The Church of Crete

The Church of Crete is an ApostolicEraChurch: the first Christian nucleus was formed here around 64 A.D. by St. Paul, during his 4th missionary journey. Paul assigned to his disciple Titus, who became the first Bishop of Crete, the systematic teaching of Christianity on the island.  Christianity encountered strong resistance from the Nations on Crete. During Emperor Decius’ persecution (249-251 A.D.) a group of ten Christian men suffered martyrdom; they are the Ten Callinica Holy Martyrs of Crete, and the glory of the island.  When Christianity expanded, the CretanChurch was organised with a Primus and Bishops, who made up the local Synod. The Primus of the Church of Crete held the title of Archbishop and Crete was one of the twelve Illyrian Archdioceses (Illyria was the name of the Balkan Peninsula at the time).  As for Ecclesiastical embassies, Crete ranked 11 among the 64 Archdioceses of the Ecumenical See of Constantinople.

During the first Byzantine period, the Primus of the Church of Crete was seated in Gortys (present day Gortyna), the administrational centre of the island since the Roman period. This is where a magnificent basilica with a wooden roof was built in the 6th century – probably during Justinian’s reign – in honour of St. Titus, the first bishop and patron of the Cretan Church; this church evolved into one of the major pilgrimage destinations in the Christian east.

The Archbishop of Crete was in charge of the local dioceses, the number of which ranged from twelve to twenty at different times. In the beginning of the 8th century, there were twelve of them and Crete was called ‘dodecathrone’, i.e. ‘having twelve sees’. Until that time, the Archdiocese of Crete was under the administrative see of Rome, but the iconomach emperors detached it and annexed it to the Constantinople See (around 754), because the Pope followed an iconophilic policy.

The Arab Period (around 824-961 A.D.) is a major turning point in the political and ecclesiastical history of the island. The Arabs established the Emirate of Crete, centred on Candia [rabḍ al-ḫandaq ‘Castle of the Moat’ – Hellenized as Khándax] – present-day Herakleion. For about 135 years, Crete was cut off from the main body of the Byzantine Empire and the Church of Constantinople and sank into a truly dark period.

After Nicephorus Phokas reconquered Crete in 961, the so-called second Byzantine period started for the island (961-1204). Now the political and religious centre was Candia, which also became the See of the Primus of the Church of Crete. In accordance to the prevailing ecclesiastical order of the times, in the climated of the Ecumenical See of Constantinople, the Church of Crete was a Metroplolis and its Primus held the title of a Metropolitan Bishop, with twelve Bishops under him. A handsome metropolitan church was founded in Candia, again in honour of St. Titus, the patron of the Church of Crete, probably at the same spot where the church stands today.

During the long centuries of the Venetian rule of the island (1204-1669), the church status on Crete changed radically. The Venetians removed the Orthodox Christian leaders of the church and named the Church of Crete an Archdiocese, following the Latin canon. They established a Latin Archbishop and Latin Bishops, in an undisguised effort to latinise the Cretan orthodox people, who, however, remained fanatically dedicated to their ancestors’ dogma.  It is miraculous that the Orthodox dogma resisted the pressure of the Latin Church, particularly given the fact that there were no Bishops.Orthodoxy supported during those critical times by the active Father Superiors  and scholarly monks at the numerous orthodox monasteries, as well as the ordinary priests of the villages and urban churches.  Monasteries were major and powerful forts of the Byzantine tradition and orthodox faith during the Venetian occupation of Crete. Monastic Orthodoxy on the island raised an unbreakable wall between the dominating Venetians and the tortured populace. This way, not only the religious but also the national unity of the island was preserved, during such tough times. Top priests, seated in the cities and the major rural centres of the island, supported the status quo; they were Uniats and paid by public money, not always having a robust national or religious conscience.

