CNEWA
ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

A Test of Faith for Romanians

A Romanian Catholic community thrives in Queens, New York, but remembers the turmoil of its mother country.

I heard voices rise, then fall from the yellow-bricked chapel. An elderly gentleman stepped out and reached for a cigarette, revealing through the opened door a symphony of color – gold, azure green and red. The chapel was alive with brightly painted patterns and the chattering of worshippers. Gilded icons of Mary and the saints, enthroned in the celestial vault, gazed at the congregation below. Clouds of smoldering incense shrouded the space, erasing all sense of size.

This was not Constantinople, Rome or Moscow, but Astoria, Queens, a borough of New York City. The chapel, dedicated to the Mother of God, Our Protection, lies nestled within the Monastery of the Sacred Heart, a semi-cloistered community of Byzantine Rite Basilian nuns.

Every Sunday a small Romanian emigre community, led by its pastor, Father Mircea Clinet, gathers in the chapel to pray for the full restoration of their once-outlawed faith and for peace in these uncertain times.

“With utmost confidence we turn to thee at this trying hour in the life of our Church,” the congregation recites in Romanian at the end of each liturgy “Most compassionate Queen of peace, pray for us, and through thy intercession secure for us and for Our Romanian Catholic Church that freedom and peace we so earnestly desire.

In its attempt to weaken and ultimately destroy Christianity, the dominant force in most Romanians’ lives, the communist regime pitted various Christian groups against each other. Centuries-old rivalries and misunderstandings were revived. Pain and confusion preoccupied Christians of all faiths.

Like their sisters and brothers in the Soviet Republic of the Ukraine, Byzantine Rite Catholics in Romania bore the full brunt of the Communists’ wrath. Their faith was declared illegal. Their churches and church institutions were either closed or transferred to the Orthodox Church. Nine bishops and many priests and religious were imprisoned or exiled. Yet, even without a hierarchy, Romanian Catholics clandestinely continued to practice their faith.

The Byzantine Catholic Church in Romania, once estimated at 1.5 million strong, is very similar to the larger Orthodox Church. Both share a common heritage, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (the form of worship common to all Byzantine Rite and Orthodox Churches), a deep love of tradition, devotion to Mary and the saints and a profound respect for the Eucharist. Yet, what separates the faithful is often perceived as historical and political.

Romania is made up of several provinces, each with its own history. The ancient principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were uniformly Orthodox. Transylvania, a province in northwestern Romania, was heavily influenced by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. In September 1700, a synod of Orthodox clergy gathered to discuss union with Rome in Alba Iulia, a city in the heart of Transylvania. That year, union was achieved and the Romanian Byzantine Catholic Church was formed. Wallachia and Moldavia, however, remained largely Orthodox.

The Romanian Orthodox Church acted as the state religion under the monarchy. Prior to World War II, the patriarch served as prime minister to King Carol II. However, the Church suffered under the communist regime. Some of the finest examples of native Romanian church architecture were destroyed. In Bucharest alone, over 30 churches were obliterated by “urban planners.” Even the Patriarchie Cathedral in Bucharest was scheduled to be demolished in early 1990 to make way for the sterile concrete apartments reserved for communist officials.

Since the downfall of President Nicolae Ceausescu, the Orthodox Church has been criticized for its collaboration with the government. In January, its bishops met in synod to discuss the Church’s past and its future.

“We regret,” the bishops stated, “that certain among us lacked the courage of martyrs and did not give public recognition to the hidden grief and suffering of the Romanian people.” These advocates of reform have established Spiritual Renewal, a group which champions the re-establishment of religious education and charitable organizations. In late January, several senior members of the church hierarchy, including the patriarch, were forced from office.

The Communist government’s goal to destroy Christianity could, however, outlive the party itself. Though the forces of persecution appear to have died, the misunderstandings and rivalries have not.

A free Romania is a possible bridge linking the East and West, Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Romania is an Eastern culture, with a faith rooted in the traditional mysticism and splendor of the Byzantine East. It is also a Western culture, its language and people the heirs of the Romans. Therefore, attempts to synthesize these contrary cultural characteristics provides a true test of sincerity in the ecumenical movement.

Perched in the hills one hour north of Pittsburgh, Pa., lies the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration. The prioress of this religious community for women, the soft-spoken Mother Alexandra, is the daughter of Romania’s pre-World War II monarch, King Ferdinand and his English-born wife, Marie. Today she remains an exiled princess. “There is a great need for forgiveness,” she said, her accent is still strong. “It is a time when the Romanian people must find themselves.”

Romania is not yet out of the woods. Spiritually and politically, this “socialist workers’ paradise” remains a divided nation. If discord is to be healed, humility and forgiveness must be practiced and preached. “Let us work together,” Mother Alexandra declared, “and pray that they have the love of Christ in their hearts.”

The seeds of discord that Ceausescu’s regime sowed remain alive. The Romanian Catholic community in Astoria continues to pray each Sunday for the mother church in Romania. But the words from the final prayer, “Banish from among us all disunity, discord and error,” have new meaning. No longer do they refer to believers and nonbelievers, but to all who hold and teach the Christian faith.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.

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