April 6, 2021

How Catholics Celebrate Easter in Orthodox Majority Greece

In a recent interview, Roman Catholic Archbishop Sevastianos Rossolatos of Athens spoke to Skai.gr about how Catholics celebrate Easter in Greece. In Greece, because the great majority of the population are Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics do not celebrate Easter with the rest of the Catholic world according to the Gregorian calendar reckoning, but according to the reckoning of the Julian calendar with the rest of the local population.

Excerpts from the interview are translated below:

How is Catholic Easter celebrated? Is it different from the Orthodox?

Easter commemorates and helps us to experience the Passover of Jesus Christ, his passage from the Passion to Death and then to the Resurrection and this is common to all Christians.

The ritual differs from region to region because the culture and civilization element of each people, of each region, always plays a role. There are not only the liturgical rites of Roman and Byzantine. There is the Armenian. There is the Chaldean. The Ethiopian. The Egyptian. There is the liturgical rite in India. There are many liturgical rites. It is the expression of faith and the experience of the mystery of salvation, of the work of salvation that Jesus Christ accomplished with his death and resurrection as each people with its own culture has defined over the centuries.

In Greece in particular, is Catholic Easter celebrated together with the Orthodox?

Yes of course. This happened about 50 years ago. At first the Catholic bishops asked the parish priests to investigate the opinions of the faithful, because this desire for the co-celebration of Easter was beginning to be discussed and the reason was that marriages between Catholics and Orthodox began to multiply, at least on the islands where many Catholics lived - in Syros 33% of the population are Catholic. In these islands the differences between Easter was very much sensed and mixed marriages was very noticeable because one spouse had entered Carnival and the other Lent, one was in Lent and the other was already at Easter. So a family felt separated, while the family itself is an important factor of unity between people. That is why the Catholic Diocese of the 1970s, after receiving the opinion of the faithful, decided that from now on we will celebrate Easter on the same date as the Orthodox, so that we have the same period of Easter.

At the same time, there was another social reason. The students. When the Orthodox students had the Easter holiday, the Catholics had finished Easter. When the Catholics had Holy Week, they had to go to school, so this was also regulated by the co-celebration.

What are the common Easter customs of Catholics with Orthodox?

The Catholic population, especially in the Cyclades where they remained even after the departure of the Venetians who had conquered the Cyclades mainly, as well as the dominance of the Ottoman Empire, was initially the local Greeks the part of which gradually began for different reasons in each island among some families to switch from the Byzantine rite to the Latin or Roman rite resulting in the point when in the 18th century it became clear that we are two separate Churches, those who followed the Byzantine rite felt Orthodox, those who followed the Latin felt they were Catholic. Since those who followed the Byzantine switched to Latin, they wanted to maintain their customs and traditions, so even though the ceremonies were performed according to the Roman tradition, the faithful continued to process the epitaphion on Good Friday because they wanted to emphasize the Resurrection and decorated the epitaphion. That is why on the day of the Resurrection in the epitaphion they took out the statue of the buried Christ and put the statue of the Risen Christ and turned the canopy of the epitaphion, but this time decorated again with flowers in honor of the Resurrection.

What are the differences between Catholic and Orthodox Holy Week?

An example is the blessing of the holy oils. In the Orthodox Church they are blessed by the Patriarch (the holy myron) while in the Roman rite they are blessed by the local bishop. Each bishop blesses the oil of each anointing. This is blessed on Holy Wednesday night in a service. On Holy Thursday, the Last Supper is celebrated with a characteristic element: the bishop or the pastor, if he has the people, washes the feet of twelve believers in imitation of Jesus Christ. Good Friday is the service of the Presanctified Gifts as is done in the Orthodox Church, ie the readings at the beginning, the word of God, then an extensive prayer and then the veneration of the Cross (crucifixion) and then the divine communion. After that we go out for the procession of the epitaphion.

Holy Saturday is the vigil of Saturday night - I must tell you that in the Catholic Church in the 1960s (1962-1965) the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican had as its first occupation to make a liturgical reform so that the various ceremonies with all the overlaps that had been made and with elements that through the centuries came in and were irrelevant or aggravating for a ceremony, all these were clarified by the liturgical committees and restored the liturgical ceremonies to their original spirit but with a modern expression. We no longer have long-lasting ceremonies that last 1.5 and 2 hours or more but are adapted to the needs of modern man. So Easter night has a special color.

Easter begins in the dark, the church is in the dark and the liturgist at the entrance of the church blesses the fire from which he lights the Easter candle. He holds the Easter candle and enters the church that is in the darkness chanting the light of Christ. From this candle little by little the companions of the liturgist get the light, then all the believers, and so the whole church is illuminated with candles, which point to the fact that Christ is the light of the world and we are enlightened, we know the truth and the new life from Jesus Christ who was resurrected that night.

Then we have the word of God and the sermon and then there is a very important ceremony which is the blessing of the water of baptism after which if there are baptisms the baptisms take place - this is what the Church did in the first centuries, on the night of the Resurrection. On Easter it baptized mainly the catechumens who were preparing to become Christians by catechism - and the faithful renew their baptismal vows. They are not rebaptized naturally but renew their commitment to live as disciples of Christ. After that the liturgy continues. This is the special thing about the Latin liturgy on Easter night.  

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.