BRIEF HISTORICAL REVIEW OF THE HOLY ARCHDIOCESE OF CRETE

by Prof. Theocharis Detorakis
University of Crete

 

The Church of Crete is Apostolic.The first preachers of Christianity in the island of Crete were Hebrewcretans, who had been present during Peter's preaching at Pentecost in Jerusalem, according to the Acts of the Apostles (2:11). However, its first nucleus was set up by Paul, the Apostle, during his third apostolic peregrination in about 64 A.D. Paul entrusted Titus, the first bishop of the island, with the systematic task of christianization of the island. The expanding christianity encountered, in Crete too, the strong oppposition of the heathenism. During the persecution by Decius (249-251 A.D.), Crete offered the Ten surmountable martyrs ("kallinikoi martyres"), who have been its great glory thence forth. Whenever the byzantine writers refer to Crete, they do not ommit mentioning the ten surmountable martyrs as a highest distinction of honour for the island. With the expansion of Christianity, the Cretan Church was organized to a supreme bishop and bishops, who constituted the local synod. The head of the Church of Crete had the title of the Archbishop and Crete was one of the twelve archdioceses of the Illyria (as the Balkan peninsula was called). In terms of seniority, he held the eleventh place among the 64 archdioceses of the Ecumenical Throne of Constantinople.

We do not know the immediate successors of Titus in the early centuries of Christianity. Philippos is mentioned at the end of the 2nd century and later Cyril and Eumenios, all bishops of Gortys, who are also honoured as saints. In the first byzantine era, the seat of the Archbishop of the Church of Crete was the city of Gortys, which was also the administrative centre of the island, since the Roman occupation era. A magnificent wooden-roofed basilica was erected here in the 6th century, probably during the Justinian times, in honour of Apostle Titus, the first bishop and patron (protector) of the island, and that church became a great shrine, one of the greatest in Christian East.

The local bishoprics, the number of which varied from twelve up to twenty at different times, were under the archbishop of Crete.At the beginning of the 8th century, the number of the Cretan bishoprics was twelve, and Crete was called "the twelve throne island" Up to that time, the Archbishopric of Crete belonged, administratively, to the Throne of Rome, but thi iconoclasts Byzantine Emperors attached it (in 754 A.D approximately) to the Throne of Constantinople, because the Pope of Rome was following an iconophil policy. In the critical era of iconoclasm, Saint Andrew of Jerusalem was the Archbishop of Crete. He was one of the greatest personalities in Byzantium, a brillian public speaker and hymnographer, who shephered the Church of Crete for about thirty years (712-740), he exhibited rare administrative qualities and formed close love bonds with his flock. Some time later, another scholar prelate, Elias, shephered the Church of Crete. He took part in the 7th Ecumenical Synod (787), with all the then bishops of Crete. Their names can be found in the minutes of that Synod: Epiphanios of Lambi, Theodore of Heraklion, Anastasios of Knossos, Meliton of Kydonia, Leon of Kissamos, Theodore of Souvrita, Leon of Phoeinix, John of Arcadia, Epiphanios of Eleftherna, Foteinos of Kandanos, Sissinios of Herronissos.

The period of the Arabic occupation (in about 824-951 A.D.) is an incision to the political and ecclessiastical history of Crete. The Arabs founded a singular emirate here, whose capital was Chandax, today's Heraklion. Crete got separated from the main body of the byzantine empire and from the Church of Constantinople for about 135 years, and plunged into copmlete darkness. Our knowledge about the political and ecclessiastical matters of the island during that period are very insufficient. During that period we recognize some names of metropolitan bishops of Crete, who live off the island "deplaced"

Certainly the Ecumenical Patriarchate kept on ordaining heads of the Church of Crete, as titulars, outside the island.

