The Italo-Albanians of Lungro, one hundred years after the Eparchy erection

In the northern part of Calabria, in some towns such as Lungro, Frascineto or Santa Sofia d’Epiro, it is easy to meet a priest who enters the church to celebrate the Eucharist with his wife and children in tow. And it is also usual to come across bilingual signs or road signs, in Italian and in arbëreshë, the ancient Albanian language that the inhabitants still speak in this part of the region that appears as a characteristic historical, social, linguistic and religious microcosm, set between the slopes of Pollino, where even the bishop is called eparch, because he leads an Eparchy, that is an ecclesiastical province whose name derives from the division of the districts into the Byzantine empire. It was February 13 of the year 1919, exactly one hundred years ago, when Benedict XV with the Bull “Catholici fideles graeci ritus” canonically erects the Eparchy of Lungro, for the Albanian faithful of the Greek-Byzantine rite of continental Italy which today counts 30 parishes of which 25 in the province of Cosenza, two in the province of Potenza, one in the province of Pescara, one in Lecce and one in Bari. It is a sui iuris jurisdiction, of the Greek-Byzantine rite, which directly depends on the Holy See, as are also the Eparchy of Piana degli Abanesi, in Sicily, made up of Pius XI in 1937, and the exarchic monastery of Grottaferrata in Rome, which Pope Leo XIII loved to call “oriental gem set in the papal tiara”. The Albanian communities, established in Italy in the fifteenth century because of the Ottoman advance, continue to maintain their religious rites of Eastern tradition until 1564 when Pope Pius IV submits them to the Latin bishops. After the Councilio di Trento we witness an attempt to “latinization” of these communities, which culminates in ferocious persecution by the feudal lords of the place. There are no shortage of martyrs: on 31st August 1666 in the castle of Terranova the papas Nicola Basta died in difficulty, opposing the latinization of Spezzano Albanese. Yet over time these “Latin” communities persist – because they are always subject to the Latin bishops – but who profess the Christian faith with rites of oriental tradition. With the Second Vatican Council the principle of predominance of the Latin rite over others is definitively overcome. For these Calabrian communities it is now possible to introduce in the Eucharistic celebration also “arbereshe” language elements, as the uxorato clergy, ie married, of the Eastern tradition, even if the candidate to the episcopate must still be elected among celibate priests. It is also important to point out a cultural fact: the arrival and stabilization of the Albanians in Calabria, with their Greek religious tradition, resurrects the Byzantine vocation that had characterized the region in its “second” era of Greekization, from the VI to the XI century, after that of the glorious “Magna Graecia”. The Italo-Albanians therefore offer a new opportunity to revive the Byzantine spirit: it is the story of a minority that manages to preserve its historical and liturgical identity within the institution of the Church of Rome; it is a story of passion, courage, love and resistance. A story that has much to say in our present, in this Mediterranean that is increasingly confirmed as a crossroads of cultures, peoples, uses and languages.