of the Eastern Churches

The Orthodox Church of Romania

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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The southeastern European nation of Romania lies where the Latin, Greek and Slavic cultures collide. For most of its history, diversity marked the composition of the people living there. Large communities of Armenians, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Jews, Roma, Slavs, Turks and Vlachs (ethnic Romanians) lived together — sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Today, Romania is more homogeneous. About 89 percent of the population of 19 million is ethnic Romanian. Smaller communities of ethnic minorities remain, particularly in the central region of Transylvania.

The Orthodox Church of Romania is the largest religious community in the country — numbering more than 86 percent of the people — and the second-largest Orthodox Church in the world. Unlike other Orthodox churches, the Orthodox Church of Romania functions within a Latin culture and utilizes a Romance language in the celebration of the sacraments — legacies of the country’s Roman past. But Romanian, despite its Latin roots and syntax, includes words from Byzantine Greek and Church Slavonic, reflecting the early Romanians’ relationship with the Byzantines and Bulgarians respectively.

Despite centuries of challenges — ranging from oppression to collaboration — the church is intellectually, pastorally and spiritually dynamic. And it remains the most respected institution in contemporary Romanian society.

Origins. Christianity has existed in Romania since apostolic times. According to tradition, St. Andrew the Apostle first brought the Gospel to Scythia Minor, a portion of which lies in eastern Romania. Scattered archaeological finds indicate the presence of Christian communities during the Roman occupation of the region in the first and second centuries. And Christian bishops from Scythia participated in the debates of the early church, including the ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon.

Though documentation is thin, Christianity in its Latin (Roman) and Byzantine forms coexisted during the medieval occupation of the region by the Visigoths, Huns, Lombards, Bulgars and Cumans. The decline of relations between the churches of the East and West, definitive after the great schism in 1054, polarized its nascent Christian communities. The powerful Magyar Hungarian archbishops of Esztergom sent missionaries to work among the Cumans, erecting Roman Catholic dioceses, even as Bulgar Byzantine missionaries worked among the Vlachs, a pastoralist people speaking a Romance language said to have descended from the Romans.

Pope Gregory IX, in a letter dated 14 November 1234, noted that these Vlachs, “who though calling themselves Christians, gather various rites and customs in one religion and do things that are alien to this name. For disregarding the Roman church, they receive all the sacraments not from our venerable brother, the Cuman bishop ... but from some pseudo-bishops of the Greek rite.”

The Vlachs aligned themselves with the Bulgarians, who in the ninth century adopted Byzantine Christianity while asserting their political independence from the Byzantines. In 1204, the Byzantine emperor recognized this link between the two peoples when he raised the Bulgarian Orthodox metropolitan archbishop to the rank of “primate of the Bulgarians and the Vlachs.”

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