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Witnessing Ostpolitik’s Fruits and Ecumenism in Transylvania

Witnessing Ostpolitik’s Fruits and Ecumenism in Transylvania


South of Ukraine, the Holy See encourages peace, coexistence and subsidiarity.


CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania — The migratory patterns of revered cardinals often signal spots of special interest to the Holy See.

So the presence of Cardinal Francesco Monterisi in legendary Transylvania celebrating both the feast of St. Andrew, on Nov. 30, and the centenary anniversary of modern Romania’s birth, Dec. 1, was notable, especially because the Vatican diplomat was just three and a half hours south of the border of religiously conflicted Ukraine.

“Pope Francis himself and the collaborators around him: They are determined not to put their finger into this problem in Ukraine,” mused Cardinal Monterisi to the Register. “It is a very sad situation, a situation difficult to manage.”

The cardinal is a seasoned diplomat who served as nuncio to South Korea and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He has been a major architect of Vatican policy in the Middle East for 13 years.

Pivoting to Romania, the Italian-born prelate explained why he was spending several days in the little-known region, where Romanians, Hungarians, some Roma, Ukrainians and Germans coexist harmoniously, practicing a variety of Christian faiths — Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Latin Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, Unitarian and evangelical.

Cardinal Monterisi was a guest of the Romanian Greek Catholic Church (known as “Greek Catholic” because “Greek” is considered synonymous with “Byzantine Rite,” not because the Church is ethnically Greek), which was illegal under communism.

“Both Churches, Catholic and Orthodox, have a good feeling between them,” said Cardinal Monterisi, who attended, on the same day, Divine Liturgy at Greek Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals.

He added, “The population is so different, yet united.”

That was not always the case.

Suppression of Greek Catholics

Just 20 years ago, when a Romanian court ruled Byzantine Rite Catholics should retake Transfiguration Cathedral from the Orthodox Church, Orthodox clergy marched in protest down the city’s main street.

From 1948 to 1998, the Orthodox occupied the cathedral at the insistence of the ungodly communist regime. It was built in 1779, with financial help from Queen Maria Theresa of Hungary, who promoted the Greek Catholic Church and emphasized its equal status with Roman Catholicism. In 1924, Pope Pius XI gave the cathedral to the Greek Catholics.

A hierarchy of suppression marked the treatment of Christians under communism. Greek Catholics were most punished: The faith was banned, churches were given to the Orthodox and clergy were jailed and pressured to renounce the Church.

Latin Catholic clergy were similarly jailed and harassed, and many churches closed; but under Vatican influence, and after Soviet troops were withdrawn, Latin Catholics regained some freedom of worship.

Why were the Greek Catholics, centered in Transylvania, most despised by the Moscow-controlled Communist Party that took power in 1948?

Because Greek Catholics were considered strong nationalists and leading intellectuals who helped form Romanian national identity, explained faithful attending feast-day celebrations Nov. 30.

“You should read about Bishop Micu-Klein!” exclaimed an elderly parishioner, who proceeded to recount the history of the Church since this beloved 18th-century bishop petitioned the Hapsburg monarchy for political rights. (Transylvania was part of Hungary for centuries, until the 1920 Treaty of Trianon broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, awarding the region to Romania.)

Empress Maria Theresa insisted the Holy See call the persistent Bishop Inocentiu Micu-Klein from Transylvania to Rome. She accused him of stirring up serfs considered “moths in the cloth,” a term meaning threatening elements within the empire — a story Cardinal Monterisi, well-informed as a result of his sojourn, recounted to the Register.

Greek Catholic Bishop Micu-Klein wrote the Romanian grammar and emphasized the Latinity of the language.

History Alive

Knowing the contentious story of Transfiguration Cathedral, it was especially moving to see Orthodox Metropolitan Andrei Andreicuț of Cluj, Maramures and Salaj standing on the left side of the chancel, with Cardinal Monterisi on the right, as Greek Catholic Bishop Florentin Crihalmeanu led the Divine Liturgy first thing in the morning on the feast of St. Andrew.

As the saint who brought Christianity to the Eastern lands, St. Andrew is a founding apostle of Orthodoxy, like the way his brother St. Peter is the founding apostle for Latin Catholicism.

From Transfiguration Cathedral, Cardinal Monterisi joined his brother bishops at the Orthodox Assumption of the Virgin Mary Cathedral, where Metropolitan Andrei led the liturgy with the Catholic prelates as prominent guests.

Outside the Orthodox cathedral, Metropolitan Andrei dedicated two 10-foot bronze statues: One was of Metropolitan Nicolas Ivan, who helped found the country in 1918, and the second was of Bishop Bartholomew Anania, who helped revive the Church after the fall of communism.

