The plan of destruction
This is the second article in a series of three, which details the destruction of the Church under the communist regime in Romania. You can read more here.
A plan of destruction was applied to each of the countries that fell under the communist regimes. Albert Galter explained these models across all Eastern European countries and identified common elements. Galter published his findings in “The Red Book of the Persecuted Church” (1957).
Of all the elements used within this plan, the psychological factor was the most important. The strategy was to extremely limit freedom and then immediately give a bit of it back, making people think that things will get better. After a few minor concessions, the communists were able to make people forget about how much of their freedom was destroyed. Eventually, this enabled the communists to completely eradicate religious freedom.
Galter identified a series of characterises of this process: anti-religious propaganda, bullying of church-affiliated bodies, the nationalisation of church properties, the exclusion of the church from charitable events, the ban on messages from Rome and the formation of a national church with fake priests that obeyed the Party.
There was an old saying that went something like this: “In times of war, truth is the biggest enemy”.
“Effective propaganda doesn’t use big lies because there is the risk of people discovering that they have been lied to. Instead, the tone needs to be as sincere as possible and to contain a bit of the truth. It is like a magic number: the attention of the people must be directed towards one hand while the other hand is busy doing whatever it needs to be done” wrote Ratiu.
A common strategy of communist propaganda was to discuss an issue in so much detail that those engaging with it would lose the relevant context.
Between 1945 – 1948, the communists launched a propaganda campaign against all religions and in particular against Catholicism. The conclusion was always the same: the Vatican was destroying the Romanian church. The Pope and his bishops were continuously smeared and portrayed as anti-patriotic.
The communists spread anti-Catholic pamphlets, such as “The Vatican”, in which the mission of the Pope was portrayed as being against the European culture. Other pamphlets included: “Espionage and Betrayal in the Shadow of the Cross”, “The anti-Christian and anti-Democratic Politics of the Vatican” and “The Poison of the Cross”. One of the most common accusations made in these tools of propaganda was that the Vatican was conspiring to take over the world.
In February 1948, Dej showed that the new Romanian constitution did not allow Catholics to recognise the leadership of the Pope. He accused the Church of Rome of fighting against communism and labelled the Catholic clergy as an enemy of the Party. They were all accused of mysticism and of opposing social progress under the banner of “reactionism”.
The same year, 1948, Balan reinforced Blaj’s message when he stated that Romania gained its “national identity but lost its religious one”. A similar message was echoed by Patriarch Alexei of Moscow, accusing the Vatican of conspiring with America.
“The Pope wants to force believers away from the Orthodox Church. This blindness [of the Pope] cannot be justified […] the Orthodox Christians can influence the Church of Rome by freeing it from its blindness and by asking it to stop its propaganda” spoke Alexei.
Romania wasn’t the only country subjected to such actions. In Ukraine, the case of priest Gabriel Kostelnik was well known: he was detained in a prison and blackmailed into betraying the Greek-Catholic faith, becoming the leader of a church built by communists. He was eventually killed by a youth: the communists exploited his death, making it look like the Vatican was to blame.
Seeing all of these things, the Catholic clergy wrote a letter on 29 June 1948 towards the relevant state authorities. In that letter, they were re-affirming their faith in the Pope as the true leader of their faith. The letter is a testament of courage and moral strength in the face of persecutions.
Here are a few words from the letter:
“In these times of turmoil, when people and countries are looking for spiritual guidance from the Father, the invitation to “return home” is only an attempt to destroy our faith, to make us abandon the path walked by Peter and his successors, to abandon the Kingdom of Heaven. […] The holy union with Rome signifies our union with Jesus […]. Who dares accuse us, bishops and priests of the Catholic church, of shattering the unity of the Christian faith? […] There is only one religious authority from which we must not separate: the Pope’s authority. […] Brothers in Christ, stand firm against this attempt […]”.
Laws against the church
The communists passed laws that prohibited any relationship with “foreign faiths” and the relationship with the Vatican was denounced. The Party cracked down on as many means of communication with Rome as possible.
There were also laws which were designed to reform the educational process.
