A+ A A-

The Calvary of Romania


The story of Romanian persecution and martyrdom is virtually without equal in the 20th or any other century. As LOsservatore Romano wrote in 1948, when the persecution was only starting: No similar story of moral violence, of persecution, of the Via Crucis of liberty, of personality, and of human dignity can be read in all the pages of history.

Brasov, Romania

Christianity first came to Romania in 106 AD when the armies of the Roman Emperor Trajan conquered the region then known as Dacia, bringing the new faith with them. Though Romania, situated in Eastern Europe, naturally came under Slavic influence over the centuries most importantly the Bulgarian invasions of the 6th and 7th centuries it retained a deep connection to Latin civilization. Even today, almost two thousand years after the Roman conquest, Romanian is classified by linguists as a basically Romance language.

Over the long history of Romanian Christianity, the population has divided into Orthodox, by far the largest denomination with about 87 percent of the population, Catholics at 6 percent, and Protestants with 5 percent. Though census figures in Romania are not entirely reliable, this means that in concrete terms there were about 1,560,000 Catholics in Romania before the advent of Communism in 1948. (By contrast, the Communist Party in Romania had no more than 1,000 members when a Marxist regime was imposed on the nation through internal machinations and Soviet pressure.) But after 50 years of one of the worst persecutions of the century, there were still over 500,000 Catholics in Romania.

Romanian Catholics mostly fell into two large groupings. A Latin-rite Roman Catholic Church was located primarily in Timisora (a region whose Catholics were predominantly German by background) and Transylvania (an area of sizeable Hungarian Catholic concentrations). This Latin Church, though hard pressed, proved surprisingly resistant to the persecutions of Romanian Communism, perhaps owing to its distinctive ethnic composition.

This was not true, unfortunately, for the Romanian Greek Catholic Church. As occurred in Ukraine under the Soviets, Romanian Communist authorities organized an illegitimate synod of this church, which no Romanian Catholic bishop, even under torture and other pressures, agreed to attend. The synod was forced to declare that it was the will of the faithful to become Orthodox, though Romanian Orthodoxy had been available as an option for anyone who wanted to convert for centuries. In October of 1948, the Greek Catholic Church was liquidated, her thousands of churches confiscated and converted to Orthodox use. The date was intended to rub in a point: it was the 250th anniversary of the Churchs 1698 declaration of unity with the Vatican. The justification for this act was typical propaganda: the Greek Catholic bishops had distanced themselves from the people to serve imperialist interests, obeying the Pope of Rome. There were six authentic Greek Catholic bishops in Romania at that point. All were arrested at the close of 1948. Five died in prison (Ion Suciu, Valerie Traian Frentiu, Alexander Rusu, Vasile Aftenie, and Ion Bálan). The lone survivor, Bishop Juliu Hossu of Cluj-Gerla, spent the next 22 years in prison and under house arrest before he died, still under detention.

Two bishops secretaries were also imprisoned: the Abbé Alexander Rusu and the Abbé Foisor. But the sweep went much further. Security forces apprehended Vicar General Victor Macavieu of Blaj, Canons Victor and Nicholas Pop, Ion Moldovan, Dumitriu Neda, and Ion Folea, together with the theology professors Septimius Todoran and Eugenia Pop. The whole of the Bucharest chancery was arrested: Archpriest Liviu Chinezeu, the Abbés Ion Chertes and Mare Vasile, and many others. Elsewhere those detained clearly were chosen in order to decapitate the Catholic leadership: in the city of Cluj, Father Joseph Bal and Canon Dumitriu Manu, and in Oradea, Canon Julius Hirtea; in Lugoj, Abbé Basile Teglasiu. Ion Ploscaru, consecrated a bishop in 1948, was also imprisoned the following year.

