Greece's economic woes hit country's Catholic Church

In the dusty harbor of Samos, a Greek Aegean Sea town, a narrow passageway leads to a locked door guarding the island’s only Catholic church. On either side, a scooter rental shop and a Chinese clothes store vie for customers, as tourists and locals seek shelter from the sun at a nearby tavern. 

When the Assumption church was built by monks in 1901 to serve a small Catholic population of tobacco and shipping merchants, Samos was still under Turkish rule. In 1970, when the last monk left, the building was sold to local retailers, leaving only an oak-paneled room at the back for worship.

That the chapel survives at all on this overwhelmingly Orthodox island is largely thanks to non-Greeks such as Arlene Philis, who has maintained her Catholic faith since coming here from Ireland three decades ago. 

“Like many islands, Samos has strong religious traditions,” said Philis, who runs a travel company. “But with just a few hundred Catholics left here, we’re hardly a significant presence. In the current economic crisis, we’re not expecting any sudden improvement.” 

With a population of 34,000, Samos was one of the Aegean’s richest islands when it united with Greece in 1912, and it counts the philosopher Pythagoras, born there in 580 B.C., as a one-time resident, along with Epicurus and Aesop. St. Paul stopped there, according to Acts 20:15, and wrote a letter to the people of nearby Ephesus. 

The island is home to Orthodox monasteries dating back to the 16th century, when the island was resettled after being depopulated by pirate attacks. 

But Catholics have also made a special contribution, largely through the island’s ancient sweet red wine, which was made there until 1970 by Catholic priests and is still traditionally drunk in the Vatican. 

For the Catholic Church as a whole, however, there are problems beneath the surface. 

“Although there’ve always been Catholics of various nationalities here, they’re widely dispersed around the villages, and we’ve no means of developing our pastoral work,” said the local ordinary, Archbishop Nikolaos Printesis, Catholic Metropolitan of the Aegean Sea, who’s also general secretary of Greece’s six-member bishops’ conference. 

“Most of our resources are already spent on travel and accommodation for visiting clergy, and we badly need resident priests again,” he said. “But although the state has a duty to support social and cultural life, we get nothing at all.” 

The Catholic Church has often reported discrimination in Greece, a European Union and NATO member-state, whose constitution declares Orthodoxy the “dominant religion” and requires public officeholders to take an Orthodox oath. 

Five years ago, Greek parliamentarians voted to review the official status of the Orthodox Church, which claims the spiritual loyalty of 97 percent of the country’s 10.4 million people. 

However, Archbishop Printesis told OSV his Church’s six dioceses and archdioceses, with 350,000 total members, still face problems from being denied juridical status. He believes Orthodox leaders still hold an effective veto over government policy toward religious minorities. 

Long-standing problems such as these have been overshadowed this year, as a threatened breakdown of the Greek economy threw Church life into disarray. 

In early July, the European Union and International Monetary Fund agreed to 110 billion euros ($154.3 billion) in emergency loans to help Greece pay its debts of $485 billion, after the country faced bankruptcy and possible withdrawal from the EU’s single currency. 

In return, the Athens parliament approved a draconian program of spending cuts and tax rises by the center-left government of Prime Minister George Papandreou.  

The price has been violent street protests in Athens and other cities, as Greek citizens felt the effects of the crisis in daily life, including unemployment of 23 percent and widespread poverty. 

In deep trouble

“This crisis could be the worst in our history — and Catholics are discontented and dissatisfied like other Greek citizens,” Archbishop Nikolaos Foskolos of Athens told OSV. 

“Our faithful can’t give any more, and our parishes and dioceses are in deep trouble. In a few months, we won’t be able to support our staffers and employees.” 

For now at least, according to Archbishop Foskolos, the crisis has affected Athens, Thessaloniki and other large cities worse than Greece’s island communities, where there’s “more effective solidarity.” 

But the Church’s Caritas organization and Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity have already reduced their aid for refugees and asylum-seekers, while a Samaritan-run hospice in Athens is to close later this year, along with several Catholic-run soup kitchens. 

The archbishop shares the public anger. He thinks Greek politicians have mismanaged the national economy and are now being forced “to do in a few years what they should have done over the last 30.” 

“Since we joined the EU in 1981, our rulers have wasted the money coming in from Europe, using it on their villas and rest homes and brushing aside the interests of the nation,” he told OSV. “We’ve been living in a state of falsehood, which has left them rich and the Greek people poor.” 

Other denominations have also been affected, including the Orthodox Church, which is reducing social and charitable work after being told its clergy must accept a 50 percent cut in their state-paid salaries. Greece’s Evangelical Church has had to take out a 30,000-euro ($42,000) loan and is cutting back its drug rehabilitation schemes and other projects. 

“It’s important to understand the problems in Greece are moral, not just economic,” said Dimitrios Boukis, the Evangelical Church’s general secretary. 

“Our country and others in Europe have grown materialistically, turning profit into a way of life and losing any sense of an ethos in work, public service and personal relations. In this situation, the churches have a key role to play as the soul of society. But since the state won’t grant us legal rights, our situation is highly fragile.” 

Determined to stay

Philis
Philis

Back on Samos, the Catholic Church’s prospects for the future will continue to depend on people such as Irish-born Philis. Catholics from Italy, Poland and Albania have come to Samos and supplemented the dwindling parish community. But although a Jesuit priest, Father Marios Psaltis, visits the island twice monthly to say Mass, only a few dozen ever attend. 

With the Church now having to cut back on its social and pastoral outreach, finding fresh impulses won’t be easy. 

“Since we’re just a small parish anyway, with few significant expenses and overheads, the crisis hasn’t created drastic problems for us yet,” Philis said. 

“Whatever happens, I was brought up a Catholic and am determined to stay that way,” she told OSV. 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.