Struggles with the Orthodox and the Vatican
As in the former Soviet Union and present-day China, most every country to come under Communist rule has outlawed and attempted to eradicate Catholicism. The Communist regime in Romania was no exception. Romanian Catholics were forced to abandon the Church and join the Eastern Orthodox (which was under state control) or face imprisonment, torture or murder. Likewise all Catholic property from the smallest country chapels to the largest cathedrals and monasteries were either confiscated or destroyed.
Since the "fall" of communism in Eastern Europe, those anti-Catholic policies have officially been lifted and Catholics who have suffered under five decades of persecution have begun the slow process of rebuilding their parishes and reclaiming their property. Unfortunately, these perfectly reasonable and just efforts have been met with extreme resistance and hostility from an Eastern Orthodox hierarchy trying to retain its ill-gotten power and property.
"They would rather destroy the churches instead of giving them back"
This property conflict reached a tragic climax last October when the Romanian Orthodox destroyed a historic church presumably to avoid having to return it to the Catholics. Located in the Vadu Izei village of Romania's Transylvania region, this small parish church was confiscated by the Communists in 1948 and handed over to the Schismatics.
With the ban on Catholicism no longer in effect, Romanian Catholics have petitioned the new government for the rightful return of their property, particularly local parish churches. In full knowledge of these efforts and despite repeated protests by both Catholic and civil authorities, the Orthodox went forward with the destruction of this particular church and plans to build a larger facility on the site.
In Vadu Izei, Father Marius Visovan told the Keston News Service, "The destruction of the church did not have any Christian justification." He added: "They would rather destroy the churches instead of giving them back." 1
This was just one of at least ten churches in Romania that the Orthodox have destroyed, making any reclamation efforts impossible. Attempting to justify such measures, Orthodox Archbishop Bartholomew Anania of Cluj stated that:
"Demolishing an old church to erect a new one-- in its place or on its borders-- has been a necessary, normal process throughout the Christian centuries." 3
In one extreme case, in Ungheni, an Orthodox church was built to surround an existing Romanian Catholic structure; the Catholic building was then demolished-- having now been defined as a part of the Orthodox church structure. In another case, in Vadu Izei, Orthodox builders began construction of a new church immediately behind an existing building, then "discovered" that they would have to destroy the old building in order to have room for the front of the new one.5
Abandoning joint committees for civil lawsuits
Just last month, one Romanian Catholic diocese was forced to bring a civil lawsuit against the local Romanian Orthodox to reclaim possession of an old monastery.
The particular property in the current dispute is a monastery at Nicula, which houses a famous Marian icon. The monastery dates back to the 17th century-- prior to restoration of communion between the Romanian Catholic hierarchy and the Holy See. The monastery remained in Catholic hands until 1948, when it was handed over (along with the local parish church) to the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese of Cluj.6
...the Romanian Catholic Church has petitioned [the Catholic-Orthodox Commission] for the return of 160 church buildings, and the right to share the use of 227 other parish churches that were originally in Catholic hands. Despite years of ecumenical dialogue, Orthodox officials have transferred only six churches back to Catholic parishes; not a single petition for joint use of a parish church building has been accepted.7
Although most Romanian Orthodox officials remained silent on this lawsuit, one spoke out against such obvious abuse. Orthodox Metropolitan Nicolae Corneanu of Banat criticized his associates and lent his support to the plight of the Romanian Catholics.
"As I have said previously, and I will not cease to say, it is worse than revolting, what is happening here," Metropolitan Nicolae said. He said that Orthodox dioceses should restore Catholic properties "at Nicula and in other places." 8
A danger to dialogue?
One might expect that given what Romanian Catholics have endured over the last half century, their efforts to reclaim stolen property would be wholly supported by the Vatican. However, according to the January 11th Catholic World News report,
Romanian Catholics have also frequently expressed concerns that they are under heavy pressure from the Vatican to forsake their property claims, for the sake of ecumenical progress.9
"How in Heaven's name can the Vatican put pressure on Romanian Catholics to validate this crime against the Church by giving up their struggle to regain what was stolen from her by communist thugs who persecuted the Bride of Christ? ... when communists steal consecrated Catholic parishes, God's law demands their return to the Catholic Church. This is not a question of mere human bickering over real estate." 10
It's tragic that Romanian Catholics should continue to suffer the injustices of Communism, even after its much-heralded "fall", but for Church officials to ask them to bear such offenses in the interest of "ecumenical progress" is obscene. Unfortunately, this policy of the Vatican towards the Orthodox in Romania is nothing new.
The plight of Fr. Popian
Last November, Father Linus Dragu Popian spoke in New York of his dramatic conversion story and the obstacles he faced along the way. Trained in a Romanian Orthodox seminary until 1975, Fr. Popian and a fellow seminarian risked their freedom and very lives to escape Communist Romania and convert to Catholicism.
The government had put to death the 13 Catholic bishops living in Romania, and it was against the law for a Romanian to convert to the Catholic Faith. Anyone in Romania who converted to Catholicism was regarded as a traitor to the Orthodox religion, a traitor to his family, a traitor to his country, and would be sent to Siberia.12
Attempts to enter a Catholic seminary and become ordained as Catholic priests were repeatedly blocked by the Vatican Secretary of State.
Four times [a German] bishop tried to ordain the two seminarians. Each time the Vatican found some excuse for blocking the ceremony. Then in February of 1977, all was ready for Father Popian and his friend to be ordained. They were dressed in their white albs, there were twenty priests present, thousands of people had arrived for the event, and all were awaiting the bishop's arrival at a Marian shrine in Northern Italy. But the bishop did not come, because he had received a personal telephone call from Archbishop Casaroli, ordering the bishop to put off the ordinations indefinitely. Casaroli gave two reasons why these two men must not be ordained: 1) It would spoil the Vatican's relations with the Communist, Socialist government of Romania, 2) It would cause difficulties between the Vatican and the Romanian Orthodox.13
The Russia factor
In accordance with its shameful Ostpolitik policy towards Communists and Eastern Schismatics, the Vatican is being very cautious in how it approaches this situation in Romania. Every move is being carefully scrutinized by the much larger and more suspicious Russian Orthodox church. The January 11th CWN report continues by noting that:
The continuing conflicts between the Romanian Catholic and Orthodox churches has frequently been cited by Orthodox leaders-- most notably Patriarch Aleksei II of Moscow-- as a factor that blocks the road toward Christian unity.14
Preventing such activities from taking places is an extreme injustice, as is any concession to the legitimacy of such actions, no matter what the risk to "ecumenical progress" may be.
1 Catholic World News, "Romanian Catholic Church Destroyed for Orthodox Parish" (12/21/2001) [RCC]
3 Catholic World News, "Romanian Catholics Fight for Church Restoration" (2/1/2002) [RCF]
6 Catholic World News, "Dispute Over Romanian Monastery Could Disrupt Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue" (1/11/2002) [DOR]
7 Catholic World News, "Orthodox Bishop Backs Efforts by Romanian Catholics" (1/11/2002) [OBB]
10 C. Ferrara, "Conversion of Russia Update: Romanian Catholics Have Had It with Ecumenism," Fatima Perspectives, www.fatima.org (Jan, 2002)
12 J. Vennari, "You Must Not Become Catholic!" Catholic Family News (12/2001) [YMN]