Archbishop Ioan Robu saw churches bulldozed under communism.

As Christmas approaches, the archbishop of Bucharest, Romania, is fearful of his own cathedral being destroyed.

Archbishop Robu served as the apostolic administrator of Bucharest between 1984 and 1990, at the height of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s anti-Church crusade when churches were razed all over Bucharest. He is now leading a campaign to protect St. Joseph’s Cathedral against a new office tower development being built next door. The Vatican Dec. 4 issued a communiqué regarding the situation, saying it has asked for the “immediate suspension of work.”

Register correspondents Victor Gaetan and Eleanor Kennelly spoke to Archbishop Robu in Bucharest.

What difficulties are you facing as a Church in Romania?

The spirit of communism is still active through a gross disrespect for the sanctity of churches. Historically and culturally, Romania has maintained deep Christian values. It is an essential part of our survival. But this is being overwhelmed by an anti-religious consumerism today, which elevates money over all values.

Right next door to Cathedral Josif, just a few meters from the church’s nave, a giant 18-story colossus, with four underground levels, is under construction. It poses imminent danger to the church, a national historical monument. They drilled on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, shaking the church so violently that many parishioners left in fear. Vases with flowers fell off the pedestals honoring the saints. They work day and night.

 What risk does the development pose to the cathedral?

The huge office tower is being erected without any independent structural engineering or impact studies. Yet the land is sandy, a subterranean river runs near the plot, and the danger of an earthquake is ever present in Bucharest. In 1977, a 7.4-point earthquake killed over 1,500 people, mostly Bucharest residents who died when large buildings collapsed. Besides the risk posed to the cathedral’s physical integrity, its status as a popular, visible mother Church is undermined when people are too afraid to enter. Bucharest has 15 Roman Catholic parishes. Parishioners from all over the city attend Mass at St. Joseph’s, together with non-Catholic visitors. Approximately 8,000 people attend Mass every weekend.

I’m not alone in signaling the danger and illegality of this project: The former minister of public works confirms that he refused to approve the project and that proper procedures have not been followed by developers; a report (in May) from the State Office for the Inspection of Construction found numerous irregularities and missing permits that make the construction approval obtained earlier this year dubious; and a New York- based engineer, a consultant to the project, resigned in protest in May. He believes the current construction violates at least 49 laws and regulations — one being consultation with us.      

Has the Vatican protested on your behalf?

Yes, and when President Traian Basescu was in an Austrian hospital for back surgery this spring, the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, visited him to appeal on our behalf. So far, Romanian politicians have been unresponsive and the construction goes on at full speed. Several major Romanian newspapers describe interlocking political and business relationships that put the political elite on the side of the developers — against the Church.

What was Church life like for you under communism?

Overall, Romanians were under constant pressure not to come to church and not to practice faith. The Roman Catholic Church was a “tolerated” Church in that our Church was not banned, as happened to Greek Catholics from 1948 to January 1990. Romanians were not forbidden from attending Mass. However, we were constantly under surveillance by the secret police. We were not allowed to meet in large groups of more than 20. We were not allowed to meet in private, so the police could keep us under surveillance. Here in Bucharest that meant every meeting occurred in the cathedral. We could not produce Catholic literature — newspapers or books — because every publication had to laud the dictator, Ceausescu, and we refused to do that.

What were the three major challenges to maintaining and cultivating the Roman Catholic community under communism?

First, total isolation from other Catholic communities outside Romania, and even within Romania. Very little travel was allowed and communication was controlled. Second, as I said, the awareness that you were always followed, and that all Church activities were under surveillance. Third, we were prevented from building churches. New communities were forming. Faithful met and held Mass in homes because people came. People worshipped. During the entire communist period so many Catholics were faithful. But most of our existing parishes and churches were in cities so we could not easily support our newer communities around the country.

You say travel was limited. What about travel to the Vatican for priests or visits here from the Vatican?

