Paschal Retreat 2023

Ss. Philippi et Jacobi Apostolorum

After the western celebration of Easter, His Grace ✠Jerome retired to the Greek island of Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea for a customary Paschal retreat. This year his visit coincided with the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Pascha and His Grace’s generous hosts included him in their family celebration of this important religious festival common to all Christians. Though known primarily as a summer resort, Zakynthos has an incredible history very relevant to the history and knowledge of Latin Catholics.

The great Battle of Lepanto took place just off the coast of the island and islanders participated in the battle to protect Europe from Ottoman incursion. On 7 October 1571, the Holy League, a coalition of Catholic states, fought off the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras. The Holy League, arranged by Pope Pius V and largely financed by Philip II of Spain, dealt a significant blow to the Ottoman fleet. The Ottoman forces were sailing from Lepanto, their naval station, when they encountered the Holy League’s fleet sailing from Messina, Sicily. The Spanish Empire and the Venetian Republic were the primary powers in the coalition, with Venice providing most of the ships.

During the period of the Byzantine Empire, specifically from the 7th to the 12th centuries, Zakynthos was a part of the Theme of Cephallenia. The local bishopric was also subordinate to Cephallenia, and later to the Metropolis of Corinth. In 880, the island was attacked by the Aghlabids, but the Byzantine navy led by Nasar was able to defeat them. The Pisans looted Zakynthos in 1099, while it was captured by Margaritus of Brindisi in 1185. From then on, it became a part of the County palatine of Cephalonia and Zakynthos. A Latin bishopric was also established on the island, alongside the existing Orthodox one.

During Mehmed II’s reign in 1460, the Ottoman Turks gained control over most of the Peloponnese except for a few towns controlled by Venice. This is reflected in the architecture of the island’s churches, many – despite earthquakes – still possessing an imposing pastiche reproduction of the campanile of St Mark’s cathedral, Venice, a tradition that has continued in new-builds. Zakynthos was captured by the Ottoman Empire in 1478 but conquered by Venice in 1482. It remained under Venetian control until 1797 before passing under French rule and becoming part of the autonomous Septinsular Republic in 1800, before returning to the French in 1807. Seized by the British in 1809, it formed part of the United States of the Ionian Islands until the Union of the Ionian Islands with Greece in 1864.

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In World War II during the period of German occupation in Greece, Mayor Loukas Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos bravely defied the Nazi orders to provide a list of the Jewish community members in their town, which was intended for deportation to the death camps. Instead, they chose to hide the Jewish people in nearby rural villages, ultimately saving their lives. As per available sources, all or most of the town’s 275 Jewish inhabitants in Zakynthos were able to survive the war. Both Karrer and Chrysostomos were later recognized as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Unfortunately, despite their heroic efforts, over 80% of Greek Jews were still deported to the death camps and became victims of the Holocaust. The film above with the last remaining survivor of this period provides a fascinating retelling of these heroic endeavours from an eyewitness and beneficiary.

His Grace was able on this occasion to visit the main town of Zante’s museums, including a very interesting exhibition of historic icons from the island’s many churches, some rescued from earthquake damage. Notable among the rich collection of typical Byzantine icons ranging from the 16C to the present day, were icons from the later-Venetian rule period of the 18C reflecting the influence of western style art.

✠Jerome was also able to visit the cathedral of St Denis and visit the tomb and relics of St Dionysius (Denis) of Zante, a 16th-century Orthodox Christian Archbishop of Aegina. He was born on the island in 1546. He is the patron saint of Zakynthos (sometimes called Zante in English) and his body is incorrupt, his feasts are celebrated on August 24 and December 17.

St Dionysius’s ancestry is traced back through the Venetian conquerors to a family tree whose roots lay in part in Italy and in part Normandy. Born into the ruling class at a time when Venice was a dominant force in the area, Dionysios is said to have been baptised into the Christian faith with the name Draganinos by no less a godfather than Gerasimos of Kefalonia, who was himself destined to become a venerated saint of the Church. Dionysios came of the royal household of the Venetians through his mother, but he led no one to believe – from childhood through maturity – that he was anything but a child of God. He formed lasting friendships with his fellow islanders from all walks of life.

With the death of his parents, Dionysios entered the Monastery of Strophades, where he was in due course tonsured a monk with the name of Daniel. By the time that he was ordained priest in 1577, he was already a seasoned campaigner for Christ and was highly respected not only for his piety but also for his wisdom and beneficence. He had long since given his entire worldly goods to the poor and had earned a reputation for kindness and charity which had carried to the mainland among the clergy and laity alike.

On a mission to the Holy Land where Dionysios anticipated the exhilaration of walking where Jesus had trod, he stopped over in Piraeus to book passage to Palestine but never completed his journey. Greeted warmly by church dignitaries, he was prevailed upon by Archbishop Nikanor of Athens to assume the episcopy of the island of Aegina, an appointment that was heartily approved by the Ecumenical Patriarch. In 1572 he assumed the post and with it the name of Dionysios.

One rainy night, a desperate man came to the monastery and asked for help. This man had just committed a murder and as the monk found out, through continuous questions, this man had killed the brother of Dionyssios and the family of the dead man was chasing after him. Despite the bitterness and his lament, Dionysios provided shelter to the murderer and even helped him to escape the island, to save his life, because, as he said, he wanted to prevent another crime. Local tradition affirms that the murderer later returned and became a monk in that same monastery. This story certainly touched the heart of the Zakynthians.

The saintliness of this prelate had been evidenced in many ways throughout his service to the Messiah, but as Archbishop it took on greater proportions. As a result he was sought out by pilgrims from all around seeking his blessing and benediction that seemed to produce true miracles. While he found these manifestations gratifying, he was overwhelmed by his immense popularity, and after much soul searching asked for and was given permission to return to the comparative tranquility of his native island. Dionysios seemed to have the favour of the Lord and emerged from the seclusion of his monastic retreat from time to time to share this divine spark with his fellow Christians. He died peacefully at the age of seventy-five on December 17, 1622.

As usual, ✠Jerome joyfully blessed the crops and animals of the farm he was visiting with Paschal water that he had brought with him. The Therianos family, who hosted him, are a renowned Zakynthian family with an ancient olive grove they have farmed for centuries since 1489. Their organic olive oil has won multiple gold medals in international competitions, even in Italy and Spain. Additionally, they are one of the last remaining farms to produce raisins, which were once a significant source of wealth for the island until World War II. The farm also produces honey and wine!The family are long-standing friends of a member of the Brighton Oratory’s congregation in the UK and in 2022 His Grace played host to them on a sightseeing tour of London.

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