Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daoud, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, presented this morning at the Holy See Press Office the book “Faith and Martyrdom: The Eastern Churches in Twentieth Century Europe,” which includes shocking stories of martyrdom in the 20th Century.
The book, a summary of the proceedings of the meeting on contemporary Church history held on October 22-24, 1998, at Vatican City, documents the suppression of various Eastern Catholic Churches including the Ukrainian, Romanian, Slovakian and Ruthenian.
“After being erased from history,” said Cardinal Daoud, “these Churches have come back into existence and today strive to never forget the persecution they suffered.”
After emphasizing that the publication “gives a voice to those who suffered so much,” he said: “Despite this, there is no rancor. Despite difficult relations in the past, in many cases during the ‘century of martyrs’, Eastern Catholics and people of other confessions learned how to suffer together in prisons, in the ‘gulags’, in the forced labor camps.”
Professor Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio Community explained that Eastern Catholics “belonged to a group that communist policy did not admit in any part of the Eastern empire (from the former Czechoslovakia to Romania), with rare exceptions, such as in the small and tormented Bulgarian community and in Hungary. These pages illustrate the Soviet design to exterminate Eastern Catholicism.”
Referring to the term “martyr,” Riccardi Explained that “this is a word which is abused in our language.” In this way, people speak about “suicide martyrdom, which is very different from Christian martyrdom.” Christian martyrs “do not die in order to kill others but rather give their life to save the life of others, so that they do not have to give up their faith, to support other believers out of love. They are not seeking death, but they do not renounce their faith or human behavior in order to save their own life. This is the story that is told in these pages.”Shocking testimonies
Msgr. Tertulian Ioan Langa, 82, spoke of his 16 years in communist prison camps, describing the “massive and threatening atheistic Soviet presence on the Romanian borders,” the “violent and atrocious presence of atheistic communism” and “the brutal and humiliating presence of Soviet troops who had occupied almost a third of the national territory.”
In spine-tingling terms he described the indescribable: the countless times he was interrogated, the years of torture, deprivation, humiliation, and unspeakable suffering, the “diabolic rituals” prisoners underwent to make them talk. What became important for him and helped him to survive were his own rituals: praying, composing litanies, remembering and reciting Psalms.
“I have never written much about these dramatic experiences,” said Msgr. Langa today. “Who can believe what seems unbelievable? Who can believe that the laws of biology can be overcome by the will? But even Jesus was not believed by all who saw Him. ‘After this many of His disciples drew back and no longer went about with him’. Nothing is pure chance in life. Every second the Lord gives us is laden with grace – the impatient benevolence of God – and with our chance to either answer it or, filled with fear, to refuse it.”
He spoke of his bishop and his intellectual guides, “all victims of atheistic communism,” whose lives and teachings marked his own life. “Through them I discovered the meaning of communism, what it means to eliminate Christ from society and how mutilated the human soul can become” without Him. He underscored “the flagrant difference of perception and reaction to communism “between the Christians and intellectuals of the West” and those in the East who had lived through and undergone communism.
Bishop Pavlo Vasylyk, 77, one of 11 children, was imprisoned many times over many decades by Soviet authorities. During his first term in prison from 1947 to 1956, he was ordained a deacon and performed his ministry in prison, saying he only found the strength to do so because “what is impossible for a human person is possible for the Lord. The conditions we lived in the concentration camps were pitiless, worse than the German concentration camps…The Gospel…kept us human, kept us Christian.”
Shortly after being freed in 1956 he was ordained a priest, imprisoned again from 1959 to 1964 and exiled upon his release, forbade to minister in western Ukraine, though he did anyway. Ordained a bishop in 1974, he was constantly threatened by the KGB, but continued his episcopal ministry. On August 4, 1987, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church “announced to the entire world our Church’s exit from the catacombs to a full and normal religious life.”
The prefect of the congregation assured that his dicastery will continue to collect documentation about the faith experience of Eastern Catholics, “reflecting on the witnesses of the faith of our Churches, which can explain the root of so many prejudices.”