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September 6, 2009

Advice From Metropolitan of Rhodes Shows How Ecumenism Can Go Too Far

[My title refers to the highlighted part in the article below. I believe the advice goes too far and is misleading, especially on an island that is predominantly Orthodox. More can be read about the Latin Churches on Rhodes here. - J.S.]

Franciscan Helps Catholics Find Niche on Orthodox Rhodes

By Jonathan Luxmoore
Catholic News Service
Sunday, September 06, 2009

RHODES, Greece (CNS)—On a side street of this bustling island town, a gaunt priest in a brown robe quietly inspects the renovation work being done on his church.

Beyond the outer wall, boutiques and taverns run uphill to an ancient Crusader fortress. In the distance, beyond the harbor, the blue Aegean Sea shimmers in the sunlight.

When Father John Luke, an English Franciscan, was sent to Rhodes in 2004 as Catholic vicar general of the archdiocese, religious practices were in decline at the Church of Our Lady of Victory, known locally as Santa Maria.

Since then, he has boosted the number of parishioners to around 4,000 and helped revive Catholic devotions on a dozen neighboring islands. While minority churches in this predominantly Orthodox country frequently complain of discrimination, Father Luke insists he enjoys excellent ties with the local government and Orthodox metropolitan.

"Having spent 20 years at a monastery in Jerusalem, it was a big challenge for me," the Sheffield-born priest said in a Catholic News Service interview.

"Although Greeks are easygoing, islands like this are still deeply Christian, with icons and crucifixes everywhere," he said. "What's most important is to find a place for small communities like ours by showing we're a normal, creative part of everyday life."

The church's image on Rhodes was badly damaged under a 1912-48 Italian protectorate, when Catholic culture was officially encouraged at the expense of Orthodox traditions. Recently, however, ecumenical links have relaxed and improved. For instance, in 2007, when Greece's Catholic bishops met on the island with the Vatican's nuncio, the bishops were invited to dinner by Metropolitan Kyrillos of Rhodes, exarch of the Cyclades.

Several factors have made Rhodes something of an ecumenical oasis, said Father Luke.

He said the Orthodox Church in Rhodes falls under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, based in Istanbul, Turkey, rather than the Greek Holy Synod in Athens. Since Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is more open to relations with Catholics than Orthodox leaders in mainland Greece, this has given Metropolitan Kyrillos greater leeway with other churches.

With no resident Catholic bishop, hierarchical rivalries are also absent. The Franciscans remained on the island when Rhodes was captured by the Turks from the Knights of St John in 1522, and Father Luke thinks the Franciscans are appreciated as a historical part of the island's Christian life.

The priest said he keeps Metropolitan Kyrillos notified of Catholic activities and always acknowledges the Orthodox pre-eminence on the island.

"Our ecumenical efforts go through the right channels, and no one accuses us of poaching Orthodox church members," the Franciscan said.

"The metropolitan says he has no problem with Orthodox Christians attending Catholic liturgies here, provided they receive holy Communion at Orthodox churches — and with one on every street corner, no one could argue with that," the priest said.

"The local media are positive toward us, and the mayor and municipality have done a lot to help," said the 51-year-old Franciscan. "While some Orthodox clergy are less than enthusiastic about ecumenical unity, I think we've opened a new chapter with them and are moving forward together."

At his parish on Kathopouli Street, Father Luke is full of plans.

He has restored his parish library, some of it dating from the 15th century, and hopes to find artists and decorators to continue renovation work on the rest of the church.

Although readings are done in various languages at Santa Maria, the language of the Mass is Greek and the church flies a Greek flag. It also offers Greek-language lessons and runs an extensive charity network.

With a Greek organist, German treasurer, Italian archivist, Philippine catechist and Polish assistant priest, Father Luke is proud of Santa Maria's multiethnic character and hopes to go on playing a useful, respected role in local church life.

"It's important for us, as foreigners, to be open about who we are, show our love for Greece and give a positive impression," he told CNS. "If Catholics don't like this, they can always go elsewhere."