|A young Bishop killed at the age of 36. Theodore Romzha — whose canonization cause was
introduced on 8 November 1997 — is one of the multitude of witnesses
to the faith who paid with their lives for their fidelity to Christ and
to the Church during the blood-stained 20th century and were victims of
the insane ideologies that sought in violent and treacherous ways to
uproot the faith from European history.
The Carpathian region of Ukraine was the scene of dramatic events in
the last century. Until 1918 the area belonged to the Austro-Hungarian
Empire. It then became part of Czechoslovakia until it too fell under
Stalin's heel in 1944. The Greek Catholic Church in Transcarpathia was
relentlessly persecuted and in 1949 was officially suppressed.
The young Byzantine-rite Bishop of Mukachevo, Theodore Romzha, found
himself living in a critical period. Shortly before the arrival of the
Red Army, he wrote: "The frontier between Uzhorod and the Soviet
Union is only 60 kilometres away.... Whatever will be will be. My goal
is to do my apostolic work precisely among them. I have no intention of
running away.... Besides, it would be no disgrace if they were to kill
me. To die for Christ is to live for eternity".
When the Red Army arrived in Uzhorod, the Bishop received a courteous
visit from the commander, who "reassured" him about the future
and even invited him to speak at the celebrations for the anniversary of
the Russian Revolution. The Bishop's text was obviously prudent: he
thanked the Lord for the end of the war and exhorted the people to pray
for a stable and lasting peace. The Soviets however were dissatisfied
and had a doctored version of his speech published in the papers. This
was the go-ahead for systematic persecution. Churches were occupied and
assigned to the Orthodox. Priests were arrested. Bishop Romzha was asked
to make a declaration supporting the regime. He refused and was summoned
by Generals Petrov and Mechlis to account for his actions. Mechlis, who
represented the Soviet power, shouted in his face that now was the
moment to break with the Pope. Romzha firmly replied "no".
Two laws were enacted: one on the freedom to change religion without
formalities, and the other on the confiscation of Catholic parish
property. Romzha tried to prevent the situation from deteriorating, but
since even speaking to priests was becoming more and more difficult for
him, he undertook by horse and buggy a general pastoral visit that
lasted over a month.
The situation was not easy. The Soviets tried to convince certain
priests to let themselves be arbitrarily named Bishops on condition that
they collaborate. They received only scornful refusals. On 29 June 1945
Carpathian Ukraine was annexed to Soviet Ukraine. The situation
deteriorated. But the more the regime tightened its grip, the more
Bishop Romzha insisted on his pastoral missions. The last straw was the
celebration of the Assumption attended by 83,000 pilgrims. Only 3,000
were Orthodox; the other 80,000 were Catholic. This was too much, and
the Soviets did not tolerate it: they decided to ambush the Bishop as he
was returning from one of his pastoral visits.
The account of his assassination reads like the script of a B-grade
horror film. On 27 October 1947 the Bishop was returning from Lavki,
where he had consecrated a church. He was accompanied by two priests and
two seminarians. On the road between Cereivitsi and Ivanovtsi, a lorry
filled with soldiers and police drove into the buggy at high speed, with
the obvious intention of knocking it over and passing off the Bishop's
death as an accident. The horses died instantly. The buggy was smashed
to pieces. But Romzha and his companions survived the accident
unscathed. Then the soldiers, armed with iron bars, attempted to finish
the job: they kept hitting them until they appeared unconscious and were
then left for dead. Some passersby later came to their rescue and took
them in very serious condition to the Mukachevo hospital. The priests
and seminarians were discharged after a while, but Bishop Romzha stayed
in the ward since his injuries were more serious.
As the days passed his condition improved. But the Basilian Sisters
who were nursing him were suddenly dismissed and replaced with a
"trusted" nurse of the regime. It was she who gave him the coup
de grâce on 1 November 1947 by poisoning him with gas. He died
saying: "O Jesus...".
In a short time there was almost nothing left of the Ukrainian
Church. Five Dioceses, 10 Bishops, 3,500 priests 1,000 sisters and 500
seminarians, along with schools, newspapers and publishing houses all
vanished into nothing. Four million faithful were deprived of pastors.
Theodore Romzha carried out an intense mission for 36 years. He was
born in 1911 at Veliky Bychkiv in Transcarpathia. He grew up in the
complicated reality of that land. Born in Hungary, he became a
Czechoslovak citizen and died under the Soviet regime. He saw his
country's name change at least five times.
After studying at the secondary school in Chust from 1922 to 1930, he
was sent to the Pontifical German-Hungarian College in Rome to study at
the Pontifical Gregorian University. On 7 September 1934 he was
transferred to the Russicum, while continuing his studies at the
Gregorian. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Evreinov on Christmas Day
1936 in the Basilica of St Mary Major.
At the Pontifical German-Hungarian College he "changed
places", practically speaking, with Alojzije Stepinac, another
persecuted Pastor and martyr. Stepinac had come to Rome in 1924, was
ordained a priest on 26 October 1930 and celebrated Holy Mass at St Mary
Major on All Saints Day. After completing his studies, Stepinac returned
to Croatia in JuLy 1931.
Theodore Romzha also returned home after completing his studies and
hoped to be able to return to Rome for further study. In 1937 he was
drafted into military service in Prague, since the Eparchy of Mukachevo
was located in Czechoslovakia. After experience in several
Transcarpathian parishes he was appointed spiritual director at the
seminary and professor of philosophy. On 24 September 1944 he was
consecrated Bishop in the cathedral of Uzhorod by the Apostolic
Administrator, Miklos Dudas. Latin-rite Bishop Janos Settler of Satu
Mare, Romania, and Bishop Istvan Madaras of Kosice were ordained with
him. His episcopal mission began at that moment: three years into the
tragedy of the Second World War.