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The Romanian Church United With Rome

The last two weeks before Christmas 1989 were more frenzied than usual for Romanians. Fueled by the fall of the Berlin Wall, rallies in the city of Timisoara, first held to protest the ouster of a popular Protestant pastor, László Tőkés, became anti-Communist marches. The Romanian regime’s dreaded secret police, the Securitate, responded ruthlessly, firing on the crowds, killing hundreds. Riots spread to other Romanian cities, including Bucharest, where civil war soon erupted.

By Christmas morning, however, the violence had ended as quickly as it had begun: The nation’s dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, lay in a pool of blood with his wife, Elena, both executed after caught fleeing the capital. A provisional government, calling itself the National Salvation Front, quickly restored order and began a new chapter in the life of the country. It abrogated orders of the former regime, including one that dissolved the Romanian Church United With Rome (also called the Romanian Greek Catholic Church) 41 years earlier.

Until Ceauşescu’s spectacular fall, Romania’s surviving Greek Catholics rarely revealed their faith. Their last known bishops, jailed as “class enemies,” died in prison or under house arrest. Churches, schools and other assets were seized and turned over to the Romanian Orthodox Church, which had absorbed most of the clergy and laity after a government-sponsored synod of Romanian Greek Catholic priests severed ties with Rome in 1948. Now suddenly, in less than a fortnight, the nightmare for Romania’s Greek Catholics had ended, ironically beginning a painful process of regrouping and rebuilding, for which they were ill-prepared. 

Who are Romania’s Greek Catholics? And what is the Romanian Church United With Rome? These questions are some of the most controversial in Central Europe. For what motivates this community of faith – who share the Byzantine legacy with their Romanian Orthodox brethren – is their ardor for their nation, which they helped nurture into being, and their union with Rome, itself prompted by their quest for civil rights.

Background.  Until 1918 (excluding a brief period from 1599 to 1601) a united Romania never existed. For some eight centuries, the people who now call themselves Romanians lived in three adjacent principalities: Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. They nevertheless shared a Romance language, a legacy it is thought of the Roman colonization of the former Dacian kingdom. They followed the Byzantine form of Christianity, which they had received from the Bulgarians in the ninth century. And they tenaciously defended their identity from more powerful neighbors – Greeks, Hungarians, Ottoman Turks and Slavs – who coveted their natural resources.

While the Romanians of Wallachia and Moldavia managed to prosper as vassals of the Ottomans, their kin north and west of the Carpathian Mountains – in Transylvania – were bound to the land as serfs.

In 1438, after squelching a peasant rebellion, Transylvania’s Hungarian and German nobles and merchants formed a coalition enacting the Union of the Three Nations. This pact restricted the movement of the Romanian peasant majority, binding them to the land, deprived them of participation in the diet (or parliament) and overtaxed them. It recognized only the Roman Catholic Church, denying the Orthodox Church, to which most Romanians belonged, any legal status.

The Protestant Reformation changed the principality’s confessional dynamics. With the support of the Ottomans, who increasingly exerted influence in Transylvania in the 16th century, the Calvinist, Lutheran and Unitarian churches grew considerably, particularly at the expense of the Roman Catholic Church. The Edict of Turda (1568) guaranteed religious freedom for the principality’s Catholic and Protestant churches (the first of its kind in Europe), but continued to hold in contempt the Orthodox faith of the population. Orthodox serfs were obliged to support the church of their landlord, while Orthodox priests, most of whom were married, were forbidden to levy tithes on their parishioners. Calvinists also administered Orthodox parishes, forbidding the sacraments to those who could not recite the Nicene Creed or the Lord’s Prayer. 

As the Ottomans lost their hold in Central Europe, the Hapsburg emperor of Austria hastened to fill the void, assuming control of Transylvania in 1688. Though nominally affirming the principality’s confessional balance, Emperor Leopold I encouraged the Jesuits, the vanguard of the Catholic Reformation, to reopen their schools (which had been shuttered by the Protestants), thereby reinvigorating Roman Catholicism. Eager to keep in check the successes of the Jesuits, the Protestants boosted their work among the Romanian Orthodox serfs.