Pressure to apostatize

At the beginning, all the bishops were held in Dragoslavele, the summer residence of the Orthodox Patriarch. Patriarch Justinian visited them often and urged them to become Orthodox. The government put out propaganda that the bishops had gone on a spiritual retreat. The regime needed at least one bishop to apostatize in order to claim that their unification of the Catholic Church with the Orthodox was licit. No bishop obliged them. When gentle persuasion failed, the bishops were separated and sent to different locations. By May 10, 1950 Vasile Aftenie, after suffering terrible tortures in the Vacaresti prison, went mad and died, even though he was a relatively young man and had been in good health. The fates of the other bishops were soon sealed in similar fashion. Of the clergy, 600 were imprisoned, about a third of them in the Soviet Union; only half survived. Pope Pius XII reacted to this slaughter with a moving statement in his March 27, 1952 Apostolic Letter Veritatem Facientes: We desire to kiss the chains of those who, unjustly imprisoned, weep and are afflicted because of the attacks against religion, the ruin of sacred institutions, for the eternal salvation of their people, now in peril, more than for their own suffering and lost liberty.

Unfortunately, about a quarter of the Romanian Greek Catholic clergy gave in and became formally Orthodox during the persecution, fearing repercussions on themselves and their families. Since there were ample opportunities prior to the advent of the Communist regime for these men to have become part of the majority Romanian Orthodox Church had they so wished, there is no reason to believe that even a single one of these allegedly voluntary conversions was sincere. (Many later recanted.) The means needed to convince them testify to that. One priest was thrown into a sewer full of rats for two days. He relented. Another was cast into a quagmire, with similar results. In the town of Oradea, a Father Tamian was subjected to torture by fire and electricity until he surrendered. In Sibiu, a Father Onofreiu miraculously survived being hanged when the rope broke. He still refused to accept Orthodoxy but was declared insane and released temporarily. It is easy to understand why a quarter of the clergy, subjected to such treatment in so many different places, were not hardy enough to withstand it.

But the Greek Catholic people did not acquiesce easily in this forced change. Bishop Ion Suciu of Oradea, prior to his arrest, appealed to his people for financial support after the government suspended payments to Catholic schoolteachers. The parishes responded vigorously: the bishop received more than he needed to keep his schools in operation. As the anti-Catholic attacks became stronger, so did the defense by lay people. When agents of the Securitate (the Romanian secret police) sought to arrest the entire Basilian monastery at Bixad, the local townspeople forced the security detail to withdraw. A few days later, however, 15 truckloads of agents returned and rounded up the remaining monks, holding the people at bay with machine guns. The monks were beaten and told to renounce the Pope. They refused. One of the Securitate group shouted: These idiot monks care more about the Pope than God and the Church. Lets see if after they are shut up the Pope comes to save them. Orthodox priests, monks, and nuns were forcibly installed in this and other monasteries, convents, and churches. Wherever there were resisters, they were arrested and sent to jail. But the people often boycotted the new religious regime.

The cathedrals at Blaj, Oradea, Cluj, Lugoj, were reconsecrated as Orthodox by collaborating Orthodox bishops. At Lugoj, the faithful had to be forced out. One of them, observing that the police were sealing the doors, cried out: Seal all you want, gentlemen, the Jews too sealed Christs tomb, but on the third day he arose.

The Orthodox role

Needless to say, Orthodox doctrine does not permit forced conversion or confiscation of churches of a different denomination. Seventy-six brave Orthodox priests refused to take over confiscated churches and participate in this political and religious abuse of power. They were, in turn, arrested. And at least one Orthodox bishop who refused to collaborate with the puppet bishops, Bishop Nicolas Popovici, was arrested and died perhaps after being poisoned in 1958. But on the whole, the Orthodox leadership was responsible for no little injustice toward the Catholics.

The Orthodox suffered themselves, however. The old Orthodox metropolitans, Mihálecescu and Criveanu, who were not sympathetic to Communism, were replaced by the government with peoples prelates. To achieve this end, the regime and those prelates slandered the old leaders and pressured church institutions to remove them. Metropolitan Mihálecescu himself probably died a martyrs death. After his replacement and exile to a monastery, where he was allowed only limited freedom, he appears to have been poisoned.

