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A Test of Faith for Romanians

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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I heard voices rise, then fall from the yellow-bricked chapel. An elderly gentleman stepped out and reached for a cigarette, revealing through the opened door a symphony of color – gold, azure green and red. The chapel was alive with brightly painted patterns and the chattering of worshippers. Gilded icons of Mary and the saints, enthroned in the celestial vault, gazed at the congregation below. Clouds of smoldering incense shrouded the space, erasing all sense of size.

This was not Constantinople, Rome or Moscow, but Astoria, Queens, a borough of New York City. The chapel, dedicated to the Mother of God, Our Protection, lies nestled within the Monastery of the Sacred Heart, a semi-cloistered community of Byzantine Rite Basilian nuns.

Every Sunday a small Romanian emigre community, led by its pastor, Father Mircea Clinet, gathers in the chapel to pray for the full restoration of their once-outlawed faith and for peace in these uncertain times.

“With utmost confidence we turn to thee at this trying hour in the life of our Church,” the congregation recites in Romanian at the end of each liturgy “Most compassionate Queen of peace, pray for us, and through thy intercession secure for us and for Our Romanian Catholic Church that freedom and peace we so earnestly desire.

In its attempt to weaken and ultimately destroy Christianity, the dominant force in most Romanians’ lives, the communist regime pitted various Christian groups against each other. Centuries-old rivalries and misunderstandings were revived. Pain and confusion preoccupied Christians of all faiths.

Like their sisters and brothers in the Soviet Republic of the Ukraine, Byzantine Rite Catholics in Romania bore the full brunt of the Communists’ wrath. Their faith was declared illegal. Their churches and church institutions were either closed or transferred to the Orthodox Church. Nine bishops and many priests and religious were imprisoned or exiled. Yet, even without a hierarchy, Romanian Catholics clandestinely continued to practice their faith.

The Byzantine Catholic Church in Romania, once estimated at 1.5 million strong, is very similar to the larger Orthodox Church. Both share a common heritage, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (the form of worship common to all Byzantine Rite and Orthodox Churches), a deep love of tradition, devotion to Mary and the saints and a profound respect for the Eucharist. Yet, what separates the faithful is often perceived as historical and political.

Romania is made up of several provinces, each with its own history. The ancient principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were uniformly Orthodox. Transylvania, a province in northwestern Romania, was heavily influenced by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. In September 1700, a synod of Orthodox clergy gathered to discuss union with Rome in Alba Iulia, a city in the heart of Transylvania. That year, union was achieved and the Romanian Byzantine Catholic Church was formed. Wallachia and Moldavia, however, remained largely Orthodox.

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Tags: Orthodox Church Emigration Romania Byzantine Catholic Church Romanian Greek Catholic