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The Romanian Church United With Rome

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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The last two weeks before Christmas 1989 were more frenzied than usual for Romanians. Fueled by the fall of the Berlin Wall, rallies in the city of Timisoara, first held to protest the ouster of a popular Protestant pastor, László Tőkés, became anti-Communist marches. The Romanian regime’s dreaded secret police, the Securitate, responded ruthlessly, firing on the crowds, killing hundreds. Riots spread to other Romanian cities, including Bucharest, where civil war soon erupted.

By Christmas morning, however, the violence had ended as quickly as it had begun: The nation’s dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, lay in a pool of blood with his wife, Elena, both executed after caught fleeing the capital. A provisional government, calling itself the National Salvation Front, quickly restored order and began a new chapter in the life of the country. It abrogated orders of the former regime, including one that dissolved the Romanian Church United With Rome (also called the Romanian Greek Catholic Church) 41 years earlier.

Until Ceauşescu’s spectacular fall, Romania’s surviving Greek Catholics rarely revealed their faith. Their last known bishops, jailed as “class enemies,” died in prison or under house arrest. Churches, schools and other assets were seized and turned over to the Romanian Orthodox Church, which had absorbed most of the clergy and laity after a government-sponsored synod of Romanian Greek Catholic priests severed ties with Rome in 1948. Now suddenly, in less than a fortnight, the nightmare for Romania’s Greek Catholics had ended, ironically beginning a painful process of regrouping and rebuilding, for which they were ill-prepared. 

Who are Romania’s Greek Catholics? And what is the Romanian Church United With Rome? These questions are some of the most controversial in Central Europe. For what motivates this community of faith – who share the Byzantine legacy with their Romanian Orthodox brethren – is their ardor for their nation, which they helped nurture into being, and their union with Rome, itself prompted by their quest for civil rights.

Background.  Until 1918 (excluding a brief period from 1599 to 1601) a united Romania never existed. For some eight centuries, the people who now call themselves Romanians lived in three adjacent principalities: Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. They nevertheless shared a Romance language, a legacy it is thought of the Roman colonization of the former Dacian kingdom. They followed the Byzantine form of Christianity, which they had received from the Bulgarians in the ninth century. And they tenaciously defended their identity from more powerful neighbors – Greeks, Hungarians, Ottoman Turks and Slavs – who coveted their natural resources.

While the Romanians of Wallachia and Moldavia managed to prosper as vassals of the Ottomans, their kin north and west of the Carpathian Mountains – in Transylvania – were bound to the land as serfs.

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Tags: Romania Balkans Romanian Greek Catholic Romanian Orthodox Church