Page 5, 12th January 1990

12th January 1990
Page 5
Page 5, 12th January 1990 — Christianity and its triumph over communism

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Locations: Bucharest, Oxford


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Christianity and its triumph over communism

Michael Bordeaux explains the churches role in recent events in Europe

AS the new decade begins, the Christian faith confronts its greatest opportunities in Europe for half a century. After the devastation of 1945 the Iron Curtain soon cut off east from west and the church was one of the principal losers, along with culture, national traditions and most of the furniture of what Mr Gorbachev calls "Our common European home". Even some of the walls of that house were misaligned, but, as we are now seeing, its foundations were on rock — a rock not so much of common culture, but of the Christian faith.

With admirable prescience, this newspaper last summer commissioned articles on the church in all the Eastern European countries. The various authors all saw the Christian faith playing a decisive role in their very different circumstances. No political commentators at the same time undertook such an analysis; the cataclysm of October to December went beyond what any single soul anywhere dared predict. There was one exception; my old friend, Sir John Lawrence, a highly respected layman of the Church of England, had said repeatedly; "Communism will one day collapse like a house of cards and I shall live to see it."

Hardly anyone took him seriously when he first said this about 25 years ago, but, now well into his eighties, he has seen his prophecy fulfilled with amazing speed and finality.

Finality, that is, except for the Soviet Union and China. But few commentators would now place a bet on the ability of Mr Gorbachev and his retreating Party to hold the line even for six months. As everywhere else, the Christian church is here playing a leading role in the process of change; it also faces the immense challenge of being best able to fill the void left by the failure of communist ideology even to begin to respond to the material or spiritual needs of the human race.

Even now, the role of the church as an agent of change is under-reported and undervalued.

In Lithuania, now making a serious and statesmanlike challenge to the Kremlin's right to rule, the Roman Catholic Church was in the forefront of resistance back in the 1970s, when every bud of opposition was rubbed off before it could burgeon. Without the bravery of its martyrs, such heroic figures as Fr Juozas Zdebskis, who died for his faith even in the Gorbachev period, there would have been no popular basis for the emergence of the movement for political independence, which is now unstoppable short of an incursion by Soviet tanks.

Even in Latvia, where the Lutheran Church for decades seemed persecuted into silence, the representative clergy last April voted out of office the compromised Archbishop Eriks Mesters and replaced him by Karlis Galaitis, a supporter of the separatist cause. The Ukranian Catholic Church is now legal again after a ban lasting 43 years. Its struggle to regain its property continues and this is a focus for Ukranian nationalism. Moldavian Christians, mainly Orthodox, can now hardly do any other than reclaim their common heritage with fellow Romanians the other side of a long and now insecure frontier.

The role of the church in Poland and later in East Germany is now well known enough not to need detailed mention here. However, few observers have pointed out the constant influence of Czech and Slovak believers in the open and then suppressed opposition of the last 20 years. As Cardinal Tomasek has edged towards 90, his words have gathered influence rather than lost it, his aged authority at the recent televised Christmas mass providing a potent symbol of the Church's position in the new Society.

It is worthwhile pausing for a few moments longer on the recent role of Christians in Romania. Insofar as there was any general knowledge of the country, people in Britain believed it to be a picture of unrelieved gloom and oppression. Yet the lantern of freedom, walled in though it might have been, was never extinguished and it was Christians who tended it and replenished the oil.

The determined preaching of the Reformed Church Pastor Laszlo Tokes evoked the wrath of the Romanian authorities, who in turn leaned on the pliant Bishop Laszlo Papp to order his removal to the virtual exile of a remote village. Abundant information on this conflict existed since it erupted in April last year, yet the secular media showed not even token interest. This meant that when the crisis came just before Christmas, the world's press treated the situation as unknown and wrongly claimed there was no history of opposition to the Ceausescu regime, and so the tyrant could not fall.

In fact, the church had been in the forefront of the demand for change for 20 years. As early as 1970, the Baptist pastor Joseph Ton came to Oxford to study, learned there of the heroic struggle for religious liberty his co-religionists were waging in the Soviet Union, and began a similar movement on his return to Bucharest. He knew this meant imprisonment and eventually it led to his exile to the USA.

The much larger Catholic Church with its 1,300,000 members — mostly ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania — had always held its head under intolerable pressure. Bishop Aron Marton of Alba lulia barely survived long years in some of the world's worst prisons after the war, but after his release resumed his unflinching struggle for religious liberty.

He lived to the age of 84 and died in 1980, but his memory never faded. Last summer the church wanted to celebrate a mass in his honour, the authorities suppressed it and 19 priests signed a letter of complaint to Ceausescu, which he of course never answered.

The dominant Orthodox Church, though its record of pliability stretched right back to the war, when Patriarch Nicodim hailed "Adolf Hitler and his glorious army", gained breathing space in the 1970s and used it to establish a worldwide network of contacts through the World Council of Churches and to set up solid bilateral relations, not least with the Church of The freedom it gained was not a sham: I observed it with my own eyes as an official guest of Patriarch Justin in 1978. The problem was that the Orthodox Church failed to use its influence to rally the Romanian people when Ceausescu's megalomania developed in the 1980s. Instead, the way thebishops justified the tyrant's destruction of Bucharest and then the villages was sickening. They signed a letter of support to him last April, calling him a "tireless flagbearer of world peace" and a guarantor of "complete religious freedom".

But even within the Orthodox Church, there were voices of integrity. During my 1978 visit, I incurred the displeasure of my hosts by calling on the persecuted priest, Gheorghe Calciu, who had taught his seminarians the meaning of integrity. Soon the Patriarch himself acquiesced in Calciu's imprisonment, but he survived torture eventually to emigrate to the USA.

Romanian Christians of various traditions have not only survived the persecution with heads held high: they kept alive the hope of change during those darkest days. The leaders who compromised now face an uncomfortable time. Bishops Papp and Nagy of the Reformed Church have resigned, to be replaced by a temporary council, made up of people of integrity. There is no "democracy" in the Orthodox Church, so one cannot predict what will happen, but it is hard to imagine that the compromised leadership can do any other than hang its collective head in shame. However, millions found their simple solace in it during the years of misery and it will regain its strength in the new Romania.

There is no country of Eastern Europe where the Christian Church does not have limitless opportunities for the next decade and prospects for the 21st century which, in human terms, are scarcely credible. Faith has been honed by suffering. As in the Roman Empire, the way of the cross still leads to resurrection.

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