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St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle...

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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
15 Feb 2002
The Romanian Catholic Fight to Reclaim Stolen Property

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With the ban on Catholicism no longer in effect, Romanian Catholics have petitioned the new government for the rightful return of their property, particularly local parish churches.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.

Not only had these Catholic parishioners who had retained their faith through harsh persecution been deprived of their old stone church, but the demolition unnecessarily desecrated a number of graves in the process.2

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:

Which is literally truthful, but ignores the evidence that in some cases there was plenty of adjoining property that was equally if not more suitable for construction of a new Orthodox church. Additionally, in at least one occasion the demolition of a church (in Baisoara) was performed immediately after the Catholic claim for restoration was submitted.4 And it gets worse: This is not a "normal process." It is a deliberate and insidious desecration of stolen Catholic churches.

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.

Although the Catholics had previously agreed to bring all property dispute issues before a joint Catholic-Orthodox commission, the commission has shown little resolve and made even less progress. The Catholic resignation to civil authorities in this case marks their break with the agreement and understandable dissatisfaction with its results. If the Romanian Orthodox are unwilling to cooperate in such matters and further delays only increase the risk of scandalous demolition, there is little else that can be done.

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.

This injustice is clear even to a one of Romanian Orthodoxy's own bishops.

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,

Asks one Catholic commentator: For Catholics in Romania to offer such an extreme and unbelievable concession, the benefit should certainly be worth it. But what has this "ecumenical progress" yielded to date? There were 2,012 Romanian Catholic churches in 1948, but when the communists came to power, every one of them was confiscated and given to the Romanian Orthodox. Since 1990, when the ban of Catholicism was lifted, only 150 churches have been returned, 100 of which only after enduring "a legal battle (and, in some cases, a physical confrontation) with Orthodox pastors." 11

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.

After a miraculous escape, the two courageous refugees made their way to the Vatican where they were told by Vatican officials (including Cardinals Villot and Casaroli) that they should not convert to Catholicism because it would "damage relations" with the Communists in Romania and the Eastern Orthodox.

Attempts to enter a Catholic seminary and become ordained as Catholic priests were repeatedly blocked by the Vatican Secretary of State.

It took three years of struggles and disappointments before the two men were finally ordained as Catholic priests, permission only coming the day after Pope Paul VI's death.

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" cited by the Russian Orthodox leader are the simple measures taken by Catholics emerging from under the yoke of Communist oppression: reclaiming stolen property, re-establishing Catholic dioceses and continuing with their divinely-instituted charge to convert all people to the One True Church of Christ.

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.

Peter Miller
Seattle, WA

1 Catholic World News, "Romanian Catholic Church Destroyed for Orthodox Parish" (12/21/2001) [RCC]
2 [RCC]
3 Catholic World News, "Romanian Catholics Fight for Church Restoration" (2/1/2002) [RCF]
4 [RCF]
5 [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]
8 [OBB]
9 [DOR]
10 C. Ferrara, "Conversion of Russia Update: Romanian Catholics Have Had It with Ecumenism," Fatima Perspectives, (Jan, 2002)
11 [RCF]
12 J. Vennari, "You Must Not Become Catholic!" Catholic Family News (12/2001) [YMN]
13 [YMN]
14 [DOR]

(Read more of Fr. Popian's dramatic story here)
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