Union and schism. Alarmed by the activities of the Protestant churches and encouraged by the Jesuits, Transylvania’s Romanian Orthodox leaders convoked a synod in 1697. There they agreed in principle to unite with the Church of Rome, provided the diet and the emperor recognized the principality’s Romanians as an “accepted” nation with legal rights.

At a liturgy in October 1698, Metropolitan Atanasie Anghel accepted the Act of Union, having been assured of his people’s emancipation and the extension to his clergy of the same rights and privileges granted to the Roman Catholic clergy.  

In September 1700, delegates representing some 2,000 priests and lay leaders throughout Transylvania formally ratified the union. While accepting the primacy of the pope, the legitimacy of unleavened bread in the celebration of the Eucharist, the existence of purgatory and the theology of the filioque (“and the Son”) as used in the Nicene Creed, the Romanian Church United With Rome retained its Byzantine heritage and its method of electing bishops. But unlike its sister Orthodox churches in Wallachia and Moldavia, which officially employed Church Slavonic in the celebration of the liturgy until 1863, the Romanian Church United With Rome used the vernacular, transcribing it in an Italian-inspired alphabet as opposed to the Cyrillic. This set the stage for Romanian Greek Catholic leadership in the further development of Romanian language, culture and identity.

At first, the majority of Transylvania’s Romanian Orthodox accepted the union. In 1721, Pope Innocent XIII formally erected in the city of Făgăraş an eparchy for the care of an estimated 200,000 Romanian Greek Catholics. More than a decade later, the formidable Bishop Innocenţiu Micu-Klein moved the site of the see to the town of Blaj, where he and his successors founded a seminary and schools, establishing Blaj as the intellectual center of the Romanian national movement.

But the civil rights promised by the Jesuits and the emperor never materialized, and dissatisfaction grew among Romanian Greek Catholics. From his seat in the Transylvanian diet, Bishop Innocenţiu, a Jesuit-educated Basilian, persistently lobbied for these civil rights, but his efforts were rebuffed. Exiled from Blaj in 1744, he continued to press his agenda, but was forced to resign in 1751. The bishop died in Rome in 1768.

In spite of the Austrians’ efforts to enforce the union with Rome, popular resistance sparked a widespread movement back to Orthodoxy. In 1759, Empress Maria Theresa reluctantly permitted the appointment of a bishop for Transylvania’s Romanian Orthodox, which included about half the Romanian community. In 1992, the Romanian Orthodox Church recognized those who led the resistance to union as confessors and saints. Their feast is celebrated on 21 October.

National awakening.  The schism in Transylvania prevented a unified resistance to the Hungarian and German oppression of the Romanians, but it did not prevent a flowering of ideas that nurtured the creation of a unified Romanian nation.

Late 18th-century Romanian Greek Catholic scholars Samuil Micu, Gheorghe Şincai and Petru Maior formed the Şcoala Ardeleană, or Transylvanian School, which from its base in Blaj contributed works that discussed the Latin origins of the Romanian people, the Roman origins of their language, the continuity of the Roman culture in the Romanian principalities and the history of Christianity among the Romanians. Ironically, Ceauşescu and his henchmen would manipulate these theories in the 1970’s and 80’s to pursue their own xenophobic policies.

Later in the 19th century, Romanian Greek Catholics played a leading role in establishing equity for Transylvania’s Romanian majority and their confessions, Romanian Greek Catholic and Orthodox. But when the principality was absorbed by Hungary in 1867, these rights were rescinded. Harsh reforms were instituted to assimilate the Romanians. These included plans, developed as late as 1907, to suppress both the Romanian Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches. Until the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1918, this process of ethnic assimilation would guide Hungarian policies in Transylvania.

