Romania: Faithful to a Martyr's Death
By Magdalena Wolnik
& Johannes Habsburg
In 1950 a prisoner of the communist authorities, held in a Franciscan monastery, Bishop Janos Scheffler managed to send one last message to his flock: “Remain faithful … even up to a martyr’s death.” Two years later the unbreakable man of Satu Mare, Romania, was dead. A bishop who lead by example remained true to his word.
(Photos of the Rumanian bishops made at the time of their imprisonment)
At the end of the Second World War Romania found itself among those countries dominated by imposed communist regimes. In keeping with communist methodology Georgiju Dej’s dictatorship, and later that of Nicolae Ceausescu, was characterized, amongst other things, by an intense stifling of all manifestations of religious life. The main aim of its religious policy was the wholesale nationalization of all Churches. In 1948 Romania broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
As so often under communism, the worst repressions befell the Greek Catholic Church, in full communion with the Bishop of Rome by virtue of the Act of Union of 1700. In October 1948 the authorities rounded up thirty-six Greek Catholic priests from Transylvania in the town of Cluj and induced them to sign a document pursuant to which the Greek Catholic Church would “return” to the Orthodox Church. All of Romania’s Greek Catholic bishops were arrested, and on December 1st the government issued a decree by which the Greek Catholic Church officially ceased to exist. Over five hundred priests, nuns and members of the laity were imprisoned. The state confiscated all Greek Catholic churches and property, handing most of it over to the Orthodox Church.
It was at that time that the government also banned the Roman Catholic Bishop Janos Scheffler (1887-1952) of the Satu Mare diocese from performing any public duties. Two years later, he was interned in a Franciscan monastery, though he still managed to maintain contact with his diocese, secretly appointed several replacements and was able to send a final message of consolation to his faithful. Because of his moral strength and unbending attitude, in 1952 he was transferred to a secret underground prison in Bucharest. While bathing, guards released boiling water causing serious multiple burns. He died from his wounds on December 6th 1952.
Non Possumus – we cannot
Of the few voices of protest at the time, one testimony survives as a dramatic witness of the suffering of the Romanian Greek Catholic faithful. In Paris, in 1949, the Romanian Orthodox religious affairs expert Mircea Eliade wrote: “Churches were occupied by the state militia, priests were arrested or murdered at the altar, nuns were deported at night in police lorries, jailed and mistreated, hundreds of priests and bishops were installed in a monastery pending their deportation”. Seven Greek Catholic bishops died in prisons and internment camps, including Cardinal Iuliu Hossu. He was kept in the Orthodox monastery at Caldarusani until his death. Although various methods were applied in an effort to convince him to renounce unity with Rome, Bishop Hossu consistently refused, saying: “I cannot, because our faith is our life.”
The clock glass paten
Amidst the persecutions, the Greek Catholic Church endeavored to secretly surround its faithful with at least a modicum of pastoral care. Holy Mass was celebrated in hiding, in private homes with curtains drawn, in silence. Msgr. Alexandru Mesian, bishop of Lugoj, remembers that as a priest he had to be prepared for interrogation and security searches at any time. Accordingly the chalice used for Holy Mass was a stemmed glass that stood in his room amongst many other glasses. “Only I knew which one was the chalice that I used to celebrate Mass. The paten was a glass front removed from a laboratory clock. I used to work in a chemical laboratory at the time.” He put the wine into laboratory phials, which he would later cut open to pour the wine into the chalice. This ensured that the state authorities never found any physical evidence.
Msgr. Florentin Crihalmeanu, a young engineer at the time employed in the production of tools for the food processing industry, participated in such underground Masses. Convinced of a vocation, in 1987 he began studying in a clandestine seminary. “I worked from morning until 15:30, whilst covert theology lectures lasted from 16:00 until 20:00”. He took his Holy Orders in 1990, the same year that the Greek Catholic Church regained its freedom. From among forty course participants he and a companion were the first two to be ordained following the bitter years of persecution – a persecution that only ended with the final collapse of communism. “These were the first ordinations in our Church, in a free country. Of course, because we had no cathedral, [they] took place in the open air, in Freedom Square.”
(Msgr. Florentin Crihalmeanu)
The Holy Liturgy in not so holy places
For the Catholic Church in Romania the issue of finding appropriate places to celebrate the liturgy remains unresolved to this day. Catholics make up a 7% minority in a predominantly Orthodox Christian country.
Of the 2,200 churches confiscated by the state in 1948 and given to the Orthodox Church, Greek Catholics have received only a very small percentage. In some places the Holy Mass continues to be celebrated in rented halls, schools, art centers, cinemas, or in open squares. Greek Catholics have also not recovered many rectories, monasteries, schools and hospitals, taken by the communist authorities. The best way out of this stalemate appears to be to build new places of worship; something that the poverty stricken Greek Catholic Church finds hard to bear without help from abroad.
Other challenges also threaten those Catholic structures already returned. In Bucharest, a nineteen-storey building is planned just eight meters away from the historic Roman Catholic cathedral of Saint Joseph, undermining its structural stability. According to Father Ieronim Iacob, Bucharest’s archdiocesan press spokesman, a certain degree of hostility towards Catholics can be detected from some members of the local authority, as well as a total unwillingness to begin to understand the problems faced by Romania’s Catholic Church as a whole.
On July 3rd, 2011, Bishop Janos Scheffler was beatified as a martyr in the Romanian town of Satu Mare. His successors hope that his example of unwavering faith that helped the Church survive the brutal communist persecution will inspire Catholics both in Romania and abroad. Today they depend not only on their own fortitude, but also on the prayers and material support of the Universal Church.
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