ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Rebirth in Romania

Greek Catholics in post-Communist Romania rebuild their once-outlawed church.

St. Mary’s Greek Catholic Church in Vad, Romania, has resurrected since Father Calin Moldovan was assigned there in 1993. He often speaks proudly of the village’s new church, “which was built in only seven months and blessed in 1995.” The simple but well-crafted wooden structure marks a milestone for those who worship within it: the Greek Catholics of Vad had neither priest nor church for almost a half century.

Romania’s Greek Catholic Church, like all Eastern Catholic churches in Europe, shares a common heritage with the Orthodox Church, from which it developed. In the late 17th century, encouraged by the Catholic authorities of the Austrian Empire who governed Transylvania, the region’s Orthodox bishops embraced communion with the bishop of Rome, provided that the disciplines, rites and traditions would be preserved in a newly created Eastern Catholic Church. This union was formally concluded at a hierarchical synod in 1700.

When the Communists came to power in 1948, they abolished the Greek Catholic Church, chiefly because of its ties to the Roman Catholic Church. Greek Catholic bishops and many priests were imprisoned; five bishops died in prison. The church’s property, including the original church in Vad, was seized and turned over to the Romanian Orthodox Church. Overnight, Romania’s 1.5 million-member Greek Catholic Church ceased to exist.

Nevertheless, nuns in Vad secretly gathered Greek Catholics to help them preserve their faith. In other villages priests celebrated the Divine Liturgy in peoples’ homes. In one case, a chapel was built in a basement and disguised as a wine cellar. In spite of these attempts, however, many Greek Catholics returned to the Romanian Orthodox Church or attended Protestant churches, which were permitted to operate on a limited basis. Today Greek Catholics make up only about six percent of Romania’s population.

Since the violent removal of the Communist leadership in 1989, Romania’s Greek Catholic Church has resurfaced, but few church buildings or properties have been returned; legal recourse has been largely exhausted. Consequently, Romania’s Greek Catholic hierarchy is sponsoring the building of new churches. There are presently more than 20 churches under construction in the Diocese of Cluj-Gherla, which includes Vad.

Greek Catholic seminaries were also closed during the decades of Communist rule. A trickle of young men anxious to serve as Greek Catholic priests studied abroad or trained with tutors, but a shortage of priests presents the real challenge. Fortunately, there are 46 men studying in the revived diocesan major seminary and 15 more studying theology abroad.

Father Calin, who was ordained in 1993, is part of the younger generation of priests. A devoted husband and father of two children, Father Calin also serves as the pastor for the village parish in Caseiu, where a church is under construction. Burdensome is not how this young priest describes his responsibilities for his family and the parish families of Vad and Caseiu. But he still looks forward to an increase in priestly vocations; then he will be able to devote his full attention to one parish community, which includes his own family.

About five years ago, Father Calin’s first liturgy in Vad took place in a converted barn with 15 families in attendance. Today, about 35 families are active in the parish. After completing the church, Father Calin has made catechesis his priority: there is a great need for religious instruction in Romania, since it could not be given openly during the Communist era.

Down the street from the new church, a retreat and conference center is nearly complete. The project was initiated by ASTRU, the Romanian Greek Catholic Youth Association originally founded in 1930 but disbanded by the Communists. This association needed a place to conduct conferences, retreats and workshops for its programs of spiritual formation, pastoral care and ecumenism. There was, however, no Greek Catholic retreat or conference center in Romania. A family in Vad donated a house to the parish; CNEWA’s modest initial grant helped launch ASTRU’s fundraising campaign to complete the house’s renovation and expansion.

Radu Capan, ASTRU’s national president, and Ela Olteanu, the local chair, gave me a tour of the unfinished building already in use. We walked in on a gathering of the Faith and Light Movement, an ecumenical faith group created in France that indudes the mentally and physically handicapped. Every year, prior to the feast of the Transfiguration, Romanian members of Faith and Light travel from all over the country to meet with leaders visiting from France and Belgium. It is a time of reflection, prayer, exercise and fun.

The need for this retreat and conference center is clear. Participants in the Faith and Light meeting slept on the floor, for money had not yet been raised to buy furniture. Nor had a well been dug. Instead, Rusu Stefan hauled buckets of water from his well next door. Rusu and his family are active in the parish; his sister donated the house that is being converted into the retreat center. Radu and the leaders of ASTRU hope the renovation will be finished quickly, but that will depend on the raising of necessary funds.

The next day Radu, Ela and I traveled by train to Cluj. I caught glimpses of two very different faces of Romania through the window. We passed small farming villages where life was hard, yet there was also an obvious appreciation of beauty. Flowers bloomed in yards and window boxes; doors and eaves were decorated with gingerbread carvings. But the train also passed decaying factories, relics of the Communists’ grandiose but ill-conceived industrialization. Drab apartment buildings littered the skylines of larger Romanian cities; stucco peeled from the walls. It was clear that in fact Romania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and its recovery is painfully slow.

The Romanian Greek Catholic Church, like the priests who serve it, disproportionately comprises the old and the young – those who came of age either before or after the Communist era.

“My generation has more freedom to express its faith than my parents’,” stated Radu. His parents were baptized Romanian Orthodox, but Radu found his faith through the Greek Catholic Church. Ela’s grandfather had been a Greek Catholic priest. She had been secretly reared Greek Catholic.

In Cluj we attended the liturgy in the Bob Church, named for Bishop Ioan Bob who built it in 1803. The church, recently returned to the Greek Catholics, was filled with worshippers who flowed through its ornate portals and into the street.

“For seven years we worshipped every Sunday outdoors in a town square, even during the winter,” Ela declared.

ASTRU is also committed to fostering better relations between Catholics and Orthodox, but Radu admitted the situation remains difficult. “Maybe our children will get along with the Orthodox, like our grandparents did before 1948,” he said. “As churches are returned or new churches are built, the problems will fade.”

Conflict over Greek Catholic properties given to the Romanian Orthodox Church by Communists has strained what had been a warm relationship between the two churches.

“Before 1948,” said Bishop Florentin Crihalmeanu, Auxiliary Bishop of Cluj-Gherla, “it was not uncommon in villages for Greek Catholics to attend the Orthodox liturgy when the Greek Catholic priest was absent, and for Orthodox to attend Greek Catholic liturgies when there was no Orthodox liturgy.” He also told me of the wife of a Greek Catholic priest who preferred as her confessor the Orthodox priest of their village rather than her husband.

“There was a time for arguing for the return of churches. Now it is time to rebuild churches and get on with pastoral ministry,” the determined Bishop concluded.

Despite his optimism, however, Bishop Florentin was concerned about the state of the Romanian soul.

“Confiscating churches was not the worst thing Communists did; the worst was destroying the inner person, weakening us spiritually,” the Bishop said. “Now there is a spirit of selfishness in society and an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Moral problems are entering Romania and people have less protection against them because the church’s role as teacher was suppressed for half a century.”

The Bishop hoped that the nation’s Greek Catholics who turned to Orthodoxy during the years of repression would return to their Romanian Greek Catholic heritage.

“Churches are being built,” Bishop Florentin reported after leading the evening liturgy in the cathedral, “religious formation is occurring and people are returning to their faith.”

George Martin is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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