Monastic Orders in the Aegean (Middle Ages - Early Modern Period)

1. The stance of the Catholic Church

For many centuries, the Aegean had been a field of conflict between the eastern and western world. Regarding secular matters, western rulers never quit trying to conquer land of the Byzantine Empire or the empire itself, sometimes with crusades or by claiming it directly. After 1453, pirates, marooners and the Knights of Malta were the pioneers of western penetration in the Aegean. Regarding religious matters, the conflict between the Churches of Constantinople and Rome led to two schisms and deep hatred, which the Catholic Church attributed ideological characteristics to by stigmatizing the Orthodox as heretics. The conquest and sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, as well as the extended slave trade of “Greek heretics”, was based on this fundamental detail. When the Pope’s stance changed during the 16th century and the heretic character of the orthodox doctrine was revoked, less “Greeks” were being enslaved by western fortune-hunters. The independent religious policy of the Venetians led to the gradual change of treatment towards the orthodox. This policy was effective enough in order to moderate the Catholic Church’s aspirations for the “Naval State”, the islands of the Aegean and Ionian Sea, which were under the Venetian Rule. After the Italian dominance in the Aegean ended, and after a period with no action of the Papal Church, the penetration of Catholicism was assigned to the monastic orders, which created a network of dioceses and schools with the support of France and the initial tolerance of the local orthodox clergy, having thus considerable influence.

2. The Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes

The first time a monastic order was constantly present in the Aegean was after the Knights Hospitaller conquered Rhodes in 1309 and transferred their headquarter there. They tried to attract other western people in their dominion by granting feuds to them, with no results though. The combination of this unsuccessful policy with the fact that the knights’ property didn’t have a hereditary character didn’t result to the establishment of permanent feudal settlements. The preservation of the preceding conditions favored to a great extent some more viable conditions of coexistence with the enslaved population. The Knights’ rule on Rhodes ended in 1522, with the second major siege of Rhodes by the Ottomans.

3. Catholic communities and missions

Chronologically, the Knights’ expulsion coincided with the absolute dominance of the Ottoman and the beginning of the Counter-Reformation in Western Europe, triggering the new phase of the catholic penetration in the Aegean. In other places though, such as Kimolos, the founding of catholic communities was a result of the settling of western sailors and pirates there during the 17th century. At places where the Venetians and the Genoese ruled, the Catholic Church was consolidated and its action began from there with missions. The dominions of the Genoese were taken over by the Ottomans in 1566. The missions were organized and supported by the “Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith” (Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide), which was founded in 1622 in Rome aiming to consolidate and spread Catholicism. The plan formulated concerning the Aegean was a part of a broader effort made in two fronts: dealing with Protestantism in the West, and spreading the catholic influence to the East (emphasizing in Poland and Ukraine) outnumbering the orthodox.

Regarding religious conflicts, the Latin rule on Chios (1346-1566) was very important. The Genoese avoided feudal type settlements and permitted the preservation of many local customs. The most powerful catholic community of the Aegean was established there, and the action of the monastic orders was therefore very soon allowed. From the second half of the 14th century, Franciscan and Dominican monasteries were established there. The Jesuits went to Chios in 1592 and found fertile soil for their work. They founded a school, which locals embraced.

The Jesuits introduced the catholic way of approaching the orthodox and catholic populations of the Aegean mostly through education, namely by building schools, through fulfilling religious duties with dedication, by preaching in the demotic language and by translating religious books into Greek.

Before missionaries started going systematically to Chios, where they the Jesuits had their see, they toured the Aegean offering their services to the catholic communities left.

From 1622 on appeared the Capuchins in the Aegean, sometimes contending with the Jesuits. During the 17th century, both orders spread on almost every Aegean island. On some islands, women’s monasteries had also been established, e.g. on Santorini (Dominicans) and Naxos (Ursulines and the Devout). Despite missionaries’ mobilization and the fervent support of France since the late 17th century, catholic communities diminished or died out. The Catholics of Tinos and Syros were the exception. These populations have been preserved until now. A strong foothold for the Catholic Church on most Aegean islands was the presence of western pirates. They supported it in many ways. Above all, they contributed economically: donations to dioceses and helping priests were ordinary. In several cases, they were the founders of catholic communities (e.g. Milos, Kimolos). Another source of income for the Catholic Church was real estate, the greatest part of which was gone though after the Ottomans dominated. Despite the efforts of the Venetian and French diplomacy, only a few of its old assets came in the hands of missionaries and bishops.

4. Reactions against the consolidation of the Catholic Church in the Aegean

While the Catholic Church was trying to consolidate its presence in the Aegean, the differences between the Western rulers interested in the area grew bigger. The Venetians reacted generally to the revitalization of Catholicism on the Greek peninsula out of fear of the increasing influence of France and the Pope. They tried many times to hinder the settling of missionaries (Jesuits and Capuchins) on the islands, appealing to the Ottoman administration. Their goal was for the churches and monasteries to be granted to Venetian monks and priests. From the late 17th century on though, something changed on the islands within the Orthodox Church itself. A local hierarchy that assumed power developed. It had the same interests with the Patriarchy, holding at the same time an anti-Latin and anti-Catholic stance. The Latin influence began to diminish between 1699 and 1760, whereas the catholic influence ceased rapidly in the late 18th century.