“All schools were nationalised, and the property of those schools affiliated with churches was confiscated. Textbooks were re-written in the spirit of communist ideology and all religious symbols were taken out of buildings. Anything that alluded to religion was banned The aim was to raise future generations to be communists, without any religious influence” wrote Ratiu.
New laws also empowered the Party to control all activities that the church was carrying out. One of the laws stipulated that a diocese must have at least 750.000 believers. “This didn’t affect the Orthodox dioceses but decimated the Catholic ones, from five to two” recalled Ratiu.
However, one of the most detrimental laws for the Catholic and Greek-Catholic Church was the one which mentioned that “if more than half of believers that belonged to a diocese were converting to a different faith, the church itself was forced to convert too”.
In September 1948, all Catholic bishops were forced to live where the Party told them so. This allowed the communists to “convert” many Catholics to the Orthodox church. This process was supported by a petition signed by 36 anonymous Catholic priests who betrayed their Church.
However, bishop Hossu managed to write a letter in which he condemned these actions. The letter was read on 3 October after mass by a number of priests and bishops. Nevertheless, this did not stop the fake unification that was possible due to the 36 anonymous priests who signed the petition: by doing so, they “gave up” 2 million Catholics and another 1.800 priests. Everyone was officially welcomed to the Orthodox church by patriarch Iustinian who celebrated this false unification on 21 October 1948.
Nevertheless, not everyone caved and a number of Catholic and Greek-Catholic priests and bishops appealed to believers to not betray their faith and church. Consequently, either as an act of defiance or as an act of courage, as a result of this appeal, the Catholic and Greek-Catholic churches were full every day.
For communists, the most upsetting aspect was the continuous loyalty to the Pope. At the end of October 1948, every single priest and bishop who had anti-communist believes was arrested, without any legal basis, and were taken to prisons or gulags and their parishes were given to Orthodox priests.
Many Catholic monasteries were also destroyed and those who belonged to the Orthodox church but had strong ties with Catholics were assaulted. One of them was the Orthodox monastery from Vladimiresti which had 400 nuns, led by nun Veronica. Their confessor, father Ioan, had a strong relationship with many Catholic priests. Ioan sent a critical letter to Iustinian. As a result, the communist authorities retaliated with regular searches of the monastery, believing that they were hiding Catholics.
The Roman-Catholic Church
In 1949, the communists attempted to break the Roman-Catholic Church from within: they pressured Catholic priests to break from Rome and establish a national Catholic church under the Party’s control.
The five Catholic bishops were arrested: Alexandru Csiszar, bishop of Bucharest, died at Jilava prison in 1953, August Pacha, bishop of Timisoara, died at Sighet prison in 1955, Fancisc Scheffler died in Ghencea prison in 1957 and bishop Antoniu Durkovici, bishop of Iasi, died at the Sighet prison in 1956. The only Roman-Catholic bishop who survived was Marton Aron, bishop of Alba Iulia, who was locked up at Sighet but released a few years later.
“I personally know of the situation of a Roman-Catholic priest, Ambrozie George, who died of starvation and cold in the forced labour camp from Grind. His body was eaten by rats” recalled Ratiu.
The most intense persecution took place between 1948-49.
“Our bishops were sent to a villa that belonged to Iustinian and then sent to prisons. They never came back to their dioceses” wrote Ratiu.
In 1948, the year the Greek-Catholics celebrated 250 years since their unification with Rome, decree 358 was passed, making the Greek-Catholic church illegal.
The Stolen Church was first published in 1979, ten years prior to the collapse of the USSR. This meant that the book finished with the hope that the communist regime will fall and the freedom of religion, and other freedoms of the individual, would be restored. Thankfully, that happened.
However, the experience of the Greek-Catholic and Catholic church, as well as of other persecuted faiths, remains an eternal testament of what totalitarians do once in power: torture, re-educate, brainwash, attempt to control your subconscious, kill, confiscate property and seek to obliterate the individual in order to “remake” the human being as they please. Fortunately for all of us, the strength of the individual remains, as always, above all pain and suffering committed by these regimes.
The next part will be a list with the priests and bishops that suffered or died for their faith. It is important to not forget the names of those who stood up to oppression, especially when the act of defiance had drastic consequences.