After Nikiforos Fokas regained the island in 961, the so-called second byzantine era begins in Crete (961-1204). Chandax is now a political and religious centre, thus becoming the seat of the head of the Church of Crete. According the then prevailing ecclessiastical order in the climate of the Ecumenical Throne of Constantinople, the church of Crete is a metropolis and the head has the title of Metropolite (metropolitan bishop) with twelve bishops under him. A splendid cathedral was built in Chandax, again in honour of Appostle Titus, patron of the Church of Crete, most probably in the same place that today's same-named church is located. Among the known metropolites, Elias is mentioned, an excellent scholar (early part of 11th century), John (in about 1166-1172) and Nicholas. This latter one took refuge in Nicaea of Bithany, shortly after 1204, when the Venetians occupied Crete. The bishops Gregory of Petra and John of Arcadia left with him, whereas the bishop Paul of Knossos and the bishops of Herronissos and Agrion, whose names we do not know, remained on the island.

During the very long period of the Venetian occupation (1204-1669) the ecclessiastical situation in Crete changed radically. The venetians sent away the orthodox prelates of the island, named the Church of Crete Archdiocese, according the latin models, and appointed a latin (roman catholic) archbishop and latin bishops, obviously attempting to convert the orthodox cretan people, who remained fanatically faithful to their fathers' denomination, to roman catholics. It is an admirable fact that the orthodox population in Crete resisted the oppressive strain of the latin Church, even without bishops. The numerous orthodox monasteries, hard-working abbots, scholar monks and the simple clergymen in villages and towns sustained the orthodox religion in Crete during this critical times. The monasteries were the major and powerful centres of the byzantine tradition and the orthodox religion in the venetian occupied Crete. The orthodox monasteries of Crete raised an unbreakable barrier between the venetian conquerors and the harassed population, thus keeping intact not only the religious but also the national unity of the island in excessively hard times. The head priests, whose seats were in the towns of Crete and the major villages in the countryside, were men of the regime and uniats by denomination, being paid by the government, without having always a high national and religious conscience.

The venetians strictly prohibited even the presence of orthodox bishops in Crete, so the Ecumenical Patriarchate made sure to maintain the title of the orthodox head of the Church of Crete as "displaced", that is outside the physical borders of his jurisdiction. In this way it elected metropolites or bestowed the title of the "President of Crete" on prelates stationed outside of Crete, usually of Cretan origin. The distinguished prelates and scholars Nikiforos Moschopoulos (in about 1285-1322) and Anthimos, metropolite of Athens (+1371), both Cretans, had also the title of the "president" of the Church of Crete.

The most important interference into Crete by the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the venetian occupation, was the mission of a hard-working theologian and preacher of the Gospels, Joseph Vriennios. Vriennios, who remained in Crete for about twenty years (1381-1401), sustained the orthodox religion in the island and faced successfully the favourably disposed to the roman catholic denomination theologians of those times, such as Maximos Chrissovergis and Demetrios Kidonis.

The Turkish occupation (1645-1898), among other things, also changed the religious situation in Crete. One of the first civil acts of the turkish administration was the re-establishment of the orthodox prelacy in the Church of Crete. Neophytos Patellaros, a monk from the historical monastery of Arcadi and a relative of the then Ecumenical Patriarche, had been ordained metropolite of Crete already since 1647, probably by suggestion of the great interpreter Panagiotis Nikousios, who observed the turkish campaign in Crete. This concession, which was by all means in accordance with the invariable policy of the Othoman Empire, aimed among other things at the psychological influence of the orthodox Cretans, who would see now orthodox prelates for the first time after the long period of the venetian donination in the island. The oldest information about the existence of bishopricks in the turkish dominated Crete is found in a manuscript of 1659, that is ten years before the fall of Chandax (1669). Twelve bishoprics were under the metropolite of Crete, which also maintained their historical names: Gortys, Knossos, Arcadia, Herronissos, Avlopotamos, Agrion (=Rethymnon), Lambi, Kidonia, Iera, Petra, Sitia and Kissamos. The number of these bishoprics varied from 10 to 12 during the turkish domination and it is interesting to know that even an assistant bishop to the metropolitan one is mentioned shortly before 1821, who has the title of Diopoleos.

