A Romanian couple marries in an Orthodox church. (photo: National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy)
The village of Pietrosani marks the feast of the Epiphany with a horse race. (photo: CNS/Mihai Barbu, Reuters)
The southeastern European nation of Romania lies where the Latin, Greek and Slavic cultures collide. For most of its history, diversity marked the composition of the people living there. Large communities of Armenians, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Jews, Roma, Slavs, Turks and Vlachs (ethnic Romanians) lived together — sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Today, Romania is more homogeneous. About 89 percent of the population of 19 million is ethnic Romanian. Smaller communities of ethnic minorities remain, particularly in the central region of Transylvania.
The Orthodox Church of Romania is the largest religious community in the country — numbering more than 86 percent of the people — and the second-largest Orthodox Church in the world. Unlike other Orthodox churches, the Orthodox Church of Romania functions within a Latin culture and utilizes a Romance language in the celebration of the sacraments — legacies of the country’s Roman past. But Romanian, despite its Latin roots and syntax, includes words from Byzantine Greek and Church Slavonic, reflecting the early Romanians’ relationship with the Byzantines and Bulgarians respectively.
Despite centuries of challenges — ranging from oppression to collaboration — the church is intellectually, pastorally and spiritually dynamic. And it remains the most respected institution in contemporary Romanian society.
Origins. Christianity has existed in Romania since apostolic times. According to tradition, St. Andrew the Apostle first brought the Gospel to Scythia Minor, a portion of which lies in eastern Romania. Scattered archaeological finds indicate the presence of Christian communities during the Roman occupation of the region in the first and second centuries. And Christian bishops from Scythia participated in the debates of the early church, including the ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon.
Though documentation is thin, Christianity in its Latin (Roman) and Byzantine forms coexisted during the medieval occupation of the region by the Visigoths, Huns, Lombards, Bulgars and Cumans. The decline of relations between the churches of the East and West, definitive after the great schism in 1054, polarized its nascent Christian communities. The powerful Magyar Hungarian archbishops of Esztergom sent missionaries to work among the Cumans, erecting Roman Catholic dioceses, even as Bulgar Byzantine missionaries worked among the Vlachs, a pastoralist people speaking a Romance language said to have descended from the Romans.
Pope Gregory IX, in a letter dated 14 November 1234, noted that these Vlachs, “who though calling themselves Christians, gather various rites and customs in one religion and do things that are alien to this name. For disregarding the Roman church, they receive all the sacraments not from our venerable brother, the Cuman bishop … but from some pseudo-bishops of the Greek rite.”
The Vlachs aligned themselves with the Bulgarians, who in the ninth century adopted Byzantine Christianity while asserting their political independence from the Byzantines. In 1204, the Byzantine emperor recognized this link between the two peoples when he raised the Bulgarian Orthodox metropolitan archbishop to the rank of “primate of the Bulgarians and the Vlachs.”
An identity surfaces. At the end of the 14th century, two Romanian principalities, Wallachia and Moldavia, emerged south and east of the Carpathian Mountains. A number of factors brought this about, including the withdrawal of the Mongols, who had swept through Europe in 1241-42, subdued its peoples and exacted heavy tribute. This enabled the region’s Vlach princes to consolidate their authority, assert their independence from their Hungarian neighbors, receive support from the Vlach gentry and peasantry (called Rumani in contemporary documents) and promote Orthodox Christianity, the faith of the Rumani majority.
Though Catholic communities existed in both states, especially among the prosperous German and Hungarian middle class burghers, the Orthodox Church functioned as an arm of the princely families who governed the states. Monasteries opened and eparchies, erected. By the middle of the 14th century, the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople recognized a metropolitan archbishop of Ungro-Wallachia. He established his episcopal see in the capital, Curtea de Arges (meaning “the court upon the Arges River”). Five decades later, he recognized a metropolitan archbishop of Moldavia, who set up his see in the court city of Suceava.
