BUCHAREST, Romania — The life of a saint can be part parable, part thriller and, often, part nightmare — but always 100% inspiration.
A beloved Romanian priest, Vladimir Ghika, was beatified Aug. 31 before 10,000 people at a Mass in Bucharest celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, together with Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris, Romania’s sole cardinal, Lucian Muresan, and more than 200 other priests and bishops.
Msgr. Ghika’s sacred story reads like a novel with a tragic ending.
Descended from French and Romanian nobility, Ghika was born on Christmas in 1873 in Constantinople, where his father was serving as ambassador to the Ottoman Court. He was baptized into the Orthodox faith of his parents.
Educated in medicine, botany, art and political science in France, he was ultimately drawn to theology and thus to Rome, where he converted to Catholicism at age 29.
On the advice of his friend Pope Pius X, this refined, cosmopolitan prince — he spoke 22 languages — became a lay missionary, igniting charity efforts on behalf of the Church in Europe and beyond, traveling to the Congo, Tokyo, Sydney and Buenos Aires.
Pope Pius XI nicknamed him the “major apostolic vagabond.”
Back in his fatherland, he created a foundation for Catholic charity work: establishing the first free medical clinic in Bucharest and the country’s first ambulance service.
He traveled to dangerous war zones to care for the wounded and refugees as well as victims of cholera epidemics. During World War I, the Vatican gave him diplomatic assignments on top of his humanitarian work. It is said that Pope Pius XI gave him an assignment to go to Russia to convert Lenin, but when he arrived, Lenin had just died.
Most of these global missions were financed through personal wealth.
Finally, Vladimir Ghika was ordained at age 49 by the cardinal of Paris in 1923. He spent the next seven years ministering in the poorest, most dangerous part of Paris, Villejuif.
In August 1939, on the eve of World War II, he returned to Romania as the first priest, with papal approval, to celebrate both the Latin Catholic Mass and the Byzantine-rite liturgy, locally known as the Greek Catholic Church, which follows Orthodox ritual while being loyal to Rome.
At the time, Romania’s Catholic community comprised almost 12% of the population: 1.4 million Greek Catholics and approximately 700,000 Latin-rite Catholics.
Known to all as “Monsignor,” his base was a small hospital chapel in Bucharest, Sacre Coeur, from where he crisscrossed the city, carrying a cardboard valise with priestly essentials.
Europe’s war cataclysms multiplied demands on the servants of Christ. Msgr. Ghika ministered to refugees from Poland and elsewhere and to other victims of war.
In 1944, American and British air forces bombarded strategic resources in Romania, such as oil fields utilized by the German army. Some 3,000 Romanians were killed in these air attacks. Mgsr. Ghika habitually accompanied terrified citizens into bunkers.
Every week, he celebrated Mass at a jail for prostituted women. Once while there, aerial bombing erupted. Instead of leaving the prison for shelter with the guards, the priest stayed to pray with the stigmatized prisoners who had no chance of escape if they were hit.
“To console another person in God’s name is our power to offer something more true than pain,” the holy man wrote.
Prison and Martyrdom
As World War II ended, the Soviet Union positioned itself to take over exhausted neighbors such as Romania. With writing on the wall that the new communist leadership being imposed would not be friendly to property owners or priests, Vladimir Ghika’s family urged him to leave alongside others fleeing communist oppression.
The priest’s response was typically sacrificial: “If God wants me here, then here I remain.”
He even passed up a spot on the king’s own train (Romania was a constitutional monarchy), which left the country for good in December 1947, when the communists forced King Michael to abdicate or die.
Between 1948 and 1952, every Catholic bishop and auxiliary in Romania was arrested and jailed. The new regime set out to create a new Catholic hierarchy, appointed by the political power and no longer loyal to the Holy See. The project failed, as each Catholic cleric chose punishment over capitulation.
In 1952, the Securitate (political police) came for Msgr. Ghika, grabbing him and shoving him into a car as he walked down the street in priestly garb.
Greek-Catholic leader Father Matei Boila was a young victim of the regime who remembers the day the legendary priest appeared in a Jilava jail cell in a video interview: “A very old, very thin man with a white beard, wearing long underwear and nothing else, was pushed into our cell, the cell of political prisoners. The whisper went through our group — it’s Msgr. Ghika! We rushed to greet him, dress him. The guards had stripped off his priestly clothes, so he had almost nothing on.”
“Each of us presented ourselves to him in turn. When I gave my name — because I had never met him personally — he took my hand and said, ‘I know your sister and brother. We have prayed for you. You are blessed by God for the Church,’” Father Boila remembered.
“I told him, ‘No. I don’t really have anything to do with the Church,’ because I was a young idiot then. And Monsignor looked into my eyes: ‘I know better than you do. You are blessed for the Church.’”
“Suddenly, it was as though I had returned home, a place I didn’t know how much I missed. It was a gaze I’ll never forget. He changed my life,” Father Boila concluded.
Throughout his internment until his death on May 16, 1954, Msgr .Ghika was a medical and spiritual doctor to the inmates, especially the young.
Thirty direct witnesses testified to Msgr. Ghika’s holiness while in jail, where various sociopathic torture techniques were employed to get him to confess to being a traitor for communicating with the Vatican.
Msgr. Ghika was starved. He was beaten. Guards ordered dogs to attack him. Over 80 times, he was tortured with electric shocks and strangulation. A firing squad was assembled to shoot him, but it was all a game, as they used blanks; it was a sick stunt to make him confess. He didn’t. Eventually, he lost his eyesight and hearing as a result of brutality.
Near death, in describing his time in prison, he declared, “Nothing is more precious than being jailed for Jesus Christ. The prison is holy, and we didn’t even suspect it.”
According to witnesses, the only time Msgr. Ghika cried was when the jailers denied him a Catholic priest to hear his last confession.
On his prison deathbed, he was assisted by men who happened to be in Jilava at the same time: an Orthodox priest, a Protestant minister, a Tartar imam and a young Jewish inmate.
A Luminous Model
The enthusiasm with which Blessed Vladimir Ghika’s beatification was received — a standing-room-only crowd packed a huge exhibition hall for the Mass, which was broadcast live on TV — shows that holiness is a story, no matter how tragic in real time, that ends in triumph.
For Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest, who guided relentless efforts to assemble documents from around the world on behalf of this martyr’s cause, Blessed Vladimir is especially luminous as a model for believers today.
“His limitless charity extended to all people, of all faiths, everywhere,” Archbishop Robu told the Register. “His capacity for forgiveness was infinite too.”
Explained Archishop Robu, “Most inspiring to me was his ability to see God in all things. In this, he provides us with a perfect model of faith for our Year of Faith.”
Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.
He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.