Romanian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches

Author: Mons. Eleuterio F. Fortino


Mons. Eleuterio F. Fortino
Undersecretary, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Warming relations between East and West

The visit that His Beatitude Teoctist, Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, made to Rome last 7-13 October had a special significance. It was an important event on the long journey in the quest for understanding between the Catholics and the Orthodox of Romania.

Elected Patriarch of Romanian Orthodox Church in 1986

Its repercussions extend beyond the boundaries of Romania and help foster the spirit of rapprochement among Christians in general. Indeed, the Patriarch's initiative, at his venerable age, of coming to meet the elderly Pope of Rome who paid him a visit in Bucharest in 1999, marked the beginning of fraternal reciprocity between the Churches.

On the other hand, it also illustrated the concept that Church leaders are the active guides of their own faithful, and as such they themselves do what they would like everyone else to do: take steps, even if they require an effort, to meet their brethren and try to solve existing problems.

Patriarch Teoctist was born in 1915. He became a monk in 1935, a bishop in 1950 and Archbishop of Craiova in 1973. He was Metropolitan of laşi from 1977 to 1986 when, in November, he was elected Patriarch.

He is the fifth Patriarch since the Autocephalous Church of Romania was raised to the rank of Patriarchate (1925), succeeding Miron Cristea (1925-1939), Nicodim Munteanu (1939-1948), Justinian Marina (1948-1977) and Justin Moisescu (1977-1986).

In the first week of January 1987, a few months after his election as head of the Romanian Church, he visited the Pope. It was a "courageous" visit in opposition to the political authority of the time. The Pope was able to repay his visit on 7 to 9 May in 1999.

Thus, relations with the Romanian Church have slowly improved and have gradually been gaining momentum in the past 50 years.

Previous ecumenical relations with the Romanian Church

Next to the Orthodox Church of Russia, the Romanian Church is one of the largest of the Orthodox Churches. Despite the adversarial status created by the Communist regime with an outright persecution (1958-1964) that created many martyrs of the faith and brought the consequent restrictions and controls, the Romanian Orthodox Church was able to continue her ministry of preaching in the context of worship, as well as her work of sanctification with liturgical celebrations and the administration of the sacraments. She could guarantee the formation of the clergy at various seminaries and two university-level theological faculties at Bucharest and Sibiu.

Despite the damaging situation, the Romanian Church managed to preserve and continue the essential, and even embarked on forms of cultural collaboration, using the scholarships provided by the Catholic Church and other Churches in the West. But it was difficult in that period for ecumenical relations to be easily resumed; they were full of tacit reservations.

Although the Romanian Church had been invited, she sent no "observers" to the Second Vatican Council. This was symptomatic of a serious problem with multiple causes, including the persecution and the situation of conflict with the Catholic Church that resulted from the suppression by the regime of the Greek-Catholic Church in 1948. The virtual "coercion" of her faithful into joining the Orthodox Church and the confiscation of Greek-Catholic Church property by the Government authorities, who gave a part of it to the Orthodox Church, determined an attitude of diffidence, if not bitterness.

Out of respect for the ecumenical directives outlined by the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church was exploring every possibility to resume contact. In 1971 it was possible to send a first delegation to Bucharest for an initial contact with that Orthodox Church. In 1972 this was repaid by the visit of a Romanian Delegation.

The level of relations was upgraded in 1975. For the 90th anniversary of the Autocephalous Church of Romania, a delegation led by Cardinal Johannes Willebrands went to Bucharest. The Cardinal was President of what was then the Secretariat for Christian Unity.

In 1977, for the enthronement of the new Patriarch, H.B. Justin, Cardinal Willebrands visited Romania for the second time. In his official address and greeting, he said: "We also rejoice because it has been possible for us to be present here. This is a sign of true progress in the relations between our Churches".

The Cardinal expressed his hope for further progress and candidly referred to the problems waiting to be resolved. "May the Lord grant us to be creative", he said, "in our effort to explore all the ways that could lead us to unity, to overcome the ancientdivergences that have set Catholics and Orthodox against one another for centuries and heal the wounds of a more recent past which still impede our progress. The solution of these difficulties will enable us to advance more swiftly towards perfect unity, in full freedom and fidelity".

As he continued, the Cardinal became more explicit: "We are prepared to face all these problems, in a spirit of collaboration with the competent pan-Orthodox institutions and, for the more specific problems, with each individual Church".