After the collapse of Byzantium and the Ottoman Turks’ capture of the capital, Constantinople, in 1453, Wallachia and Moldavia became vassal states of the Ottomans. Nevertheless, the Rumani principalities and its Orthodox churches thrived. Formidable monasteries and elaborate churches were constructed and adorned with frescoes — even on the exterior walls — revealing Byzantine, Renaissance and Turkish influences. Monasteries and eparchies established printing houses to publish liturgical books and theological works. Jewelers fashioned gilded reliquaries encrusted with mother of pearl and gems.
Rumani princes, bishops and abbots supported the impoverished ecumenical patriarchate in Ottoman Constantinople, restoring churches and endowing monasteries. Large monastic estates provided regular income to the ecumenical patriarchate and Mount Athos, a Byzantine monastic oasis that remains to this day.
While most of the Orthodox community in Wallachia and Moldavia spoke Rumaneste (Romanian), the church officially used Church Slavonic in the celebration of the sacraments until a local synod approved the use of the Romanian vernacular in 1568. Until 1863, the Orthodox Church used the Cyrillic alphabet to write Romanian liturgical texts, which was also common in civil society.
Transylvania. The Rumani Orthodox community just north and west of the Carpathians, in the Hungarian principality of Transylvania, languished. In 1438, after squelching a peasant rebellion, Transylvania’s Hungarian and German nobles and merchants formed the Union of the Three Nations. This pact restricted the movement of the Rumani peasants, bound them to the land, deprived them of participation in parliament and overtaxed them. It recognized only the Catholic Church, denying the Orthodox Church, to which the peasants belonged, any legal status.
The Protestant Reformation changed these dynamics. With the support of the Ottomans, who increasingly exerted influence there in the 16th century, the Calvinist, Lutheran and Unitarian churches grew at the expense of the Catholic Church. The Edict of Turda (1568) guaranteed religious freedom for the principality’s Catholic and Protestant churches. Yet the edict only “tolerated” the Orthodox faith of the Rumani serfs, who were obliged to support the church of their landlord. Accordingly, Orthodox parish priests, most of whom were married, were forbidden to levy tithes on their mostly illiterate parishioners while Calvinists 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 emperors of Austria hastened to fill the void, wresting Transylvania from the Hungarians and Ottomans in 1688. Though nominally affirming the principality’s confessional balance, Emperor Leopold I encouraged the Jesuits to open schools, reinvigorating Catholicism. Eager to keep in check the successes of the Jesuits, the Protestants boosted their work among the Rumani Orthodox serfs.
Union and schism. Alarmed by these actions, Transylvania’s Rumani Orthodox leaders convoked a synod in 1697. They agreed to unite with the church of Rome, provided parliament and the emperor recognize Transylvania’s Rumani population as a nation with legal rights.
At a liturgy in October 1698, Orthodox 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 Orthodox priests and lay leaders throughout Transylvania formally ratified the union.
Unlike its sister Orthodox churches in Wallachia and Moldavia, the “Romanian Church united with Rome” transcribed the Romanian vernacular in a Latin alphabet as opposed to the Cyrillic of the Orthodox.
The civil rights promised by the Jesuits and the emperor never materialized, however, and dissatisfaction grew among Transylvania’s Rumani Greek Catholics. In spite of the Austrians’ efforts to enforce the union with Rome, resistance sparked a widespread movement back to Orthodoxy. In 1759, Empress Maria Theresa reluctantly permitted the appointment of a bishop for Transylvania’s Orthodox Rumani, who made up about half of the Rumani community.
United Romania. Excluding a brief period from 1599 to 1601, a polity uniting all Romanians had not existed. In 1859, after centuries of foreign rule, one prince brought together the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, which eventually bore the name, “Romania.” This united principality achieved full independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Three years later, its reigning prince established the country as a constitutional monarchy.
The creation of a unified Romanian state led to the formation of a unified Romanian Orthodox Church. In January 1865, the metropolitan of Ungro-Wallachia received from the ecumenical patriarch the title of “metropolitan primate,” with his see in the capital of Bucharest. The state, in its constitution of 1866, recognized the superior status of the Orthodox Church by identifying it as the “dominant religion of the Romanian state.” In 1885, the ecumenical patriarch (reluctantly) acknowledged the independence of the Orthodox Church of Romania, thus severing it from its primary source of income.
