In Romania, the church is considered by the general public to be the most trustworthy institution, closely followed by the army. I can’t remember a single time since the fall of the dictatorship in 1989 when this wasn’t the case. I can understand that the army is high up in trust rankings. According to public perception, it’s a discreet institution that hasn’t let us Romanians down, even if we don’t know exactly what our armed forces do most of the time, except buy expensive armaments. But the people’s widespread faith in the church has always puzzled me.
According to the LARIC Centre’s barometer of trust, Romania’s organisation for sociological research, the Romanian Orthodox Church takes first place with 71 percent. By contrast, only thirty-four percent of the population believe that the Ministry of Health is trustworthy. The government itself only manages to scrape fourteen percent. Romania, according to several surveys, is the country in the EU with the highest number of believers. More than eighty-five percent of the population state that they are orthodox. Whether these figures, derived from several sources, are in fact accurate, is another story. If someone asked me whether I was orthodox, I’d say ‘yes’ and add another point to the statistics. And I’d do that even though I am not religious. There’s a simple reason for this. I was brought up in a household of women who practised the orthodox faith all their lives. I still know long passages of the liturgy off by heart and can remember many stories from the Bible. This alone is ample reason for me not to have the heart to tick the box ‘I am not orthodox’ in a survey, because it would refute the whole culture and tradition of my upbringing – the heritage passed down by the women in my family to a younger generation. But I don’t go to church anymore either, not since I was nineteen. As an institution, it even disgusts me, and in this, I’m not alone.
So who can judge the significance of so many Romanians say ‘yes’ to the question ‘Are you orthodox?’
After the fifteen years I spent in two of Romania’s major cities to study then work as a writer, I returned in spring 2018 to Brăila, the small provincial town of my childhood. I thought I would move to the capital of Bucharest again in two years, but then 2020 turned the world upside down and forced me to stay longer. I was once again surrounded by pictures of saints and prayer books – and by believers. The man who provides my family with fresh eggs and chickens from his own farm is a member of the local congregation. My parents’ house is painted by someone else from the church, as is the man who trims the grapevines that grow like a second heaven across our courtyard. All of them are trustworthy people because they fear God, so the argument goes. In a country where the elderly are neglected socially in a provincial town with a limited number of activities and residents, a place where people can barely afford leisure activities other than traditional barbecues, the church has become a social hub. Perhaps its success lies in the lack of alternatives.
“Many of these incidents have only been partially clarified. For example, the collaboration of the church with the Securitate, the former secret police under Ceaușescu’s dictatorship.”
The role of the church as a social and cultural stopgap would not be a problem in itself – if its message weren’t so problematic. Added to this is the malpractice within this institution that is often tolerated or even hushed up, such as the archbishop’s sexist remarks or the sexual abuse scandal of young men at the priest’s seminar in Huși. The church often gets involved in political campaigns. In 2018, for example, it supported the ‘Coali ia pentru familie’ organisation (Coalition for Families). On paper, the organisation is independent and consists of forty-four associations, societies and non-governmental groups that all support the traditional perception of the family. This organisation also initiated a referendum to the effect that marriage should be anchored into the Romanian constitution as “a union between man and woman” and not, as it currently stands, “between two people”. Before this referendum, a hate campaign was fuelled against sexual minorities that gave the word “traditional” a repugnant aftertaste. One of the two chairpeople of the newly founded right-extremist Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) is from the ranks of this coalition that has spread its message with help from the church. The AUR party saw an astonishing nine percent increase in its electorate and was able to enter parliament.
There is, of course, another side to this: the Romanian Orthodox church supports homes for the elderly and children, is charitable towards needy communities and many priests regularly donate blood. But at the same time, there has been a steady stream of scandals and “gaffes” on the part of several bishops. The face of the patriarch is engraved on the biggest church bell in Europe. Many of these incidents have only been partially clarified. For example, the collaboration of the church with the Securitate, the former secret police under Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. Several high-ranking priests were found to be informers when the files of the Securitate emerged after the organisation was disbanded in 1989. Another rather bizarre case is that of an orthodox patriarch who purchased a twenty-five-ton bell costing 425 million euros for the Mântuirii Neamului Cathedral in Bucharest in 2016. This bell is considered to be the largest in Europe and is engraved with the face of that same patriarch. This is just one of many instances where the church is conspicuous for its opulence and eccentricity, instead of the idea of humility that the Christian Orthodox church embodies.