To understand the context of these assertions one should keep in mind that they were said on a festive occasion when the Communist regime of Ceaucescu was in power, the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church did not yet exist — although it was on a back-burner — and when the Orthodox Church in Romania was encountering problems and the Greek-Catholic Church continued to be "non-existent".

The Cardinal's discourse was appreciated for its fraternal tone, its commitment to dialogue and its realistic approach to the unresolved problems. Many people present remarked that the reference to recent difficulties, which everyone realized was an allusion to the problem of the Greek-Catholic Church, was honest and timely.

Moreover, the dialogue must tackle problems that arise between the Churches. On that occasion, there was a conversation with several leaders of the Patriarchate to investigate the possibilities of creating a Romanian Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission to discuss with the Romanian Church the "specific problems" that were emerging. But the time was not ripe for this kind of initiative.

Two suggestions made by Cardinal Willebrands were subsequently acted upon. The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue was set up in 1979. The Romanian Orthodox Church had an active part in its preparation. The Romanian Delegation made a constructive contribution to the dialogue. The first delegates were two eminent figures: the Metropolitan of Banat Nicolae, and the well-known theologian, Dumitru Staniloae. Those who replaced them subsequently collaborated effectively in the dialogue.

Time was important, even after the collapse of Communism and the legalization of the Greek-Catholic Church (1990), and the proposal of a dialogue between the Orthodox and GreekCatholic Bishops in Romania also led to the constitution of a local joint commission. It was established in 1997 and continues to make slow progress.

It came into being to solve a "specific problem", the question of the ownership and use of places of worship that formerly belonged to the Greek-Catholic Church. Its slow progress shows how serious this issue is, at least psychologically, for the parties involved.

However, the dialogue between the Bishops also has broader methodological and deontological aspects. An exchange of contacts was established in Romania, and the sometimes difficult dialogue is an instrument chosen for discussion and not for polemics.

Patriarch Teoctist himself visited the sick Cardinal Alexandru Todea, former Metropolitan of the Greek-Catholic Church. An Orthodox Delegation was later present at his funeral.

The Pastoral Visit of the Pope to Romania in 1999

In this new scenario the Holy Father was able to visit Romania in 1999. It was the Pope's first visit to a country with an Orthodox majority.

Patriarch Teoctist and the Holy Synod received the Pope with great dignity and evident brotherliness at a gathering of an exuberant and faithful people. The sight of the Pope and the Patriarch walking together towards the altar in the celebrations of both Orthodox and Catholic liturgies was a visible ecumenical catechesis.

The speeches they exchanged recalled the reasons for the need for unity and for the desire to obey the Lord's commandment of reciprocal love and unity, so that the world might believe.

The Holy Father was received by the Holy Synod and gave an important address. The President of Romania, Mr Emil Costantinescu, and the nation's civil authorities also received the Pope with equal honour and joy; they considered his visit an honour paid to their country and to the entire Romanian people, as well as to the Orthodox Church, the Latin- and Byzantine-rite Catholic Churches and all the other Churches in the country.

In his farewell discourse at Bucharest, referring to his visit, the Pope said among other things: "These have been days of deep emotion, which I have intensely felt and which will be cherished in my heart. Let us accept the events we shared together as a gift from God's hand, confident that they will bear fruits of grace for Christians and for all the people of Romania. Your country has a unique ecumenical vocation stemming from its very roots. Because of its geographical location and long history, its culture and tradition, Romania in a way is a house where East and West meet in natural dialogue" (ORE, 19 May 1999, n. 2, p. 6).

Obvious positive signs of growth between the two Churches

The Patriarch was welcomed in Rome last October with all the respect and affection that he and the Church he presides over deserve. He was received in the name of the Lord.

Moreover, the historical and cultural ties with Rome which the Romanians emphasize, continue to be at the root of our relations. With reference to their origin as a neo-Latin people the Romanians consider their Church as the one "Latin-Orthodox Church" that can act as a mediator for greater understanding between East and West.

In the context of ecumenical relations, in a period in which relations between the Churches seemed to have cooled, the visit of Patriarch Teoctist highlighted the expression of brotherhood, the dialogue of charity and common prayer as paths on which to revive the search for unity on our way towards the final goal.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 October 2003, page 8

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