There is another side to the story of Pope John Paul II's visit to Romania, and the great impact it made on relations between Orthodox Christians and Catholics. A Romanian priest and senator tells how the power of the Pope's personal witness was able to overcome the mistrust and misunderstanding of the Romanian people. For decades they had been fiercely persecuted, and propagandized, by communist rulers bent on discrediting the Church and the Pope. Register correspondents Eleanor Kennelly and Victor Gaetan interviewed the Greek Catholic leader in Bucharest.
Kennelly: What effect did the Pope's visit to Romania have?
Father Matei Boila: It had the effect of strengthening our faith — of Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, everyone. And this effect is most important to us.
In 1948, when the communists came to power in Romania, they engaged in an effort to stifle and suppress our faith. They arrested our priests, closed our churches, harassed believers and simply didn't allow us to practice our faith.
For some 45 years, the propaganda against Catholics in Romania was very intense, especially among the Orthodox in the countryside. They were told that the Pope was not a good Christian, even anti-Christ, and he was ridiculed with all kinds of slogans. The propaganda even had some results, like all propaganda. After the Pope's visit, I ran into ordinary people in Bucharest who were so happy to say, “It is true that the Pope is so faithful!” This effect counts for us more than anything else.
Why do you think the presence of the Pope and his words have such an extraordinary impact?
He says nice and good things, but they are said by many other people. The Romanian patriarch says these things and so do other priests. But the strong, incredible effect comes from the fact that the Pope really believes. Faith is a mysterious act in which the grace of God meets our free will. No one knows exactly how this happens, but it has a beautiful effect. This is what the Pope exhibits and inspires.
What is the difference between Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics?
Within the Roman Catholic Church there are about 24 different rites, which means they have different ways of expressing their faith, but the faith is the same. We, the Greek Catholics, are Catholics of the Byzantine rite. The Vatican has encouraged this diversity because it is part of the Catholic Church's strength.
In Romania, the Greek Catholic Church is centered in Transylvania in the northwestern part of the country. Some 300 years ago, when the Austrians expanded their rule into this area, they allowed passage to Catholicism by allowing Orthodox Christians to keep their practices while providing schools and education in Catholicism, and allowing priests to go to Rome. The so-called Greek Catholic Church developed. Today there are over 800,000 Greek Catholics in the Ardeal region [Transylvania]. Outside Romania, there are Greek Catholics in Slovakia and Ukraine [some 5 million].
What is the difference between the Orthodox religion and Greek Catholicism?
First, the Orthodox do not accept Communion with bread that is not risen. This is their tradition, but most likely, Jesus gave the apostles unrisen bread at their last, sacred meeting.
Second, with regard to the Holy Trinity, the Orthodox do not accept that the Holy Spirit emanates from both the Father and the Son but only from the Father. I just want to point out one thing: The Trinity is a mystery which none of us can completely understand.
Third, the Orthodox don't believe in purgatory. Yet, they make many prayers to the dead, offering pomana, or gifts on behalf of the dead, and would they do that if the dead were simply in heaven or hell?
The only important difference between Greek Catholics and the Orthodox is the fourth difference which is, we believe in the primacy of the Pope and the Orthodox do not.
Tell us about some particularly memorable moments during the Pope's visit to Romania.
The whole country was amazed at how well he spoke Romanian. He spoke our language the whole time he was here and his accent was so exact, it was extraordinary. That combined with uncanny references to the Greek Catholic experience in Romania made his visit such a moving — I'll even say, miraculous — one.
For example, at the liturgy at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Bucharest, the Pope finished with two verses: “Nu ne lasa maicuta sa pierim pe cale, Caci noi suntem fii lacrimilor tale,” which means, “Don't allow us, Mother Mary, to disappear on the road because we are the sons of your tears.” It is a Greek Catholic song and something we said every time we met secretly during those years [under communism].