Ironically, some of the Catholic figures who were marked to suffer had been generous towards the Orthodox when the situation had been reversed. From 1940 to 1944, Hungary occupied parts of Romania and Bishop Julius Hossu had defended the rights of Jews as well as the Orthodox, particularly the Orthodox Bishop of Cluj, Nicolae Colan. When the Communist regime came to power, however, this same Bishop Colan confiscated and reconsecrated the cathedral of the bishop who had been his benefactor. Understandably, events like these and others listed above would leave a deep rift between Orthodox and Catholics all during the Communist government and years into the post-Communist period.

In Paris, the Romanian Archimandrite Stefan Lucaciu wrote the Pope to pray for abundant grace to be given to the persecuted Catholics. In another letter, he deplored the treatment of Greek and Roman Catholics in Romania, warning: The religious opportunism which the Communist regime displays today will tomorrow turn furiously against the Orthodox Church, which it intends to transform shortly into a political platform for achieving its political aims. In fact, the Romanian government was soon persecuting all religious groups: Jews, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. One of the most moving accounts of this persecution from the period is Protestant pastor Richard Wurmbrands widely acclaimed Tortured for Christ. The chief rabbi of Romania, Alexandru Safran, was summarily deposed and exiled. But because of the special social and religious place of Catholics in Romania, the anti-Catholic campaign was particularly virulent.

Enduring faith

Yet the harsh campaign was not wholly successful. In 1949, Stoian Stanciu, the Minister of Cults, complained in a public speech of pro-Catholic feelings among some intellectuals. Pro-Catholic in this context may have meant either actual support for the Church or a general sympathy for wronged Christians. In either case, some serious secular opposition to the governments religious policy clearly had endured.

There was historical precedent for pro-Catholic leanings among Romanian intellectuals. I.C. Bratianu, Romanias leading democratic political figure in the 19th century, had converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. And Iuliu Maniu, the head of the National Peasant Party, the most important democratic and anti-Fascist politician in the nation, was a devout Greek Catholic (he died in the 1950s in a Communist prison). Among the Orthodox leadership, however, governmental pressure and long-standing belief that Greek Catholicism was illegitimate in Romania led to shameful acts by Christians against fellow Christians. The distinguished Romanian scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, expressed the sympathy of all Romanians at the time for their Catholic brothers and sisters, and lamented that we have not heard that a single Orthodox bishop has publicly stated his disapproval of the violence.

The Romanian Patriarch Justinian played a particularly unsavory role in this process. After the fall of Communism, his name was remembered with much fondness by Romanian Orthodox for his energetic efforts on behalf of the Orthodox Church. But Eliade pointed out that the Patriarch was playing with fire:

Today in the world, Christianity in its entirety is being attacked without mercy, it is attacked by those who long ago condemned it to death, and these same people are the ones who have given arms to Justinian. . . . Today or tomorrow the Orthodox bishops will join their brothers in prison and exile. They too will be martyrs, but after having been compromised and degraded in the eyes of all the faithful.

Allowing that no one has the right to demand that another become a martyr, Eliade appealed to the bishops to recognize that without the willingness to become a martyr for the truth, the bishops staff becomes mere wood and metal.

The Latin-rite Church

Whatever historical rationalizations against the legitimacy of the Romanian Greek Catholic Church might be used by Orthodox leaders, they could not use the same arguments against the Latin-rite Roman Catholic Church in Romania. The Roman churches were mostly located in Transylvania and Moldavia, and they were linked with ethnic minorities which had historically been in union with Rome since the 12th and 13th centuries. These churches were flourishing, with about 1,200,000 adherents before the advent of Communism. Yet their full rights could not be acknowledged without running the risk of opening up the claim that the Greek Catholic churches, too, deserved state recognition. Recognition for either Church was never a real possibility. Communist Party Secretary Gheorghiu-Dej announced peremptorily in February 1948 that the sole obstacle to democracy in Romania was the Catholic Church. He continued:

The new constitution of Romania will not allow Catholic citizens to be submissive to the directives of a foreign ruler; it will not allow Romanians to be tempted by the American golden calf, at whose feet the Vatican wants to bring its faithful.