“Until late into 2020, the congregation members continued to be given the “Împărtășanie”, the Holy Communion of bread and wine. According to orthodox tradition, the holy wine is drunk from one chalice and the bread is passed from one spoon. This, of course, was incompatible with the health and safety measures against the COVID virus.”
During the COVID crisis of the past year, the moral compass of church leaders seems to have been mislaid. If the contradictory messages it sends out to its followers is considered, it seems as if the church finds itself in a position of complete confusion. At the start of the crisis, church leaders vehemently rejected the health measures imposed by the state. Until late into 2020, the congregation members continued to be given the “Împărtășanie”, the Holy Communion of bread and wine. According to orthodox tradition, the holy wine is drunk from one chalice and the bread is passed from one spoon. This, of course, was incompatible with the health and safety measures against the COVID virus.
And now, one year on since the outbreak of the pandemic, the authorities are becoming increasingly desperate to convince the population of the necessity of the vaccination. Not long ago, thousands of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were donated to Moldavia and the Ukraine. This may have seemed like a Christian gesture. But at second glance, it turned out to be an indication of the Romanian authorities’ inability to provide its population with information. It remains one of the greatest failures of Romania’s state vaccination campaign that it has not reached rural areas where forty-three percent of the population lives but where there are hardly any vaccination centres. The majority of the Romanian population have therefore fallen between the cracks. And this leads to the absurd situation that we may have the vaccination but no one that we can vaccinate.
On Easter Saturday of this year, as usual in the Orthodox church, “Holy Fire” was brought from Jerusalem for a ceremony. Instead of using their influence to inform the population about the dangers of the pandemic, the church has upheld its obsolete values. During the event, the church leader Patriarch Daniel unexpectedly announced that vaccinated believers would soon be able to go on pilgrimages again. The press had a field day with his statement: was the church suddenly supporting the vaccination campaign? I personally don’t think so. Because the priest's statement was probably primarily about pilgrimages, which play a central role for many Romanian believers and link faith with tourism. In Romania, namely, people make pilgrimages in buses rather than on foot. Sometimes they stay overnight in a hotel and take in tourist attractions along the way. Pilgrims mostly travel to cloisters that keep reliquaries – mummified bodies, or body parts, icons that work miracles, consecrated springs or caves in which supposed saints have lived. And the largest pilgrim travel agency in Romania is Basilica Travel, which is owned by the church.
“Only now that the crisis is making itself felt financially – even in the church – it is slowly waking up. The church may benefit from state money, but members of the congregation still have to pay for their own weddings, christenings and funerals.”
The church gave its first real statement on the subject of the vaccination a year after the pandemic broke out. And what it says is vaguely formulated and aimless. Once again, an institution that likes to proclaim that it helps the population has not taken up a protective or even educational role. Quite the opposite, in fact: instead of using its influence to inform people about the health risks we all face, the church is proudly holding up its obsolete values. Only now that the crisis is making itself felt financially – even in the church – it is slowly waking up. The church may benefit from state money, but members of the congregation still have to pay for their own weddings, christenings and funerals. Every single church runs its own small, tax-free business. By selling books, icons and candles, each generates extra income, as well as giving masses outside of the church, such as the blessing of houses. But all these additions are taking place more seldom. Money is getting tighter.
In the shops surrounding churches, cloisters and places of pilgrimage, some questionable prayer books are being sold. These include biographies of alleged saints and so-called Akathists, hymns dedicated to saints. As a writer, I always instinctively turn to the last page of a book. Because astonishingly, these books usually don’t mention their author. Some are translations from Greek or Russian, some are published with the blessing of a diocese instead of mentioning an author, and some say nothing at all. Where do all these saints come from? I wonder. Their stories are well-known, their names are in our calendars but how they were “dug up” remains a mystery. I find questions such as these just as fascinating as the fundamental need of many people for a god.
Even if I am not a believer, I highly respect those who practice their faith with a clear mind. I understand the need for stories that bring order into our lives. My respect, therefore, goes to all those that live according to these stories and remain rooted in reality – that is, in a place where solutions to a crisis are found by experts, not by spiritual leaders.
Because I miss God occasionally. Someone who is all-knowing and all-seeing, unlike us people. Because God is one thing, and the church is something quite different.
From the Romanian by Manuela Klenke
Translated by Jess Smee