Page 7, 28th November 2003

28th November 2003
Page 7
Page 7, 28th November 2003 — John Jolliffe reports on the Church's role in rebuilding Romanian society after decades of communist depredation

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John Jolliffe reports on the Church's role in rebuilding Romanian society after decades of communist depredation

The rebirth of a nation

Ihirteen years after the uprising that freed Romania from the monstrous

tyranny of Ceausescu, life is slowly developing on new lines. Industrially and commercially, new foreign investment is being made in the country, for example through two new Romanian-managed funds launched by Ing Baring. Corruption is still endemic at all levels, and although a new anti-corruption law has been drafted, one is told that it will make little difference, since it will not affect those at the top. There is a Romanian proverb that a fish goes rotten from the head; and since the head contains the brains and eyes and ears, it inevitably controls what happens in the rest of the body.

Bucharest itself, as I saw on a recent visit, is shabby,scruffy and run down, apart from two small residential areas, one near the President's abode and the other in a salubrious diplomatic district. The roads, even in the city centre, are full of potholes, and there is little to attract the visitor except for two charming museums, conveniently almost facing each other across the Soseana Kisselev. One, the Village Museum, contains small wooden houses, farm buildings, wayside shrines, a windmill, and even the remains of an antiquated railway engine, now undoubtedly at its final terminus in a field. The other, previously a Museum of Communism, has been mercifully transformed into an enormously attractive collection of rural crafts, textiles, ceramics and metalwork. Neither museum should he missed by the visitor. The only other redeeming feature of the capital is the abundance of trees, both in the various parks and in avenues along the main streets.

Much more rewarding are the two rural areas which I visited. The first was in northern Moldavia, close to the border with Ukraine.lts capital is Suceava, reached by a seven hour train journey from the capital. The city is noted for its former mediaeval defences against the threat of invasion by the Tatars. (The original walls were built to the height of a hundred feet, to make it

impossible to shoot an arrow over them.) To the north and west it is surrounded by a magnificent series of Orthodox churches and monasteries, most of them covered, outside as well as in, with astonishing mural frescoes. The colours are still often brilliant, and since the interiors could only accommodate a small number of the faithful, the rest had to congregate outside and gain inspiration from the vivid scenes from the Old and New Testaments displayed on the walls.

The artists are largely unknown but their inspiration was Byzantine rather than European, and although the figures are sometimes clumsy and crude compared with what was being produced in Italy at the time, they have an original freshness and vitality which more than make up for a lack of sophistication.

This is not the place for detailed descriptions, but the ones I visited, and strongly recommend, were Dragomima, founded in 1601; Putna, founded by Stephen the Great in 1466, and containing a museum full of outstanding treasures; Sucevitsa, which is the largest and finest, begun in 1582; Moldovitsa, where the fortifications are more impressive than the badly faded frescoes; and Voronets, perhaps the best for frescoes, and famous for the brilliance of the blue pigment used in them. All these are efficiently described in the Rough Guide to Romania, a title which does much less than justice to its contents.

The situation of the churches, like most things in Romania, is complex. The Orthodox Church, to which nominally or otherwise the vast majority belongs, was infiltrated by government control for forty years, and to extend that control still further the Uniate Catholic Church was ordered to hand over all its buildings to the Orthodox. Now, after the fall of Ceausescu, the Orthodox have tenaciously refused to give them back, in some cases for the valid reason that whole Uniate parishes have gone over en bloc to the Orthodox. Relations at parish level appear peaceful, and it is chiefly higher up that rivalry anclhostility occur. One is reminded of Mgr Ronald Knox's answer when asked why he had never been to Rome: "If you ever feel queasy in the barque of St Peter, it is better to stay away from the engine-room."

The Catholic minority were, for some reason, not included in this takeover, and have retained ownership of their comparatively few churches. When I was in Suceava, they were happily celebrating the bicentenary of the establishment of the considerable Polish community there with a packed High Mass, characteristically enlivened by banners and patriotic badges, and followed in the evening by a secular celebration. The parish priest told me that there is now some religious instruction provided in most state schools, where efforts are also being made to assimilate gypsy children and to save them from the hostility based on the varying degrees of criminal behaviour of which many gypsies are plainly guilty. How far this will succeed remains to be seen, but at least a start is being made.

There is, incidentally, no shortage of vocations. At Iasi there are 300 seminarians, far more than there are likely to be parishes available for. Why on earth can some of them not be invited to the numerous places in England where harassed priests often have to try and cope with half a dozen parishes? There would be problems, of course, but minute ones compared with what Romanian priests have had to contend with at home.

The highlight of my visit to Suceava came when I was entertained to lunch after Mass at a wonderful children's home run by Sister Cristina, of the Order of the Oblates of the Assumption. On the wall was proudly displayed a scroll proclaiming a visit from Prince Charles, their patron, three weeks before. Fourteen well-adjusted children (including two gypsies) are housed there, and the start in fife which they are being given is literally a godsend. Though understandably shy at first, by the end of lunch the children nearest me at table, seven or eight year olds, had become enchantingly friendly and insisted on showing me the rooms where they did their homework, played and slept.

There had also been a wonderful windfall for the house when Nicole Kidman was working on the filmset of Cold Mountain not far away. She invited the children to join her for rehearsals in the snow, and generously presented the home with a minibus for journeys to school and other trips. The charity will also benefit front the London premiere of the film.

They had an even bigger boost from their royal patron when Prince Charles enabled FARA to hold a fund-raising concert, with some excellent Romanian performers, in St James's Palace last month: it raised no less than £30,000.

Yet there is a much darker side. I was assured elsewhere that in one school the children were being told in class that war was a good thing, since it disposed of surplus population; and that the government's most important task was to round up all the gypsies in Roma

nia and put them in extermination camps.

Dervla Murphy, the accident-prone, masochistic and often naive travel writer, in her unique book Transylvania and Beyond, written in the months after Ceausescu's fall, revealed some of the full horrors of the state orphanages at that time. Tiny children were often abandoned in the frozen streets by their starving parents, who felt in their despair that no fate could he worse than what lay in store for them at home. There were even cases of children being kidnapped in the streets, and then having their limbs mutilated or even amputated, to improve their potential as beggars.

Even now, i saw a beggar child aged about 10 enter a railway carriage and display a crudely fashioned wooden leg, roughly hinged at what should have been the knee. Yet people have become so inured to these harrowing scenes that the wretched child was simply waved away.

So the work done by places like the St Nicholas Home in Suceava is desperately needed. The charity, whose name is FARA (the Romanian word for "without"), runs a similar home in Bucharest, St Gabriel's, and foster care programmes near to each home place abandoned children with local families, work which the proceeds of the concert at St James's will help enormously. Also in the Suceava district, FARA has started a working organic farm with a training centre for disad vantaged young people leaving care.

The founder and chairman of FARA is Jane Nicholson, a secular Carmelite. All funding for FARA projects comes from Britain through its 34 charity shops, and from donations.

It is hard to imagine a better example of Catholic social teaching in action. Where Prince Charles and Nicole Kidman have led, will not others follow?

Those wishing to help FARA, or to locate the shops, which are nearly all in the South East, should contact the FARA office at 20A High Street, Walsingham, Norfolk, NR22 MA. Tel. 01328 821444, Fax 01328 821555; email: [email protected]

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