When the Roman Catholic churches insisted on official recognition, the Romanian Communist regime adopted a dual strategy of silencing them and encouraging a schismatic Roman Catholic Church subservient to the state, all under the legal cover of stopping agents of imperialism and protecting state security. Two bishops were accused by name of anti-democratic attitudes: Aron Márton of Alba Julia in Transylvania and Anton Ducoviciu of Jassy in Moldavia. Covert means were introduced to weed out recalcitrant clergy. In June of 1949, Anton Bisoc, the Franciscan Superior, received a telegram, apparently from Bishop Ducoviciu, asking him to come to see him at once. Bisoc set out and was never seen again. His assistant, Father Herciu, went to look for him. He, too, disappeared without a trace. The message was clear: a recalcitrant Roman Church would be dealt with by the same means that had been applied to the Greek Catholics.

Bishops Márton and Durcoviciu were soon under arrest. The other four Latin dioceses, with their bishops, had already been suppressed on a cunning legal technicality: the government required a diocese to have at least 750,000 faithful in order to be recognized no problem for the Orthodox, but a virtual suppression order in all but a few Catholic centers. Ducoviciu was so mistreated in prison that when he was thrown naked into a cell, he was unrecognizable. A short while later he disappeared, never to be heard of again. Father Rafael Friedrich, a priest-prisoner who was passing by his cell, heard him groaning. Saying Laudetur Jesus Christus (Praised be Jesus Christ) to let the bishop know he was a Catholic, the priest heard the reply: Hic Antonius moribundus (Anthony is dying here). By June of 1949, there were no Roman Catholic bishops active in Romania. Almost all churches were closed. Roman Catholics were specially marked as such on their identity cards. In the Iassy diocese, 106 parishes were occupied by militias. During one of the occupations at Faraoani, the militias and the people became embroiled in a fight. Shots were fired. One person lay dead and four badly wounded on the church steps. Similar scenes occurred elsewhere.

Political pressures

In 1950, all the Communist nations were using their churches to support the anti-nuclear movement centered around the Stockholm Appeal. In strict terms, opposition to nuclear war was something every Christian could support. But in fact, the appeal was turned into an ideological weapon against the West, and an international prop for the Soviet Union. The Romanian Roman Catholic Church held special importance in this propaganda campaign. If Church leaders could be induced by the government, it could be plausibly argued that they had repudiated the Vatican and the allegedly pro-Western policy of the Holy See.

The Romanian government transported about a hundred priests, lay people, and parish leaders of the Latin rite to a Congress at Targu-Mures to induce them to sign the Appeal and to accept the position within Romanian society that the government wanted them to occupy. They refused, but under extreme threats finally yielded. After that, they were told to get the approval of the vicars who had replaced the bishops as the leaders of several dioceses. This failed. But in the Churchs weakened state, the government tried another ploy. It prepared a Church Statute in effect a kind of concordat that appeared to grant the Roman Church everything she wished: the document proclaimed that the Pope was the supreme moral and dogmatic head of the church, and that the bishops were sovereign in their own dioceses; it also incorporated government concessions on other contested points. The last article of the Statute, however, stipulated that the exercise of the earlier rights could only be carried out with government approval effectively annulling everything that went before. Furthermore, contact with the Holy See could only be undertaken through the Ministries of Cults and Foreign Affairs. It was clear, even to the remaining Catholic leaders, that it would be impossible to sign such a document. In May 1950, the government made the final move. The Vicar General of Alba Julia, Louis Boga, was arrested. Marc Glasser, vicar of Iassy, was imprisoned, tortured, and died on May 25.

