Transylvania, presently one of the three major regions of Romania along with Wallachia and Moldavia, became part of Hungary in the early 11th century. Although the principality was also home to large numbers of Hungarians and Germans, who were mostly Latin Catholics, Orthodox Romanians made up the majority of the population. Soon after the province was taken by the Turks in the 16th century, Calvinism became widespread among the Hungarians, and Lutheranism among the Germans.
In 1687, the Hapsburg Austrian Emperor Leopold I drove the Turks from Transylvania and annexed it to his empire. It was his policy to encourage the Orthodox within his realm to become Greek Catholic. For this purpose the Jesuits began to work as missionaries among the Transylvanian Romanians in 1693. Their efforts, combined with the denial of full civil rights to the Orthodox and the spread of Protestantism in the area which caused growing concern among the Orthodox clergy, contributed to the acceptance of a union with Rome by Orthodox Metropolitan Atanasie of Transylvania in 1698. He later convoked a synod which formally concluded the agreement on September 4, 1700.
At first this union included most of the Romanian Orthodox in the province. But in 1744, the Orthodox monk Visarion led a popular uprising that sparked a widespread movement back to Orthodoxy. In spite of government efforts to enforce the union with Rome – even by military means – resistance was so strong that Empress Maria Theresa reluctantly allowed the appointment of a bishop for the Romanian Orthodox in Transylvania in 1759. In the end, about half of the Transylvanian Romanians returned to Orthodoxy.
It proved difficult for the new Greek Catholic community, known popularly as the Greek Catholic Church, to obtain in practice the religious and civil rights that had been guaranteed it when the union was concluded. Bishop Ion Inochentie Micu-Klein, head of the church from 1729 to 1751, struggled with great vigor for the rights of his church and of all Romanians within the empire. He would die in exile in Rome.
The Romanian Greek Catholic dioceses had originally been subordinate to the Latin Hungarian Primate at Esztergom. But in 1853 Pope Pius IX established a separate metropolitan province for the Greek Catholics in Transylvania. The diocese of Făgăraş-Alba Iulia was made metropolitan see, with three suffragan dioceses. Since 1737 the bishops of Făgăraş had resided at Blaj, which had become the church’s administrative and cultural center.
At the end of World War I, Transylvania was united to Romania, and for the first time Greek Catholics found themselves in a predominantly Orthodox state. By 1940 the church was the second largest in the country with five dioceses, over 1,500 priests (90% of whom were married), and about 1.5 million faithful. Major seminaries existed at Blaj, Oradea Mare, and Gherla.
The establishment of a communist government in Romania after World War II proved disastrous for the Romanian Greek Catholic Church. On October 1, 1948, 36 Greek Catholic priests met under government pressure at Cluj. They voted to terminate the union with Rome and asked for reunion with the Romanian Orthodox Church. On October 21 the union was formally abolished at a ceremony at Alba Iulia, and the country’s six Greek Catholic bishops were arrested on the night of October 28-29. On December 1, 1948, the government passed legislation that dissolved the Greek Catholic Church and gave over most of its property to the Orthodox Church. Four of the six arrested bishops, along with another who was consecrated underground, later died in prison. In 1955 the bishop of Cluj-Gherla, Iuliu Hossu, was released from prison but placed under house arrest in various Orthodox monasteries until his death in 1970. Pope Paul VI announced in 1973 that he had made Hossu a Cardinal in pectore in 1969.
After 41 years underground, the fortunes of the Greek Catholic Church in Romania changed dramatically after the Ceausescu regime was overthrown in December 1989. On January 2, 1990, the 1948 decree which dissolved the church was abrogated. Greek Catholics began to worship openly again, and three secretly ordained bishops emerged from hiding. On March 14, 1990, Pope John Paul II reestablished the hierarchy of the church by appointing bishops for all five dioceses.
Unfortunately the reemergence of the Greek Catholic Church was accompanied by a confrontation with the Romanian Orthodox Church over the restitution of church buildings. The Catholics insisted that all property be returned as a matter of justice, while the Orthodox held that any transfer of property must take into account the present pastoral needs of both communities. In 1998 a bilateral commission between the Orthodox and Greek Catholics was established to resolve property issues, but progress was slow and only 16 churches were returned as a result of its work. It has practically ceased activity since 2004. Altogether less than 200 former Greek Catholic churches had been returned by 2006, many of them in the Banat region where Orthodox Metropolitan Nicolae was more willing to allow the return of Greek Catholic property. More than 200 worshipping communities are still without a church and compelled to meet in public places. In the meantime the Greek Catholic Church has reduced its property claims from an initial list of 2,600 to less than 300.
The remains of Bishop Ion Inochentie Micu-Klein were returned to Romania and buried in Blaj in August 1997. In 1998 proceedings were initiated in Rome for the possible canonization of the Greek Catholic bishops who died during the communist persecutions.
Provincial councils of the Romanian Greek Catholic Church were held at Blaj from May 5 to 14, 1872, from May 30 to June 6, 1882, and from September 13 to 26, 1900. These councils passed legislation concerning various aspects of church life, and all were approved by the Holy See. A fourth provincial council was held in five sessions over a four-year period from 1997 to 2000.
On December 16, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI raised the Romanian Greek Catholic Church to the rank of Major Archepiscopal Church, at the same time naming Metropolitan Muresan as Major Archbishop of Făgăraş and Alba Iulia. In Romania this church calls itself “The Romanian Greek Catholic Church United with Rome.”
The Romanian Greek Catholic Church now maintains theological institutes for the formation of clergy in Blaj, Oradea, Cluj-Napoca, and Baia-Mare. In addition, there is a Greek Catholic Theological Faculty at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca with external sections in Blaj and Oradea. The church also has five minor seminaries. A Pontifical Romanian College (“Pio Romeno”) was established by Pope Pius XI on Rome’s Janiculum Hill in 1937. Inhabited by students from other countries during the communist persecutions, it now houses Romanian Greek Catholic seminarians once again.
The size of the Romanian Greek Catholic Church is disputed. The Greek Catholics themselves officially claim 764,000 members, and in some publications have stated that they have many more. According to the 2002 Romanian census, however, the Greek Catholics had 195,481 adherents in the country. Official statistics reported by the Vatican in 2006 show that in Romania the church had 1,225 worshipping communities, 791 priests, 291 women religious and 272 seminarians.
The only diocese outside Romania is St. George’s in Canton of the Romanians, which includes all the faithful in the United States and Canada, headed by Bishop John Michael Botean (1121 44th Street NE, Canton, Ohio 44714). The diocese has 21 parishes and missions for 6,000 faithful, served by 29 diocesan priests. In Australia, the Romanian Greek Catholic parish of Our Lady of the Assumption in the Sydney area is under the pastoral care of Fr. Michael Anghel, 74 Underwood Road, Homebush 2140.
Location: Romania, USA, Canada
Head: Metropolitan Lucian Cardinal Mureşan (born 1931, appointed 1994, cardinal 2012)
Title: Major Archbishop of Făgăraş and Alba Iulia
Residence: Blaj, Romania