Certainly, in Rome we [Romanian Greek Catholics] have theologians and connections to the nuncio who could tell the Pope our stories, but it is a great thing that he knew this. And throughout his three-day visit, which was full of public appearances and homilies, he spoke to us as one who understood our great suffering.
He said, “They tried to silence your liberty, to suffocate it, but they didn't succeed. Thank the Lord that after the terrible winter of communist reign, the spring of hope has begun,” speaking directly to our experience.
In the 45 years of terror, we made 12 bishops. They were each put in jail, pressured, tortured and killed, and not one left his faith. All of them died in jail, or immediately after getting out. Only one survived, Alexandru Todea, who spent 43 years in jail or under house arrest. In 1991, the Vatican made him a cardinal — the second Greek Catholic cardinal after Cardinal Iuliu Hosu who was appointed secretly in 1970 but soon after, died.
Six years ago, Cardinal Todea suffered a cerebral attack. He can't walk or talk. The only thing he can still do is participate in the Mass and say the Our Father, although he says a childhood version. He has been extraordinarily faithful to the Pope, and his comportment has inspired us.
I never thought Cardinal Todea, now 86, could make it to Bucharest for the Pope's visit, so when I saw him carried into St. Joseph's Cathedral I was extremely moved. When Pope John Paul walked up to the altar, the first thing he did was to greet Cardinal Todea, wrapping his arms around the bishop's head, kissing him with warmth and love like God's gratitude. The cardinal, who looked healthy and 20 years younger, cried with joy. This scene was an emblem of the reward of faith and, again, an extraordinary example of the Pope's felt knowledge of our experience.
You play an unusual role in Romania as an elected member of the Romanian Senate and as a practicing priest. How did you come to be involved in politics?
Of course, canon law stipulates that a priest is not allowed to be involved in politics, but the same canon law adds that there are special situations when a priest can help the Church and his community by being politically active. I was given permission from the cardinal and from my bishop to run for office in order to represent our faith community in political circles. I was elected in the first democratic elections after the defeat of communism, in 1990.
I was elected as a member of the National Peasant Party — Christian Democrat — but I am now independent because I helped form a new party, the National Christian Democratic Alliance.
Were you jailed under communism?
Yes. I was first arrested in 1947 for being anti-communist. I spent 10 years in jail and got out in 1964 under a general amnesty.
In jail, I was a Greek Catholic but not yet a priest. Orthodox Christians would occasionally come to me and say, “What do I have to do to convert to Greek Catholicism?” and I would reply, “You have to be a very good Orthodox because then we will be together,” because, again, the differences between us are minor.
As I was coming out of jail, a bishop I was with begged me to accept to become a priest because of the situation, because of the great need for priests to teach and say Mass on the outside. I told him, “I prepared myself for other things,” because I studied law and economics, but I understood the need and I accepted.
I was made a priest clandestinely in 1977 by Cardinal Todea. I'm afraid I didn't have strong theological preparation but I did my best. I had Mass at home every Sunday, with five people some weeks, with 50 people other weeks. We had catechism with young people. I didn't have a parish but my house served as a church. Even now, I have Mass at home as in the past.
We know there has been an ongoing dispute between the Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholics regarding Church property. What is the status of this problem?
Under communism, some 2,000 churches were taken from us and given to the Orthodox. That's why we had Mass in our homes. With the end of communism, we asked for the return of our churches but it has not been easy. The Orthodox hierarchy has been very unreasonable. Now, we don't even want to talk about properties, we just want to use the churches in our communities for our people. Even this proposal is resisted by Orthodox leaders on the local level, even though, officially, the Orthodox Church has recognized our claims.
Throughout his visit, Romanian crowds greeting Pope John Paul chanted “unitate,” meaning unity. Do you think the notion of unity between the Orthodox and Catholics was advanced by the Pope's visit? Is unity possible?
It's possible. It is the faith of the people who, in the end, will ask for unity and impose on the hierarchy this idea.