On the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to Romania, the Greek Catholic bishop of Bucharest, Mihai Fratila, spoke about the changes in his homeland since St. John Paul II’s visit in 1999 and the contemporary difficulties Romanians face in an exclusive interview with America. Four million people have emigrated to seek a better life in other European states, contributing to the break up of Romanian families.
He also discussed relations with the majority Orthodox church and between the Latin rite and Greek Catholic churches, the significance of the pope’s visit and of his beatifying the seven martyr bishops of the Romanian Greek Catholic church, which suffered greatly under communism. Bishop Fratila is the president of the organizing committee of the Romanian Catholic Bishops’ Conference for the visit.
Born in the Diocese of Alba Iulia in 1970, he studied theology at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, while residing at the Pontifical Romanian College, and later did further studies at the Institut Catholique in Paris.
Ordained in 1996, Bishop Fratila was appointed rector of the Romanian college in Rome in 2005, but two years later was ordained episcopal vicar of the Greek Catholic metropolitan diocese of Blaj. He moved to Bucharest in 2014, when he became the first bishop of the new Greek Catholic diocese of St. Basil the Great in the Romanian capital. A prolific writer, he has published many articles on the relation between Christian hope and the contemporary thirst for spirituality.
What are the most important changes in Romania since the visit of John Paul II in 1999?
Catholics are visible in Romania today. They are not seen as foreigners but as a community as old as the country itself. And there is a Greek Catholic church that is really united to Rome, notwithstanding the fact that it was in a clandestine existence for 41 years under communism.
Romania has gained access to the European community and seeks to commit itself with its sensibility into a world that it had dreamed of during the very long years under the dictatorship.
John Paul II was “one of us.” He knew the rigors of living under communism and was not at all under the influence of a Western intellectual culture that glided over the leftist models and for some time inculcated a moral relativism.
The pope’s visit will highlight that Romanians are a European people, part of the civilized world.
Moreover, Romania has gained access to the European community and seeks to commit itself with its sensibility into a world that it had dreamed of during the very long years under the dictatorship. But relations with other European states have not always been easy, and creating the sense of service for the common good in Romania presents many difficulties.
There’s a particular egoistic quest for one’s own good here. One also can note a loss of moral sense, which is not helped by the folkloristic presentation of the Christian identity.
What are the main problems the country faces today?
Sadly, many compatriots are living outside the country. This leads to the drama of broken families—the children remain with their grandparents. There are about four million Romanians who are working or studying in Western countries.
There’s a search for the dignity of work and greater economic and social stability. It’s true that these persons take with them all their Christian sensibilities to the more secularized Western milieu that are often “neutral,” if not indeed hostile, when it comes to whatever is related to the church. These Eastern European presences in Western Europe also bring a beneficial change in the religious perceptions. [But] many Romanians are unprepared for Western secularism and find it difficult to sustain their Christian identity and keep their faith and hope.
There is no culture of freedom if it’s not built on a living faith. It risks, in my view, becoming only a search for economic stability and entertainment.
Has anything changed in the relations between the Romanian Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches since the visit of St. John Paul II? What are relations like today?
They have become more distant. It’s no longer possible to pray together today, not even the Our Father. It’s a pity because there are mixed Orthodox and Greek Catholic families and among the family members there is no difficulty in sharing a Christian culture of closeness.
Many Romanians are unprepared for Western secularism and find it difficult to sustain their Christian identity and keep their faith and hope.
Thanks be to God that the people themselves are not rigid. It’s only among a very small Orthodox minority and in the monastic world. The majority of Romanians and those who are living abroad know well that welcome and respect for the other churches are real. One cannot live on a perfect island, isolated. Many Romanians outside the country are treated with the same consideration given to the local people. It’s a sign: One cannot live in religious ghettos.
The question of the Greek Catholic patrimony [churches taken under communism] in possession of the Orthodox church is by now “poetic.” One can joke about it. We wait more for a showing of reparation that sees the other open to the movement of grace, but sadly this is still not possible.
What is the significance of the beatification of the seven martyrs for the Greek Catholic community in the country?
It’s a new beginning. They are not only seven persons, but together they are the church. Their sanctity is linked to having been a part of one body in witness and in sacrifice.
The generosity of the seven, their sacrifice to the point of giving their lives for the faith ought to be the normal state of every Christian. Faith is to recognize that one follows in the footsteps of Christ, not only in triumphs but also during Calvary. In the end, it’s the challenge for every community: to keep the heart open to the kingdom. We are not called to have an eternal home here.
At the same time, it is in a certain sense a good arc of time that closes. Pius XII desired to kiss the chains of those imprisoned for the faith. Francis comes to confirm their heirs in the faith established on Peter and to show the affection of a father.
How is Pope Francis perceived in Romania?
With affection, above all for his simplicity and frankness. For us Catholics, he is the successor of Peter who comes to confirm his own. But also to shake us up like a good father: “Wake up, concentrate on Providence, do not fear!”
The visit is important for the Catholic communities of the two rites and different languages to get out from their “private” histories. In the Catholic community, there are four Latin dioceses of ethnic Hungarians of Transylvania, and there are two Latin dioceses for Romanians of the Moldova region and of the south of the country, including Bucharest.
Then there are six Greek Catholic eparchies (the sixth—that of Bucharest, St. Basil the Great—is only five years old). We Greek Catholics are proud and thankful to the Lord for our survival during the communist persecution, but we are much diminished in number.
To have lived with the contempt of the official history, even after 1990, is part of that reality. In the past, the Romanian Greek Catholic community contributed essentially to the culture and the history of the fatherland, hidden under communism. It is now difficult for this witness to regain the attention of the majority. It’s impressive, however, to see the reawakening of Romanian society around the figures of these seven martyrs, whom the pope himself will beatify.
Given that there is all this diversity in the heart of the Catholic community, I believe we are called to take up much more the dignity of understanding the other, especially the other in their wounds—naturally, looking to Christ!
What do you expect from Pope Francis’ visit?
The pope’s visit will give us again the sense of Catholic witness—in the midst of a majority Orthodox culture—without pomp but with conviction.
I expect that it will enable us Catholics of the different rites and cultural experiences to go beyond our own histories, wounds, our own nationalities, our own cultural sensibilities. In this way, we will be truly faithful to this specific inheritance of faith. Otherwise, our witness will not have the resonance of the spirit of the Gospel, and at the moment of encounter with Jesus, we may end up largely with empty hands. For the rest, I think, it is up to Providence.