp hanging in front of the icon of the Panagia began to swing without ceasing, causing hundreds of Rhodians and beyond to come and witness the strange phenomenon and venerate the Panagia.
When such events take place, some believers immediately think they are signs of impending doom. Last week, however, the Metropolitan of Rhodes urged the people to not think it a negative thing that such things take place, but rather they show that the Panagia is present among the people. This is true.
Yet, it is not without basis why the people fear such incidents. Rhodians have a history with this icon. In 1914, just prior to the outbreak of World War I, the sacred icon of Panagia Katholiki began weeping, and it wept for a long period of time. People who witnessed this immediately associated it with World War I. The same thing happened in September and October of 1939, right after Hitler invaded Poland on September 1 and World War II broke out. Those who witnessed the strange phenomenon of 1914 witnessed this as well, and saw the two incidents as warnings towards the people and gave hope that the Panagia was indeed present among the faithful. This event was written about in many newspapers throughout Greece and the Diaspora, and the newspaper Δωδεκανησιακή Αυγή (Dodecanese Dawn) on 15 November 1939 even made the event into a front page story.
When the icon began to weep during World War II, all roads in Rhodes led to Kremasti, and the people ran to venerate the sacred icon of the Panagia. According to sources of the time, it caused such a disturbance that the government authorities ordered an investigation, lest a greedy monk or priest was doing this to deceive the people with false hope or for them to collect a profit. They examined every part of the icon and did chemical tests, but nothing could explain the phenomenon. When the icon was placed back in its place, it began weeping as before.
This event was further confirmed by a young boy with eye problems who made a vow with his grandmother to remain in the church four days prior to these events, seeking miraculous healing from the Queen of Heaven. During this time he saw a young blind girl touch the icon and receive her sight.
All this took place when the tyrannical Cesare Maria De Vecchi governed the Italian occupied Dodecanese from 1936 to 1940, who tried to force these islands to be Italian. He and those before him beginning in 1912 tried to suppress Orthodox Christianity and only acknowledged Catholic rites in the Dodecanese. The Italian authorities also tried to limit the power of the Orthodox Church without success by trying to set up an autonomous Dodecanesian church. Fascist youth organizations such as Opera Nazionale Balilla were introduced on the islands, and the Italianization of names was encouraged by the Italian authorities. Under the governorship of De Vecchi (1936 to 1940), a staunch and dull fascist, the Italianization efforts became more brutal than previously. The Italian language became compulsory in education and the public life, with Greek being only an optional subject in schools. While under Lago the inhabitants were allowed to elect their own mayors, in 1937 the fascist system was set up to the islands, with newly appointed podestàs for each municipality (comune). In 1938, Italian Racial Laws were introduced to the islands along with a series of decrees equalizing local legislation with Italian law.
Mussolini stated that Rhodes had merely returned to its ancestral home after being annexed by Italy, as the Dodecanese had been an important part of the Roman Empire. Major Italian archaeological efforts from the 1930s onward were intended to discover Roman antiquities and thus strengthen the Italian claim on the islands.
Panagia Katholiki also was not allowed Orthodox services at this time, and only Catholic priests could serve there.
So when the tyrannical De Vecchi could not find an explanation for this extraordinary event of the icon of the Panagia weeping, he had no other choice but to concede to the fact that the people of Rhodes were faithful and strong Orthodox Christians who had no inclination to be made Italians and convert to Catholicism.