SOUTH BEND – By the time he died at the age of 50, Greek Catholic Bishop Vasile Aftenie was crippled, maimed and, according to accounts of those who knew him, out of his mind due to torture endured while imprisoned by Romania’s communist regime.
When he finally succumbed in 1950, Aftenie was too tall to fit into a makeshift coffin provided by the prison where he was being held, so his legs were cut off and thrown on top of his corpse before burial – a final gesture of disdain from a regime whose hostility to religion, and to Catholicism in particular, had already become the stuff of legend.
On Tuesday, ahead of a late May/early June trip by Pope Francis to Romania, Aftenie and six of his fellow bishops who died under the Romanian communists have been officially recognized as “martyrs” by the pontiff.
Born in the Lodroman village in Alba County in June 1899, Aftenie was a member of the Greek Catholic Church, the largest of the 23 Eastern churches in full communion with the pope. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1926, he was named auxiliary bishop of Bucharest in 1940, seven years before the country was officially declared the “Soviet Republic of Romania.”
Before long, Aftenie was arrested and imprisoned by the communist government for refusing to convert to Orthodoxy, which, at the time, had formed close ties to those in leadership of the Romanian communist party.
After chastising fellow Greek Catholic bishops for joining the Orthodox church under pressure, in 1949 Aftenie was sent to Romania’s Căldăruşani Monastery, which had been converted into a prison. A few months later he was put into isolation, tortured, and eventually died.
Aftenie is just one of thousands of Catholic faithful and clergy who faced a similar fate in the Socialist Republic of Romania, which existed from 1947-1989 and was led by the Romanian Communist Party.
Francis also recognized the martyrdom of bishops Ioan Suciu, Tito Livio Chinezu, Ioan Bălan, Alessandru Rusu, Iuliu Hossu and Valerio Traiano Frenţiu, all of whom, like Aftenie, were killed “in hatred of the faith” between 1950-1970 without a trial or proper burial.
Soviet Romania is widely considered to have been among the most brutal countries in terms of the persecution of Christians during the Communist Party’s anti-religion campaign.
According to some accounts, around 80,000 people were arrested in Romania between 1945-1952, 30,000 of whom were imprisoned. Of these, around 5,000 are believed to have been Orthodox priests, while some 400 priests from Eastern Catholic rites are believed to have been killed by the state.
After the Soviet Union occupied Romania in the aftermath of the Second World War, authorities took a hostile approach to religion, portraying it largely as an ideology of society’s elite upper crust and imprisoning anyone who spoke out against the regime or refused to cooperate with rules they put into place for churches.
Despite the suffering of many Orthodox, the Communist government and authorities from the Orthodox church found allies in one another – a relationship the Orthodox used in order to gain wiggle room, and one the government used as a means of exercising greater control over the population. When Communism in Romania fell in 1989, the Romanian Orthodox Church apologized for those who did not have the “courage” to be martyrs and who instead aligned with the regime.
In 1948 the government suppressed the Eastern Catholic churches, which had represented the second largest religious grouping in Romania, accounting for some 1.5 million people as of 1948.
Members of Eastern churches were forcibly integrated into the Romanian Orthodox church under pain of imprisonment should they refuse to comply. Many, including the seven bishops whose martyrdom Francis has recognized, were jailed or died.
In the first week alone after the restructuring, some six Eastern Catholic bishops and 25 priests were arrested, with 11 of these bishops eventually dying while in prison. Others who maintained adherence to the Eastern rites either continued to practice in the underground or joined the Latin rite, which was still legal at the time.
Many monasteries were suppressed in the late 1950s in addition to the outlawing of institutes of religious education, and seminaries were also closed, with an estimated 4,000 monks and nuns either jailed or forcibly “returned to the world.”
Under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s de facto dictator from 1965 to 1989, some 22 churches and monasteries were demolished and 14 others were closed or moved to remote locations. Romanian Orthodox priests living outside of Romania who criticized the regime were defrocked.
Like Aftenie, the other six bishops whose martyrdom Francis recognized died in prison either for refusing to convert to Orthodoxy, or for speaking out against the Communist government.
Valerio Traiano Frenţiu, who had been the Bishop of the Diocese of Oradea Mare, was arrested in October 1948 and imprisoned at the Căldăruşani monastery. After being transferred to Sighet prison in 1950, he died just two years later due to the harshness of the conditions.
Similarly, Bishop Ioan Suciu, who was an auxiliary in the Oradea diocese and who had studied at Rome’s Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, was arrested in 1948 and died of illness in Sighet prison shortly after.
Bishop Iuliu Hossu died in a hospital in Bucharest after spending several years in isolation. Alexandru Rusu, who had been named Major Archbishop of Fagaraş and Alba Iulia in 1946, was imprisoned in 1948 and found guilty of “instigation and high treason” by a military tribunal in 1957. He eventually died of illness behind bars.
Ioan Balan, who had been the bishop of Lugoj, was also among those arrested in 1948 and after being transferred to four different prisons in five years, he was taken to Samurcăşeşti Monastery, where he remained in isolation until he grew ill and was taken to a Bucharest hospital, where he later died.
Francis’s decision to recognize the martyrdom of the seven bishops shortly ahead of his May 31-June 2 visit is not only a sign of the pope’s attention to modern martyrs, but it can also be seen as a support for Eastern Catholic Churches, particularly the Greek Catholic Church, which has its primary footprint in Ukraine.
When Francis sets foot in Romania, Aftenie’s grave, one of the few to have been marked and preserved and which has become a pilgrimage site, could be a stop along the way. Whether it’s on his official itinerary or not, such a gesture would likely be seen as a sign of respect for the suffering that his flock in Romania endured.