22 October 2015
A Romanian Orthodox priest leads a religious service in Piata Universitatii Square, downtown Bucharest. (photo: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)
The modern southeastern European nation of Romania lies where the Latin, Greek and Slavic cultures collide. Diversity once marked the composition of the people living there. Large communities of Armenians, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Jews, Roma, Slavs, Turks and Rumani (ethnic Romanians) lived together — sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Today, Romania is more homogeneous. About 83 percent of the population of 21 million is ethnic Romanian. Smaller communities of ethnic minorities remain, particularly in the central region of Transylvania.
The Orthodox Church of Romania is the largest religious community in the country — numbering more than 82 percent of the people — and the second-largest Orthodox Church in the world. Unlike other Orthodox churches, the Orthodox Church of Romania functions within a Latin culture and utilizes a Romance language in the celebration of the sacraments — legacies of the country’s Roman past. But Romanian, despite its Latin roots and syntax, includes words from Byzantine Greek and Church Slavonic, reflecting the early Romanians’ relationship with the Byzantines and Bulgarians respectively.
At the end of the 14th century, two Romanian principalities, Wallachia and Moldavia, emerged south and east of the Carpathian Mountains. Though Catholic communities existed in both states, especially among the prosperous German and Hungarian middle class burghers, the Orthodox Church — the faith of the Rumani majority — functioned as an arm of the princely families who governed the states. Monasteries opened and eparchies, erected. By the middle of the 14th century, the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople recognized a metropolitan archbishop of Ungro-Wallachia and half a century later a metropolitan archbishop of Moldavia.
Pastor Stefan Anghel celebrates with Romanian Orthodox believers the birth of John the Baptist on 7 January 2014 in Offenbach/Main, Germany. (photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
After the collapse of Byzantium and the Ottoman Turks’ capture of the capital, Constantinople, in 1453, Wallachia and Moldavia became vassal states of the Ottomans. Nevertheless, the Rumani principalities and its Orthodox churches thrived. Formidable monasteries and elaborate churches were constructed and adorned with frescoes — even on the exterior walls — revealing Byzantine, Renaissance and Turkish influences. Monasteries and eparchies established printing houses to publish liturgical books and theological works. Jewelers fashioned gilded reliquaries encrusted with mother of pearl and gems.
Rumani princes, bishops and abbots supported the impoverished ecumenical patriarchate in Ottoman Constantinople, restoring churches and endowing monasteries. Large monastic estates provided regular income to the ecumenical patriarchate and Mount Athos, a Byzantine monastic oasis that remains to this day.
While most of the Orthodox community in Wallachia and Moldavia spoke Rumaneste (Romanian), the church officially used Church Slavonic in the celebration of the sacraments until a local synod approved the use of the Romanian vernacular in 1568. Until 1863, the Orthodox Church used the Cyrillic alphabet to write Romanian liturgical texts, which was also common in civil society.
Despite centuries of challenges — ranging from oppression to collaboration in the modern era — the Orthodox Church of Romania has prospered. Parish life is vibrant; seminaries and monasteries are full; theological studies thrive and interchurch relations, especially with the Catholic Church, advanced significantly. Although immediately after the collapse of their Communist government in 1989 most elements of Romanian society seemed to have suffered posttraumatic stress disorder, the Orthodox Church was well poised to step in and assert leadership. Intellectually, pastorally and spiritually dynamic, it remains the most respected institution in contemporary Romanian society.
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