The Romanian Communists also banned all contact with the Vatican. (Even in the 1960s, no Romanian Catholic bishops were allowed to attend the Second Vatican Council, and priests were still being arrested.) The government began the break with the Vatican by expelling the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gerald OHara. OHara, who happened to be an American by birth, was branded a CIA spy and an agent of American imperialism.

Under order from Pius XII, before leaving the country Archbishop OHara consecrated several bishops and apostolic administrators in secret. These men Ioan Ploscaru, Ioan Dragomir, Ioan Chertes, Julius Hirtea, and Alexander Todea (who would later be named a cardinal) faced tremendous challenges. Almost all survived the persecution, showing that Pius XIIs strategy was successful. They provided a certain continuity for the Church when it re-emerged after the 1989 fall of Communism.

Furthermore, before OHara was forced out, Latin and Greek rite Catholic bishops had issued a joint statement protesting to the government that, Three million citizens are being treated as if they were enemies of the people. Two hundred priests were arrested under that charge. Although the government moved slowly against the Latin-rite Catholics for fear of provoking a reaction from the nations (Hungary, Germany, Croatia, Slovakia, and Bulgaria) from which these ethnic-minority Catholics were drawn, it moved steadily to eliminate Catholicism. Every one of the loyal Catholic priests listed with the nunciature wound up in prison.

Survivors testimony

We may form some idea of the remarkably harsh treatment Catholic prisoners received in Romania from the accounts of those who survived to tell their own stories and those of their fellow internees. One of the most prominent among these, Father Tertullian Langa, Vicar General of the Cluj Diocese, was arrested in the earliest waves of repression in 1947. His crime, according to the judge who sentenced him, was simple: There is no evidence against you, but since you are in prison, it is because you are guilty, guilty of having been arrested. Given the regimes understanding of justice, it is no surprise that he was only released 17 years later, after accumulating a wide range of experiences in the prisons.

Like many who survived such injustices, Father Langa returned to freedom believing that I was arrested in order to fulfill a plan intended to bring about the sanctification of my life. He was able to comfort and ultimately convert many fellow prisoners and learn something about the sufferings necessary to the Christian life: Prison for me was the seminary that I had never experienced. And his 17 years there were the most beautiful and productive years of my existence. Obviously a man who could speak in such terms is someone special, and the terrible things he witnessed on the way to reaching these conclusions make his declaration all the more remarkable.

One of the most brutal punishments involved what the prisoners called the marathon. This consisted of making prisoners run or march while a dog, specially trained to leap on them if they stopped moving, followed their every step. The ordeal would last so long that, at times, Father Langa began having hallucinations. During one episode, I seemed to be walking on diamonds, but in fact the soles of my feet had become completely swollen. Then, I started to see, as if I were looking through the cells walls, a beautiful garden, an orchard with apples. . . .Then I fell, unconscious, hitting my head on the wall. Naturally, the dog attacked and the pain revived him. He began running again without knowing what he was doing. Later, the guard told me that I had been running and walking 59 hours straight. It seems unbelievable, but why would the guard lie?

In another sadistic exercise, the prisoners discovered that prison authorities had been ordered to kill them all by exposure to the cold. Their only defense against freezing to death was to keep warm by walking briskly without stopping. An Admiral Macellaru, the prisoner in the cell next to Langas, stopped one day. Langa roused him and started him moving again. Macellaru resented being awoken from a beautiful dream: I prayed to God, falling on my knees, to bring the moon into my room and he heard my prayer. He sent me the moon and I was in the process of eating it when you woke me. The next morning, Macellarus body was carried away. His fellows believed that perhaps his dream was sent to him as a consolation, a Eucharistic symbol, before he left this world.

