Romania – The legacy of Catholic persecution
An interview with the bishop of Cluj-Gherla Diocese in Romania, Bishop Florentin Crihalmeanu
The story of the Greek Catholic persecution in Romania is without parallel in the 20th century or any century for that matter. Before Communism was introduced in 1948, the Greek Catholic Church numbered some 1.5 million members. After 50 years of severe persecution that number is today reduced to about 700,000.
Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps, in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, interviews the bishop of Cluj-Gherla Diocese in Romania, Bishop Florentin Crihalmeanu.
(Bishop Florentin Crihalmeanu)
Q) Your Excellency, you were ordained a bishop in 1997. What was your reaction when you learned about your new appointment?
A) It was very interesting because the Nuncio did not say anything. I traveled to Bucharest on his invitation. He was asking me normal questions when suddenly he said: “You know Pope John Paul II has appointed you bishop”. It was a silent moment. I said: “Look, I’m afraid I’m not perhaps the right person to do it.” I tried to somehow distance myself from the idea. Finally, it was the words of Nuncio Janusz Bolonek from Poland who said: “You can do many good things for the people”, which suddenly changed my mind and convinced me. It altered my perspective of the position and the heavy cross of being a bishop. I said I would think about it. He said “No, you have to give me the answer now. When you go out from this house it is either yes or no”. I said I had to consult my spiritual father, he said: “No, you have to make the decision now”.
Q) Was it wise?
A) I think yes because it was a spur of the moment decision. I asked the Nuncio: “Please give me some moments to pray before answering”. He said: “Yes, it’s now 12 o’clock and we have lunch at 12:30. So you have the time to pray. Please go to the chapel and take your time”. While praying in the chapel I raised my eyes and looked upon the door of the Tabernacle and I saw Christ smiling while breaking the bread. So I thought that this was a sign. I returned to the Nuncio and said yes.
Q) What makes a good servant of God?
A) Firstly, one has to trust that God loves you. He does not choose you because you are intelligent, beautiful or have other human qualities; He chooses you because he loves you and you have to trust in His love and I think this is the main principle and a very important thing for a bishop.
Q) There are two main Catholic traditions in Romania: The Greek Catholic and the Roman Catholic. You are the Greek Catholic bishop of the Cluj Diocese. Can you briefly describe the Greek Catholic tradition in Romania?
A) We have to go back in history. There was a part of the Orthodox Church that returned to Rome. This is a partial reality of the existence of the Greek Catholic Church. This also explains why we have this Catholic tradition, the Byzantine rite apart from the Latin rite, and the existence of the other rites that we have in the Oriental Catholic Churches. This diversity comes from the fact that we accepted the four points that were the source of division in 1054.We accepted these points as stated in the Catholic Doctrine: (1) The Supremacy of the Holy Father; (2) The Filioque; (3) The Purgatorium Doctrine and; (4) The Doctrine of Transubstantiation in the Eucharist. The Council of Florence in the 15th century stipulated that if we accepted these four points, we would be in full communion with Rome, but maintaining our Byzantine tradition such as: married priests, the administration of the Sacraments, which is somehow slightly different, a different calendar, different liturgical vestments and architecture and so on.
Q)... but absolutely within the Catholic Church?
A) Exactly. Accepting all the documents of the Holy Father and accepting the Oriental Canon Law as approved by the Vatican.
Q) I would like to talk now about the suffering of the Greek Catholic Church during the communist period in Romania. Why did the communists specifically single out the Greek Catholic Church for persecution after 1948?
A) We have to go back in history to the year 1946 and the persecution that took place in Ukraine. The communists in Romania came to power in March of 1945. The Prime Minister of Romania at that time, Petru Groza, following exactly what Stalin did to the Greek Catholics in the Ukraine, did the same to our Church in Romania. Initially they started a campaign against the Vatican and the Catholics labeling them as a foreign power, an imperialist power taking advantage of the country. So they started closing schools, monasteries and all the Church properties were confiscated. It was an open campaign against the Catholics. On the first of October the communists convoked what they called a “synod” of the clergy stating that it was a meeting to re-evaluate the union with Rome.
Q) ... with the intent of breaking unity with Rome?
A) Exactly and calling it a return to the mother Orthodox Church. But from our point of view this was invalid because no bishop was present and a number priests who were there - after realizing what they were expected to do - quit the meeting.
Q) So it was completely illegal and invalid?
A) Exactly. There was no basis even under canon law.
Q) This resistance plunged the Greek Catholic Church into a terrible time of persecution?
A) Indeed. Afterwards they said that all Greek Catholics would now be Orthodox and decreed, on the 1st of December, that all Greek Catholic institutions and properties be dissolved and expropriated. The Metropolitan and the bishopric as well as monasteries were dissolved and put under the Orthodox Church. The next issue was the division of the Greek Catholic Church properties; the Catholic schools came under the Ministry of Education, the Church properties came under the Ministry of Agriculture. That was the end.
Q) Your family lived through these times. Did you suffer personally from the persecution?
A) No, we did not feel it. We grew up in that environment. There were things we could say and not say and things we could do and not do. When we were young for example, my mother, the fire of faith in the family, knew that somebody was watching us - the Secret Police. Once my mother was summoned to appear at what we called Room 13 where she was questioned: “Do you realize what you are doing with your kids and their education? There will be no more going to Church”. My mother was strong and had no fear. She responded and inquired: “Do you have kids”? The person said yes. My mother then said: “I do not question how you educate your kids so do not tell me how to educate my kids”. The police did not call her again. She knew though, that she could not push too far. My father could not go to Church. He was a director of an enterprise and to hold that position one had to be a member of the communist party. So he could absolutely not go to church.
Q) So he lived his faith at home?
A) Yes, it was more in the home than in the public sphere.
Q) As we have spoken, the Greek Catholic Church was liquidated and bishops and clergy were imprisoned. One of these who suffered a lot is Fr. Tertullian Langa. You know him well. Would you say that after his period of severe persecution that he lives the words of the prayer to the Our Father: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”?
A) You know that the story of Fr. Tertullian is a very strong story. There are limits to suffering which can only be transcended by faith. As he says: “Faith can transcend the limitations of the human spirit not only physically but also in the spiritual profundity to understand the other dimension of God. When you understand that God is love and that He gives it freely - and especially during the trying moments in one’s life – and He gives the grace to strengthen us to face our sufferings, one gets closer to God. There is a communion with the divine. Who did it and why did he do it becomes a question of no importance. This is the reason why the first words often uttered by those who were persecuted, upon release from their persecutors, were: “We forgive and we are not interested in knowing these persecutors. They were instruments. What they did was certainly not a good thing but we are not interested in seeking revenge. We do not wish to further this evil”.
Fr. Tertullian bears the marks of physical persecution, which he feels on a daily basis, and yet after all these events he has gone back to the life of the Church as though nothing happened. He tries to be a normal servant of God and now he is completing the publication of his memoirs; it is very interesting and his strong faith and connection with God is revealed.
This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. On the Net: www.wheregodweeps.org
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