Hundreds of Romanians participated in the dedication, including Orthodox and Greek-Catholic clergy, local officials, academics, a military honorary guard, and a small Italian community that has settled in the region.

Together with Cardinal Monterisi, all stood outside for several hours to honor the past on a below-freezing, record-cold day.

Especially in places such as Romania, where dictatorship forced approved historical narratives on people besides limiting what they could believe, the act of honoring historical heroes is a significant part of recovering identity.

Cardinal in Pectore

Continuing outdoors, Cardinal Monterisi helped Bishop Crihalmeanu dedicate a distinguished statue of Cardinal Iuliu Hossu, bishop of Cluj-Gherla (1917-1948), across from Transfiguration Cathedral, with many Orthodox clergy solemnly looking on. Hungarian Latin Catholic Father Kemenes Lorant-Zoltan, chief pastor of St. Michael’s Church, also participated.

Born in 1885, Hossu was just 32 when Pope Benedict XV named him bishop. He was also active in the formation of the modern Romanian state in 1918. As an open opponent of the communist takeover 30 years later, he was arrested and jailed in some of the country’s most torturous prisons. From 1964 until his death in 1970, he was confined, under arrest, in an Orthodox monastery.

Cardinal Hossu refused all inducements from the communist regime to convert, including the offer to be named Orthodox bishop of Cluj and Gherla, his former Greek Catholic jurisdiction. His  resistance and Vatican interest in his courage is detailed in the archives of the Securitate, the Romanian political police.

Pope Paul VI made Hossu a cardinal in pectore (in secret) in 1969, which was approximately when the Pope launched his strategy of Ostpolitik in Romania, a strategy of sending Vatican diplomats to meet with communist leaders, in order to gain space for the Church and save souls.

Was Ostpolitik successful?

“Yes, as a preparation for the push that John Paul II gave,” said Cardinal Monterisi. “When he went to his country and Poland exploded, it

[the policy]

was a success at that moment.”

Bishop Crihalmeanu added, “The distance is so close between Romania and Poland that we heard about John Paul II’s trips, and we were encouraged.”

Asked what it meant to have the cardinal visiting and the joint ceremonies of dedication, Metropolitan Andrei Andreicuț told the Register: “The answer is related to the wish of Jesus Christ. He prayed to God that all would be one, and he prayed for unity.”

“We must construct this with patience, with wisdom, with perseverance; and the cardinal’s visit is, of course, part of all this,” the bishop continued. “Taking steps to come closer to the other, in the end you succeed in doing something.”

“Not only for this region,” he added. “Once more, these types of meetings and efforts for Christians to get together, this is good for all regions — good for the whole world!”

Cardinal Monterisi affirmed these goals as the Holy Father’s special directive: “Mercy, reconciliation, dialogue, especially an ecumenical approach, these are Pope Francis’ priorities, and all diplomats at the Vatican follow this idea.”

‘Nothing Will Change Between Us’

Bishop Crihalmeanu explained to the Register that the communist and immediate post-communist periods were abnormal in terms of interchurch relations.

Orthodox and Catholic Church leadership respected each other before the state forced them to be enemies, said the prelate, who attended a clandestine seminary in Cluj-Napoca in the 1980s.

In fact, he said, even during World War II, when Hungary regained Transylvania in August 1940 (known as the Second Vienna Arbitrage or Vienna Diktat), Transylvania, Hungarian and Romanian religious leaders explicitly vowed to honor each other.

Cardinal Hossu’s cause is before the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, so Bishop Crihalmeanu has studied the documents from the period extensively.

“When Transylvania was occupied in 1940, a Hungarian Reformed bishop, Janos Vasarhely, went to see Hossu and said, ‘Between us, nothing will change,’ and when the Hungarians left in 1944, Hossu went to Vasarhely and said the same thing: ‘Between us, nothing changes,’” recounted Bishop Crihalmeanu.

“Since 1918, most religious leaders remained harmonious in dialogue and friendship,” he said. “Antagonism stems from political influence and some radical movements.”

Two political realities have benefited ethnic relations in Romania, according to participants in the religious and national celebrations: Decentralized political organization allows extensive local problem-solving — a concept consistent with the Catholic value of subsidiarity; and Romania’s language law allows minority communities to teach their languages in schools.

Charity, Too

Away from the crowds, Cardinal Monterisi also exercised the virtue of charity.

Together with one of Transylvania’s leading political personalities, former Deputy Prime Minister Vasile Dancu, the cardinal and an Italian cultural organization, Accademia Internazionale Mauriziana, donated a CT scanner to a hospital in the Transylvanian city of Nasaud.

Explained Cardinal Monterisi, “The Holy Father wants to let the Romanian people know there’s a good sentiment on the part of the Vatican toward this country, which is very important to us.”


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