Many others succumbed as well. Father Langa partly attributes his survival to the spiritual masters he was fortunate enough to know as a young man. These included Father Iosif Pop, Ion Miclea (a philosopher and friend of Jacques Maritain), and Msgr. Vladimir Ghika, all of whom became martyrs or confessors. Langa also provides information about some of the church leaders who disappeared early in the persecution. Vasile Aftenie, the Vicar General of Bucharest, was the first bishop-martyr in Romania. As usual, the Communist authorities tried to co-opt him, offering him the Orthodox episcopal see of Moldovia immediately, and with a promise to make him Orthodox Patriarch in Bucharest later, if he broke with Rome. Aftenie refused, saying, Neither my nation nor my faith are for sale. The sequel was foreordained: He was subsequently tortured to death. His body was disfigured, the dislocated arms were no longer connected to his trunk.

Equally bold was Bishop Ion Suciu, an energetic young man, who, before his arrest, had publicly proclaimed at a speech in the Latin-rite Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Bucharest: We must have the courage and dignity to be Christians in the very face of the Communism and atheism that have come. When the Soviet Procurator Vychinski learned of this pronouncement, he replied: That mouth must be shut. The Romanian authorities quickly did just that. Another bishop, Liviu Chinezu, secretly ordained as bishop, died in 1955 in the Sighet Prison, a notoriously harsh institution which was the preferred place of detention for Romanian political and religious leaders. The Prison commandant, Vasile Ciolpan, apparently wished to make it seem that the bishop died of natural causes. He ordered the window in the bishops cell to be left open in frigid mid-January weather. Chinezu froze to death. In a 5-year period, at least 52 Sighet prisoners are known to have died, and probably many more unknown perished as well.

The persecution accelerates

These early deaths were only a foretaste of much greater atrocities. In the early 1950s, approximately 180,000 were sent to prison camps, often the very camps set up earlier by the Nazis. The Romanian Communists pioneered brainwashing techniques in Eastern Europe, often giving them a satanic cast. The typical prisoner was forced to denounce everything that he held most dear: friends and family, his wife or girlfriend, and his God if he was a believer. The Romanian jailer Eugen Turcanu created a special approach for seminarians:

Some had their heads repeatedly plunged into a bucket of urine and fecal matter while the guards intoned a parody of the baptismal rite. One victim who had been systematically tortured in this fashion developed an automatic response that went on for about two months: every morning, to the great delight of his re-educators, he would plunge his own head into the bucket.

But even this degradation of religion apparently was not enough:

Turcanu also forced the seminarians to take part in black masses that he orchestrated himself, particularly during Holy Week and on Good Friday. Some of the re-educators played the part of choirboys; others masqueraded as priests. Turcanus liturgy was extremely pornographic, and he rephrased the original in a demonic fashion. The Virgin Mary was called the Great Whore, and Jesus, that ____ who died on the cross. One seminarian undergoing re-education and playing the role of a priest had to undress completely and was then wrapped in a robe stained with excrement. Around his neck was hung a phallus made of bread and soap and powdered with DDT. In 1950 on the Saturday before Easter the students who were undergoing re-education were forced to pass before the priest, kiss the phallus, and say, he is risen.

Turcanu would eventually be arrested himself and executed for crimes against humanity which discredited the Communist regime in the eyes of the people and world opinion. In fact, he was carrying out orders from higher up, probably from a General Nicholosi, to conduct a brainwashing experiment. A thousand young men, all believers, were rounded up and subjected to the Pitesti system. According to one account:

They were tortured in such a manner that all absolutely all students became informers, so that they were robbed of their manly natures and became simple robots in the hands of political officers. They were depersonalized.

In perhaps the most brutal form of mind-control technique ever applied in the century, the boys were tortured, physically and morally, into abandoning their former beliefs. Worse, once they had been put through the process, they were ordered to carry out the same brainwashing on another crop of students, fearing all the time that the least display of weakness would land them back among the tortured. The pangs of conscience this must have produced are easy to imagine.

The brainwashing followed a Pavlovian method. The students were first asked to recant their former beliefs or be tortured. When they refused, as most did initially, they were beaten, forced to clean floors with a rag between their teeth, and made to eat like animals from bowls in which they also defecated. At night, an already re-educated student sat at the foot of the bed of another student still being processed. The moment the new student fell asleep, the other beat him on the feet with a rubber hose. The pain inflicted was intended to condition the young men to have an unconscious negative reaction to everything that had earlier been regarded as good.