Seminaries and theological academies were established throughout the 19th century, even in Transylvania, where the ascendant Hungarian community had initiated an ethnic assimilation campaign directed at the Rumani majority. Nevertheless, the restored Orthodox Church in Transylvania prospered, churches were built and some 2,000 primary schools and a handful of high schools established.
When the Kingdom of Romania declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1916, Transylvania’s Hungarian authorities deported or jailed hundreds of Orthodox priests for their advocacy of a unified Romanian nation to include Transylvania. With the empire’s collapse after World War I, Transylvania’s Rumani majority — Orthodox and Greek Catholic — voted to join with the Kingdom of Romania. By 1920, a number of international treaties recognized Transylvania as a part of Romania.
The revised constitution (1923) for the integrated country recognized the Orthodox Church of Romania as the “dominant” church of the kingdom, while giving the Romanian Church united with Rome “precedence” over other confessions. Together, Orthodox and Greek Catholic bishops participated in the political life of the kingdom, having been assigned seats in the senate.
In December 1919, the synod of bishops of the newly unified Orthodox Church of Romania elected a prelate from Transylvania, Bishop Miron Cristea, as metropolitan primate. By November 1925, the metropolitan primate was raised to the status of patriarch, an elevation recognized by the Orthodox communion worldwide.
Though Romania between the world wars was embroiled in political chaos, its Orthodox Church flourished. By the eve of World War II, new eparchies had been erected, theology faculties established, churches built and theological journals published. For Orthodox Romanians settling in the New World, the patriarch set up an eparchy in Detroit to coordinate pastoral care.
After the war, in which Romania sided with Nazi Germany, a Soviet-backed Communist government ousted the king and a Soviet republic took its place. By 1948, the government began a campaign to wipe out any “fascist or anti-democratic” associations, singling out the Romanian Church united with Rome. That year, it ceased to exist and its assets turned over to the Orthodox Church.
This “gift” did not protect the Orthodox Church from the Communist government’s wrath. From 1948 until the regime’s violent collapse on 25 December 1989, the Communists arrested and imprisoned more than a thousand Orthodox priests and bishops; some were deported to work camps and others, executed. They closed monasteries and laicized monks and nuns. The party shuttered and demolished churches and monasteries. Religious programs in schools, the military and homes for the elderly were eliminated. Theology programs were dissolved and seminaries, shut down. While “inspectors of cults” supervised religious activities, officials of the dreaded Securitate, or secret police, infiltrated the church and encouraged collaboration among its leadership.
Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church prospered. Parish life remained vibrant; surviving seminaries and monasteries were full; theological studies thrived and interchurch relations, especially with the Catholic Church, advanced significantly. Though most of Romanian society seemed to have suffered posttraumatic stress disorder after the collapse of their Communist government, the Orthodox Church was well poised to step in and assert leadership.
Today. The immediate humanitarian and pastoral needs of post-Communist Romania were staggering. Ill-fated and controversial financial and social policies of Romania’s Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, impoverished the nation. Huge state institutions warehoused hundreds of thousands of abandoned children, the disabled and the elderly. Malnutrition and disease affected all aspects of the population, even as the cultivation of Romania’s extensive natural resources paid off its foreign debt.
The Orthodox Church, regardless of a dearth of financial resources, responded by sponsoring activities, charities and programs to care for the material and spiritual needs of these victims of the nation’s Communist past. The church also advanced Romania’s needs internationally, utilizing its considerable network in the Christian world.
The legal recognition of Romania’s Greek Catholics by the post-Communist government initially shocked the Orthodox community. Property disputes between the two churches divided villages, parishes and families; nearly ruptured the ecumenical advances of the previous four decades; and forced the Orthodox Church to examine its collaborative role with the Communist government. But this influential institution’s ongoing self- examination has strengthened the church considerably as it presides over a renewal among its loyal and devout adherents.
Michael La Civita will conclude his series on the Eastern churches in the next edition of ONE, profiling the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.