United Romania.  With the collapse of the empire after World War I, Transylvania’s Romanian Greek Catholics voted to unite with the Kingdom of Romania, which was formed in 1859 with the merger of Wallachia and Moldavia. A revised constitution (1923) recognized the Romanian Orthodox Church as the “dominant” church of the kingdom, while giving the Romanian Church United With Rome “precedence” over other confessions. Romanian Greek Catholic bishops participated in the political life of the kingdom as well, having been given seats in the senate.

By the eve of World War II, the Romanian Church United With Rome counted 1.5 million people in five eparchies, including the Metropolitan Archeparchy of Făgăraş and Alba Iulia, served by an estimated 1,500 priests, almost all of whom were married. 

The church’s prosperity was short-lived. Early in 1948, Romania’s Soviet-backed Communist government began a campaign to wipe out any “fascist or anti-democratic” associations, singling out the Romanian Church United With Rome. By autumn, the church that had advocated for the rights of repressed Romanians and nurtured the Romanian identity ceased to exist.

Most Romanian Greek Catholics, wary of Hungarian and German Roman Catholics, remained loyal to their parish churches, which no longer commemorated the bishop of Rome in the Divine Liturgy. He was replaced by the “archbishop of Bucharest, metropolitan of Ungro-Wallachia and patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church.” With this exception, little changed in these former Romanian Greek Catholic parishes, as the Byzantine rites and traditions of the church had been meticulously maintained.

Rebirth.  Soon after the fall of Ceauşescu, Romanian Greek Catholics began to emerge, as did three secretly ordained bishops. In March 1990, eight years after he created an exarchate for Romanian Greek Catholics living in the United States, Pope John Paul II reestablished the hierarchy of the Romanian Church United With Rome, appointing five bishops throughout Romania.

Almost immediately, confrontations between Romanian Greek Catholics and Orthodox flared up over the restitution of property. Romanian Greek Catholics demanded the return of all facilities taken by the Orthodox after 1948. The Orthodox, meanwhile, insisted that current pastoral realities had to be taken into consideration – Orthodox properties had also been taken by the former regime – and the Orthodox claimed the numbers of Romanian Greek Catholics had not reached prewar levels. (A government census taken in 2002 recorded 195,481 Romanian Greek Catholics and 18,817,975 Romanian Orthodox. The 2006 Annuario Pontificio lists just under 755,000 Romanian Greek Catholics.)

In 1998, a joint Romanian Greek Catholic-Orthodox commission was established to resolve these property issues. To date, more than 170 churches, including the cathedrals in Blaj, Cluj, Lugoj and Oradea, have been returned, more than half in the Banat, a region in western Romania. Orthodox Bishop Nicolae Corneanu of Timisoara, whose see includes the Banat, has publicly apologized for collaborating with the Communists: “I could have acted differently, but at the time I thought for the good of the church I had to make compromises with the regime. Now I must confess my sins with all sincerity. I did not fulfill my obligations as a bishop because I did not protest against the regime. 

“I feel an obligation to speak openly of those years and of the way we acted,” he concluded. “If a church belonged to the Greek Catholics it should be returned.”

While Romanian Greek Catholic demands, coupled with their criticism of the ecumenical movement, at first adversely affected the once warm relationship between the Catholic and Romanian Orthodox churches, Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country in May 1999 thawed the ecumenical ice.

With property issues dominating, the Romanian Church United With Rome has made the formation of priests a priority. More than 60 percent of the church’s 750 priests serving some 760 parishes are at or near retirement age. To date, more than 345 men are enrolled in seminaries in Baia Mare, Cluj and Oradea and theological institutes in Blaj, Cluj and Oradea.

Vocations to religious life for men and women have blossomed, reviving communities such as the Basilians, who were driven underground, and the Jesuits, Conventual Franciscans and the Brothers of the Christian Schools, whose communities were dispersed.

On 16 December 2005, Pope Benedict XVI elevated the Romanian Church United With Rome to the status of a major archiepiscopal church, naming Archbishop Lucian Muresan of Făgăraş and Alba Iulia as the church’s first major archbishop – an act Bishop Innocenţiu Micu-Klein, who now lies interred in Blaj’s Baroque Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, would never have imagined.

Executive Editor Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s assistant secretary for communications.

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