After these reflexes had been established, the brainwashing moved on to religious beliefs. Sacrileges such as those described above were required. The subjects were forced to admit monstrous crimes and sexual deviance so frequently that disoriented by the beatings and sleep deprivation they began to believe them and lose touch with the truth. At this point they were introduced to new loyalties to the Communist regime and their very torturers. They were made to become torturers themselves, thereby demonstrating their sincerity, but under the constant threat of being returned to torture: The great obstacle . . . was the haunting fear, locked into every fiber of the unmasked victim, that any day the terror might be resumed. It appears that the experiment only stopped to give the experimenters a respite to assess its effectiveness. One of the young men who survived to tell of it, Roman Braga, eventually became an Orthodox priest. He described the experience in stark terms:

I think that there is no other mind than Lucifers capable of imagining the Pitesti system that kept man suspended between to be and not to be, at the limits of madness and reality, tortured by the idea that he might disappear no, not as a physical entity, but as a spiritual person.

Although the tortures were carefully calibrated so as not to kill the young men, about 15 still died during their re-education.

Light in the darkness

Amid so much suffering and blasphemy in the prisons, it was remarkable that there were also points of great light. One of these centered around a towering figure, Msgr. Vladimir Ghika, whose cause for beatification is now underway. Ghika was the grandson of the last prince of Moldavia, and also obtained the martyrs crown. His dedication to the Catholic cause was unshakeable. He had converted to Catholicism years earlier because he had come to believe that to be Catholic was to become even more Orthodox. A man of immense culture and intelligence with many international contacts, he chose to remain in Romania after World War II, even though he knew the risks it meant for someone with his familial and religious background. In Romania, many people in the 1990s still attested to the fact that they owed everything to him, including their resistance to Communism, their vocations, and their faith itself. In the prisons, he was responsible not only for the return of many to belief, but for people who went from non-belief to ardent vocations. Tragically, he died in prison in the midst of this work.

Another heroic church leader was the Bishop of Alba Iulia, Aron Márton. As we have already seen, he was arrested early in the period of persecution, and spent from 1949 until 1955 in prison. He was gravely injured in an automobile accident staged by government agents, but survived that as well. Protests by his people eventually led to his release from prison and confinement to house arrest. But his courage and activism, despite all threats, made him a much-loved figure. Márton assisted the Greek-rite Church as much as he was able, an unusual move for a Latin-rite bishop. For decades before he finally died in 1980, he had to thread his way carefully through government-imposed restrictions, censorship, the presence of potentially compromised priest-spies, and a host of other difficulties.

Father Alexander Ratiu a survivor of 16 years in the Romanian prison system, from 1948 until the general amnesty for political prisoners which occurred in 1964 when Nicolae Ceauçescu took over the leadership of the country remarks that prison had an unexpected effect on priests and other believers, as well as former atheists: In prison one either goes mad or becomes a saint. For many who suffered imprisonment, it was the first time in their lives that they were forced to rely solely on prayer and Gods support: We were never so happy. We never felt the presence of God so intimately; and we never prayed more seriously, confidently, and successfully than in those prison barracks. After Ratius harrowing account of the tortures, deaths, and sadistic treatment all prisoners experienced, these are not words to be taken lightly. It was, of course, a terrible path to piety and virtue. But so many people in so many different countries, even under differing regimes like Nazism and Communism, have reported similar experiences, that it may be that their experiences will ultimately have some spiritually stimulating effect, now that several portions of the world have been freed to practice religion again.