After 1700, the metropolite of Crete bears the title "of Crete and all Europe". It is the official title still borne today. His bishopric region included the ancient bishopric of Gortys as well as the distant province of Sfakia, which remained practically unshephered due to its long distance from the metropolis. Apart from the admininstrative problems, that the metropolite of Crete faced during the gloomy times of the turkish domination, the lack of a cathedral had been a major one. After the fall of Chandax the turks acknowledged and conceded only one church to the christians of Chandax, Saint Matthew, that was a monastery dependancy of the great monastery of Sinai. The relations between the Sinaits and the Metropolite were not high. The turks would not allow the erection of a church and the Metropolite was obliged to wander and often to stay in nearby monasteries. The energetic Metropolite or Crete, Gerasimos Letitzis, (from the village Venerato, province of Temenos), succeeded, after hard struggles, in having the small church of Saint Minas built and establishing it as a cathedral. This church, that had been consecrated on 10th November 1735, but was acknowledged officially as a cathedral by a legal ecclessiastical act on 19th June 1742, was connected with the history and life of the turkish dominated Chandax. It became the centre and the focus of the small and scared christian community of Heraklion, and Saint Minas was made the symbol of the supernatural protection of the city. The church was adorned with precious icons and votive offerings and it is a true museum of ecclessiastical art today, and the pride of the historic city of Heraklion as well. The metropolite, Gerasimos Pardalis, had six large icons brought from the monastery of Vrondissi in 1800, which had been painted by Michael Damaskinos, the famous painter, to decorate the church.

During those hard times, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had been helping the Church of Crete in various ways. The most important one is that, making good use of its granted privileges, it hurried to place the large monasteries of Crete under its protection declaring them "of Holy Cross origin ("stavropigiaka"). Certainly for that reason, that is for the provision of their safety, the first metropolite of the turkish domination period, Neophitos Patellaros, conceded some rich and large cretan monasteries to the Ecumenical Patriarchate already since 1654, such as Arcadi, Arsanios, Holy Trinity of Tzagarolon, Holy Virgin of Gdernetos, Chrissopigis of Chanea, Jerusalem of Malevizi etc.

During the great revolution of 1821, the church of Crete lost its leader. In the great massacre of Heraklion on 24th June 1821, that people remember as "the great ravage" ("o megalos arpentes"), the enraged turks massacred the metropolite of Crete, Gerasimos Pardalis, and five more bishops: Neofitos of Knossos, Joachim of Herronissos, Ierotheos of Lambis, Zacharias of Sitia and Kallinikos, the titular bishop of Diopolis. For more than two years the Church of Crete remained again without a head. In 1823, following consent of Sultan Mahmout D', the Patriarchate consecrated Kallinikos from Anchialos (1823-1830), metropolite of Crete and attached the bishopric of Knossos, which was abolished, to the metropolis.

The bishoprics of Crete incorporated (were merged) into 5, when Meletios A' Nikoletakis (1830-1834) was the metropolite of Crete, because of the high decrease of the population. The ex-bishoprics of Knossos, Lambi and Herronissos were incorported to the metropolis. In 1862, the bishoprics of Crete were re-established except the one of Knossos, which was abolished permanently and attached to the metropolis. The hard-working metropolite of Crete, Dionissios Charitonides, the later Ecumenical Patriarch, Dionissios E', founded the new big cathedral of Saint Minas. The last metropolite of the turkish domination era in Crete, was Timotheos Kastrinogiannakis (1870-1898). The magnificent church of Saint Minas finished and consecrated (the consecration took place on 18th April 1895), during his prelacy.

The status of the Church of Crete was settled by the constitutional Law number 276/1900 of the Cretan State. The bishoprick of Herronissos was abolished permanently according to that Code and was also attached to the Metropolis of Crete. In this way a situation, which is in effect until today with minimal modifications, was stabilized, according to the constitutional Law number 4149/1961. The head of the Church of Crete is elected by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and his enthronement is confirmed by a Greek State decree.

In 1962, according to the Ecumenical Patriarchate enactment 812, all the bishops of Crete became metropolitan bishops, whereas sometime later by the enactment 283/28th February 1967, the metropolis of Crete was elevated to a Archdiocese and the Metropolitan was elevated to an Archbishop.

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