During most of the 1970s, there were rare contacts with the Vatican in Romania. Once or twice a year, a Vatican representative would visit and tour the dioceses. Sometimes they were received by officials, but mostly not. For three years, I tried to get permission and a passport, to go to Rome. I finally achieved this great gift with two other priests as part of Nicolae Ceausescu’s visit to Rome to meet Pope Paul VI. Romania wanted to try to demonstrate that the Catholic Church in Romania was free, which, of course, it wasn’t.

What did you do in Rome?

I took my doctorate in theology in 1977. I was interested in existential literature, especially where it touched on faith. I wrote a thesis on the writing of Julian Green, an American writer who lived in France and converted to Catholicism. As soon as I finished it, I had to go home. I was sent to Iasi, in the northeast corner of the country, to teach at the only Roman Catholic seminary, where I had attended high school and college.

When you attended seminary, what was the climate for priests?

In 1958, when I entered seminary at age 14, priests were being arrested in waves. Priests were an obstacle to communism. They usually stood with the people, against the collectivization of land, against the nationalization of homes and businesses. So the communists looked for any pretext to get rid of priests. There were so many pretexts: Many were accused of being spies for the Vatican or instruments of capitalist propaganda, but in fact it was all religious persecution. I saw myself as being trained to replace them. And my classmates were thinking the same thing.

How did Pope John Paul II’s election impact the Church in Romania?

It was so important in so many ways. The fact that the Pope was from Poland, a communist country, was very encouraging because he knew what we faced — all the anti-Christian, antagonistic aspects of communism. Very soon after his election, there was new activity in countries like ours, secret contacts, for example, and new attention. The Catholic hierarchy was reorganized to function the way it had before 1948 when the communists took power. Bishops were named to lead all of the dioceses. I was ordained bishop in 1984 in Rome. More contacts were arranged between Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics.

Pope John Paul must have been following the period of extreme anti-Christianity when Ceausescu bulldozed churches to make way for apartment blocks and his palaces.

Without a doubt, the mother Church, and the Pope himself, helped protect us during that period. We were always afraid that the bulldozers would come for us. The Cathedral of St. Joseph is in the middle of the city as are some of our other churches. Although they destroyed or covered up scores of Orthodox churches, they never physically threatened us, undoubtedly due to international pressure.

After the overthrow of communism in December 1989 and Ceausescu’s overthrow, what were some major changes for the Church?

Of course, there were many, many positive changes. First, many believers we didn’t know came openly to the Church for the first time. For example, many from the military who would have lost their jobs had they come to Mass under communism, returned to the Church. And we have had many new vocations. Men are studying for the priesthood under the instruction of numerous religious communities — the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Carmelites, others.

The most extraordinary event for the Roman Catholic community was the three-day visit of Pope John Paul II to Romania in May 1999. It was his first visit to a county with a majority Orthodox population. It was like three days of excitement and happiness in the entire country. It had a profound, positive impact on our relations with the Orthodox Church and each other, within the Catholic community.

Share with us a favorite memory of the Pope’s visit to Romania. You were with him throughout the three days.

We were in a car on the way to the airport, at the end of the visit: the Pope, Orthodox Patriarch Teoctist and me. As we looked out on crowds of jubilant people lining the streets, I said, “People are so happy to see the Pope!” And he laughed, with his deep enthusiastic laugh, “No! They are so happy to see the Pope leaving!”

Seriously, he expressed so much personal knowledge of the suffering faced by individual priests and the pressure of communism. At the Mass he said in St. Joseph’s and at our cemetery, he evoked the martyrs. He spoke Romanian and voiced our pain, acknowledging and sanctifying it.

What can the international Catholic community do to help with the current cathedral situation?

Under Ceausescu, we feared that the cathedral would be torn down or covered up — that was the policy toward churches. Instead, it is happening to us now. What the communists could not destroy because of international pressure might now be destroyed, 17 years after Ceausescu’s overthrow. So we are asking Catholics around the world to join us in solidarity. The American Catholic community is especially influential with President Train Basescu. He is the only one who could really end our siege. He can be reached at Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest, sector 1, or via e-mail at politic@presidency.ro. More information on our plight is at http://www.arcb.ro

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Victor Gaetan and Eleanor Kennelly are based in Washington.