As late as April 1982, however, murders of priests occurred. According to reports, Father Ion Ecsy, rector of the Seikenburg Marian Church and an energetic pastor, died in that year under mysterious circumstances. His funeral was carefully controlled, lending further reason to believe that something had occurred in his case that worried authorities. Many reasons could have led to his death. Romanian priests were subjected to lengthy interrogations if they met with foreigners. By law, they were supposed to report such contacts within 24 hours. Congregations, too, were infiltrated, and priests had to be very careful what they said in or out of the pulpit. Teaching of the young was prohibited until the children reached the age of 15, and any number of obstacles were erected for other religious and charitable activities. Even a pastor saving money to repair a church building could be arrested, as happened to Father Michael Godo in 1979. Surprisingly, regular Sunday Mass attendance among Latin-rite Catholics nonetheless remained high: about 80 percent.

Unfortunately, little attention was paid to the persecution of Romanian Catholics during the actual time of the worst persecution, even though a great deal of information about that persecution was available. In the struggles of the Cold War, the free world rarely pressed for justice toward the many people, religious and secular, who suffered and died in Romania. Prominent among the resisters were Protestants who, beginning in the 1980s, doggedly resisted all attempts by the regime to force them into conformity. Though their role in the eventual fall of Communism is partly known, much still remains to be uncovered about these brave dissenters. One of the heroic Romanian bishops, Julius Hirtea, remarked before he died in the 1970s:

It is not we who keep silence here. It is not we who are the Church of Silence, but the members of the Church in the free world who are the real Church of Silence, for they do not speak on our behalf.

Todays tensions

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Romanian Catholics benefited from the fact that Karol Wojtyla, a Pole with a good understanding of the machinations of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, became Pope. John Paul II was able to appoint some interim bishops and to loosen the straitjacket on the Church somewhat. Two seminaries were reopened, but the government reserved to itself the right to approve those candidates to be ordained, often keeping them waiting years to discourage them. In addition, textbooks were not allowed to be printed. Lectures had to be dictated and old books shared by several students. Catholic books in general were not allowed until the late 1970s. And seminaries were often infiltrated by government agents looking to capture promising future religious leaders. Under President Nicolae Ceauçescu the Church was never given much room to maneuver. Rectories were bugged and their telephones were tapped; mail was frequently opened and read by security agents. Romania was the only Eastern Bloc nation that did not send a representative to John Paul IIs installation as Pope.

After the complicity of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the persecution of Catholics, the situation since the fall of Communism calls for some special reconciliation. The Orthodox, of course, suffered terribly themselves in these years having been forced to take positions and operate in a way that an independent church would never have done willingly. And no small number of Orthodox wound up in prisons themselves, where they and their Catholic brothers and sisters learned ecumenism by working together in a very hard school. Since the fall of Communism, there have been steps taken to remedy past hurts, but conflicts remain. Some Romanian Orthodox resent the Catholic Churchs attempt to recover all her lost institutions and faithful a restitution in justice that should be in integrum (i.e., total). Orthodox Archbishop Corneanu of Timosara has distinguished himself for his generosity in returning Catholic churches.

Obviously, there are some delicate situations that need to be resolved, as for example where Orthodox parishes have been operating in Catholic buildings for over 50 years now. A further sore point is that Catholic evangelization is being successful, particularly among those Romanians who believe the Orthodox Church collaborated all too readily with the Communist government. John Paul II, however, has counseled: Brothers who shared for some time the same suffering and trials should not pit themselves against one another today, but should envisage together a future that will open up towards signs promoting hope.

The story of Romanian persecution and martyrdom is virtually without equal in the 20th or any other century. As LOsservatore Romano wrote in 1948, when the persecution was only starting: No similar story of moral violence, of persecution, of the Via Crucis of liberty, of personality, and of human dignity can be read in all the pages of history. Given the two millennia in which the Church has existed, these are strong words indeed, but probably no more than just. Perhaps this terrible Romanian example will encourage all people of good will to try to make sure that the pages of future history never again bear such infamies.



Robert Royal "The Calvary of Romania." Catholic World Report (March, 2000).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report an international news monthly.

The Author

Royal1RoyalRobert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History,The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2000 Catholic World Report
back to top