ROME — On Sunday in Blaj, Pope Francis will beatify seven Greek-Catholic bishops of Romania who were killed by the communist regime between 1950 and 1970.
These martyrs “have given all to defend the Church. And at the cost of their lives, they did not accept the situation; they did not deny their very faith,” a Romanian Greek-Catholic priest told CNA.
Father Vasile Man, the postulator of the bishops’ causes for beatification and vice rector of the Romanian seminary in Rome, said, “These bishops were already considered martyrs by the faithful for their witness of faith, for their courage, and for their fidelity to the Holy Father and the Church of Rome,” and they were, “above all, pastors.”
Bishops Valeriu Traian Frentiu, Vasile Aftenie, Ioan Suciu, Tito Livio Chinezu, Ioan Balan, Alexandru Rusu and Iuliu Hossu were declared in March to have been killed “in hatred of the faith” between 1950 and 1970, during the Soviet occupation of Romania and the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu.
Their beatification will take place June 2 during a celebration of the Divine Liturgy, presided over by Pope Francis in Blaj in the Transylvania region of Romania.
Father Man said it is very significant for Romanian Catholics that the beatification will be proclaimed by Pope Francis instead of a papal delegate, as is ordinary practice for beatifications.
It is an honor, he said, and, moreover, a sign of the Holy See’s recognition of the more than 40 years the laity, priests and bishops of the Greek-Catholic Church in Romania spent underground while imprisoned, persecuted and outlawed by the communist regime.
Each of these bishops was arrested and held in prisons and camps until they died, often from isolation, cold, hunger, disease or hard manual labor. Most were never tried or convicted and were buried in unmarked graves, without religious services.
A year before his death, Bishop Hossu was named a cardinal “in pectore.” After spending years in isolation, he died in a hospital in Bucharest in 1970. His last words were: “My struggle is over; yours continues.”
In addition to imprisonment and isolation, Bishop Aftenie was tortured at the Interior Ministry, later dying from his wounds on May 10, 1950.
“This is not of small importance” for the Catholic Church in Romania, Father Man said. “We hope that with the visit of the Holy Father and with their beatification, [their example] can reinvigorate the faith of the people.”
He pointed out the importance of the martyred bishops’ examples in a world of increasing attachment to relativism and a subjective understanding of truth.
“We need figures that teach us steadfastness, fidelity and proper principles, that teach us to be firm in [our] position,” he said, noting that each of the venerable bishops could have been released from prison had they abandoned the Church and become Orthodox under the regime’s “Church unification” plan.
He said they also teach people to “accept the will of God in every situation,” even intense persecution, which is important because, “in the end, every one of us will have our place, our time in which we will have to give witness to our values.”
Despite increasing secularization in Europe, including Romania, the country remains very Christian, primarily Eastern Orthodox, which makes up around 70% of the population, Father Man said.
But the country’s Catholics, numbering no more than 6% of the population, are more diversified, which makes speaking about the Church in Romania “very complex,” he explained.
The majority of Catholics in the country are of the Latin Rite and come from Romanian, Hungarian and German language and ethnic groups.
There is also the Romanian Greek Catholic Church, to which the soon-to-be beatified bishops belonged, which is a Byzantine Rite Church in communion with the Holy See.
The Church’s unity and faithfulness to Rome was part of the reason for its persecution under the communist regime. “During communism, the Church was banned, because the communistic government did not support a Church which could not be controlled ... which had as its head a pope who was outside the borders of Romania,” Father Man explained.
He said the relationship between Eastern and Latin Rite Catholics is very good: “On the liturgical level, there is a great difference, but as Catholics ... when there is an event, everyone participates.”
“There is a good understanding” between the two, he said. “It is normal because we have the same faith; it is just that the faith is manifested in a different way liturgically, as the faith is the same.”
Pope Francis’ visit May 31-June 2 will include meetings with the Latin Catholic community in Bucharest, with Hungarian Catholics at a Marian shrine in Miercurea-Ciuc — which before 1920 was a part of the Kingdom of Hungary — and with the Romanian Greek-Catholic community in Blaj.
Encounters with Eastern Orthodox will be more limited. Francis will meet privately with Patriarch Daniel of Romania and with a small group from the Holy Synod, finishing with a quick stop at a newly constructed Orthodox cathedral, where they will pray the Our Father together.
Father Man said the relationship of the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church in Romania is “very delicate” and “not very friendly.” Though it has improved since the early 1990s, when there was conflict over the returning of Greek-Catholic properties given over to the Orthodox under communism, the “urgency” of that period is not as strongly felt.
“Bit by bit [the Orthodox] started to give back the churches,” he said, though “the question of patrimony is not resolved.”
Twenty years ago, when St. John Paul II visited the country, things were still “very tense” between the Orthodox and Greek Catholics, he noted.
John Paul II wanted to visit Greek Catholics in Blaj during his trip in May 1999 but was restricted to staying only in Bucharest because of Catholic-Orthodox politics.
“Now we have the joy of welcoming Pope Francis in all of the important places where there are Catholic faithful, no matter whether they are Greek Catholics or Latins,” Father Man stated.
For Father Man, it is important to emphasize that Pope Francis’ visit is to the Catholic faithful. The Pope will greet everyone, because his message of peace, love and hope is for everyone, Father Man said, but he “comes above all as the head of the Catholic Church to visit the Catholic faithful.”