The Servant of God Bishop Theodore Romzha

Author: Giampaolo Mattei


Giampaolo Mattei

A young Bishop killedat the age of 36. Theodore Romzha — whose canonization cause was introduced on 8 November 1997 — is one of the multitude of witnesses to the faith who paid with their lives for their fidelity to Christ and to the Church during the blood-stained 20th century and were victims of the insane ideologies that sought in violent and treacherous ways to uproot the faith from European history.

The Carpathian region of Ukraine was the scene of dramatic events in the last century. Until 1918 the area belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It then became part of Czechoslovakia until it too fell under Stalin's heel in 1944. The Greek Catholic Church in Transcarpathia was relentlessly persecuted and in 1949 was officially suppressed.

The young Byzantine-rite Bishop of Mukachevo, Theodore Romzha, found himself living in a critical period. Shortly before the arrival of the Red Army, he wrote: "The frontier between Uzhorod and the Soviet Union is only 60 kilometres away.... Whatever will be will be. My goal is to do my apostolic work precisely among them. I have no intention of running away.... Besides, it would be no disgrace if they were to kill me. To die for Christ is to live for eternity".

When the Red Army arrived in Uzhorod, the Bishop received a courteous visit from the commander, who "reassured" him about the future and even invited him to speak at the celebrations for the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The Bishop's text was obviously prudent: he thanked the Lord for the end of the war and exhorted the people to pray for a stable and lasting peace. The Soviets however were dissatisfied and had a doctored version of his speech published in the papers. This was the go-ahead for systematic persecution. Churches were occupied and assigned to the Orthodox. Priests were arrested. Bishop Romzha was asked to make a declaration supporting the regime. He refused and was summoned by Generals Petrov and Mechlis to account for his actions. Mechlis, who represented the Soviet power, shouted in his face that now was the moment to break with the Pope. Romzha firmly replied "no".

Two laws were enacted: one on the freedom to change religion without formalities, and the other on the confiscation of Catholic parish property. Romzha tried to prevent the situation from deteriorating, but since even speaking to priests was becoming more and more difficult for him, he undertook by horse and buggy a general pastoral visit that lasted over a month.

The situation was not easy. The Soviets tried to convince certain priests to let themselves be arbitrarily named Bishops on condition that they collaborate. They received only scornful refusals. On 29 June 1945 Carpathian Ukraine was annexed to Soviet Ukraine. The situation deteriorated. But the more the regime tightened its grip, the more Bishop Romzha insisted on his pastoral missions. The last straw was the celebration of the Assumption attended by 83,000 pilgrims. Only 3,000 were Orthodox; the other 80,000 were Catholic. This was too much, and the Soviets did not tolerate it: they decided to ambush the Bishop as he was returning from one of his pastoral visits.

The account of his assassination reads like the script of a B-grade horror film. On 27 October 1947 the Bishop was returning from Lavki, where he had consecrated a church. He was accompanied by two priests and two seminarians. On the road between Cereivitsi and Ivanovtsi, a lorry filled with soldiers and police drove into the buggy at high speed, with the obvious intention of knocking it over and passing off the Bishop's death as an accident. The horses died instantly. The buggy was smashed to pieces. But Romzha and his companions survived the accident unscathed. Then the soldiers, armed with iron bars, attempted to finish the job: they kept hitting them until they appeared unconscious and were then left for dead. Some passersby later came to their rescue and took them in very serious condition to the Mukachevo hospital. The priests and seminarians were discharged after a while, but Bishop Romzha stayed in the ward since his injuries were more serious.

As the days passed his condition improved. But the Basilian Sisters who were nursing him were suddenly dismissed and replaced with a "trusted" nurse of the regime. It was she who gave him the coup de grâce on 1 November 1947 by poisoning him with gas. He died saying: "O Jesus...".

In a short time there was almost nothing left of the Ukrainian Church. Five Dioceses, 10 Bishops, 3,500 priests 1,000 sisters and 500 seminarians, along with schools, newspapers and publishing houses all vanished into nothing. Four million faithful were deprived of pastors.

Theodore Romzha carried out an intense mission for 36 years. He was born in 1911 at Veliky Bychkiv in Transcarpathia. He grew up in the complicated reality of that land. Born in Hungary, he became a Czechoslovak citizen and died under the Soviet regime. He saw his country's name change at least five times.

After studying at the secondary school in Chust from 1922 to 1930, he was sent to the Pontifical German-Hungarian College in Rome to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University. On 7 September 1934 he was transferred to the Russicum, while continuing his studies at the Gregorian. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Evreinov on Christmas Day 1936 in the Basilica of St Mary Major.

At the Pontifical German-Hungarian College he "changed places", practically speaking, with Alojzije Stepinac, another persecuted Pastor and martyr. Stepinac had come to Rome in 1924, was ordained a priest on 26 October 1930 and celebrated Holy Mass at St Mary Major on All Saints Day. After completing his studies, Stepinac returned to Croatia in JuLy 1931.

Theodore Romzha also returned home after completing his studies and hoped to be able to return to Rome for further study. In 1937 he was drafted into military service in Prague, since the Eparchy of Mukachevo was located in Czechoslovakia. After experience in several Transcarpathian parishes he was appointed spiritual director at the seminary and professor of philosophy. On 24 September 1944 he was consecrated Bishop in the cathedral of Uzhorod by the Apostolic Administrator, Miklos Dudas. Latin-rite Bishop Janos Settler of Satu Mare, Romania, and Bishop Istvan Madaras of Kosice were ordained with him. His episcopal mission began at that moment: three years into the tragedy of the Second World War.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 February 2001, page 8

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