The Venetians strictly forbade even the presence of Orthodox Bishops on Crete and the Ecumenical Patriarchate made sure the title of the Orthodox leader of the Church of Crete was maintained as ‘hyperorios’, i.e. beyond the physical borders of his ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

The most important intervention by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Crete during the Venetian rule period was to send a dynamic theologian and Gospel preacher named Joshep Bryennios.  He stayed on the island for about twenty years (1381-1401), supporting the orthodox faith and successfully standing up to westward-leaning (unionist) theologians of the time, such as Maximum Chrysovergis and Demetrius Kydonis.

The Ottoman occupation period (1645-1898) changed, among other things, the state of religious affairs in Crete. One of the first political acts of the Ottoman administration was to restore the Orthodox Hierarchy of the CretanChurch. Probably on the recommendation of the great interpreter Panayotis Nikousios, who accompanied the Ottoman campaign on Crete, as early as 1647 Neophytos Patellaros, a monk at the historic Monastery of Arkadi and a relative of the then Ecumenical Patriarch Athanasios III Patellaros, was ordained as Metropolitan of Crete. This concession, which was consistent with the established policy of the Ottoman Empire, aimed, among other things, at influencing the Orthodox Cretans, who would see Orthodox church leaders on the island again, for the first time after the long Venetian rule. After 1700 the Cretan Metropolitan was given the title ‘Metropolitan of Crete and the whole Europe’, a title he still holds. The ancient Gortys diocese was included in his jurisdiction, as well as the remote province of Sfakia, which was in effect without a leader, due to its great distance from the Metropolis. Besides the administrational problems, the Metropolitan of Crete had to face during the dark ages of the Ottoman occupation, a major issue was the absence of a metropolitan church. After the fall of Candia, the Ottoman rulers conceded to allow Christians the use of only one church, that of St. Matthew’s, a dependency of the great Monastery of Mt. Sinai.

The Ottomans did not allow the construction of a church and it was thanks to the persistent struggle of Gerasimos Letitzis, a Metropolitan of Crete (who came from Venerato, Temenos) that a permit was issued to construct the small church of St. Minas (around  1735) and establish it as a Metropolitan Church. This was inaugurated on November 10, 1735 and is an inextricable part of the history and life of Candia under the Ottoman rule. It became the centre and nucleus of the small, intimidated Christian community of Herakleion, and St. Minas became the symbol of the city’s supernatural protection. The church was decorated with valuable icons and votive offerings and is today a true museum of the Orthodox faith, a source of pride for the city. In 1800 Metropolitan Gerasimos Pardalis brought six big icons by the acclaimed iconographer Michael Damascenus from Vrondisi Monastery, to decorate the church.

During those harsh times the Ecumenical Patriarchate helped the Church of Crete in various manners. The most important way was that it took advantage of the privileges conceded by the Ottomans and proceeded to place the great Cretan monasteries under his protection, by declaring them as stavropegial monasteries. This was, of course, the reason – i.e. to protect their safety – why the first Metropolitan of the Ottoman occupation period, Neophytos Patellaros, conceded as early as 1654 some of the richest and largest Cretan monasteries, such as those of Arkadi, Arsanio, Holy Trinity [Agia Trias] of the Zagaroli, Theotokos of Gdernetto, Chrysopigi of Chania and Jerusalem in Malevyzi, etc. to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

During the 1821 liberation struggle the Church of Crete was decapitated. In the mass slaughter of Herakleion on 24 June 1821, wildly furious Ottomans slew the Metropolitan of Crete and five bishops.

In 1862 the dioceses of Crete were restored, except of that of Knossos, which was abolished and annexed to the Metropolis. The dynamic Metropolitan of Crete Dionysios Charitonidis founded the grand new metropolitan church of St. Minas, which was inaugurated in 1895.

The status of the Church of Crete was legally recognized by the CretanState in 1900.

The Primus of the CretanChurch is elected by the Patriarchate in Constantinople and enthroned by virtue of a decree issued by the GreekState.

In 1962, an act of the Ecumenical Patriarchate stipulated that all Cretan bishops should receive the title of Metropolitan, while in 1967 the Metropolis of Crete was proclaimed an Archdiocese and the Metropolitan of Crete an Archbishop (Source: Website of the Archdiocese of Crete).