At the end of the Second World War Romania found itself among those countries dominated by imposed communist regimes. As so often under communism, the worst repressions befell both the Latin and Greek Catholic Church – those in full communion with Rome. In December 1948 the government issued a decree by which the Greek Catholic Church officially ceased to exist. Over five hundred priests, nuns and members of the laity were imprisoned. The state confiscated all Greek Catholic churches and property.
In 1949, the Romanian Orthodox religious affairs expert Mircea Eliade
wrote: “Churches were occupied by the state militia, priests were arrested or murdered at the altar, nuns were deported at night in police lorries, jailed and mistreated. Seven Greek Catholic bishops died in prisons and internment camps, including Cardinal Iuliu Hossu. Although various methods were applied in an effort to convince him to renounce unity with Rome, Bishop Hossu consistently refused, saying: ‘I cannot, because our faith is our life'”.
Holy Mass was celebrated in hiding, in private homes with curtains drawn, in silence. Msgr. Alexandru Mesian, bishop of Lugoj, remembers that as a priest he had to be prepared for an interrogation and security searches at any time. Accordingly the chalice used for Holy Mass was a stemmed glass that stood in his room amongst many other glasses. “Only I knew which one was the chalice that I used to celebrate Mass”. This ensured that the state authorities never found any physical evidence.
Florentin Crihalmeanu, a young engineer employed in the production of tools for the food processing industry, participated in such underground Masses. Convinced of a vocation, in 1987 he began studying in a clandestine seminary. He took his Holy Orders in 1990, the same year that the Greek Catholic Church regained its freedom with the final collapse of communism. “These were the first ordinations in our Church, in a free country. Of course, because we had no cathedral, [they] took place in the open air, in Freedom Square”.
Today, of the over 2000 churches confiscated by the state in 1948, Greek Catholics have received only a very small percentage. In some places the Holy Mass continues to be celebrated in rented halls, schools, art centres, cinemas, or in open squares. The best way out appears to be to build new places of worship, something that the poverty stricken Greek Catholic Church finds hard to bear without help from abroad.