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April 18, 2021

Hospitals and cathedrals

I wonder what Patriarch Daniel may be thinking when hearing in TV news protesters shout ‘We want hospitals, not cathedrals!’ The first though probably is that they are just a loud minority of Church opponents: atheists, free thinkers, libertines in conflict with Christian moral and even believers who don’t like the clergy, intellectuals with a secular mentality and philowesterners disturbed by local traditions.

Like any ‘human’ project, the Church stirs animosities, bitterness and differences. All the more so with the ‘project’ being more than human and the resistance being stigmatized as diabolic. The opposition to the ‘nation redemption’ cathedral is not something new. Not too many years ago, the sitting pious president who never turns down the offer of a church pulpit to be used as electoral rostrum was encouraging, from his mayor chair, the ‘civic-ecological’ protests denouncing the destruction of a park in Bucharest.

But, while his political ascension has mellowed him, other power veterans soon replaced him in their opposition to the Church.

A second thought that may be troubling the patriarch’s serenity would be the price of his impeccable cooperation with the State, seemingly better than ever before. Some are jealous, other fear the power the clergy still has over people’s hearts, also with an electoral meaning. Other are simply unlucky competitors: The Church is already a big landlord, it seeks the lion’s share in the area of social welfare, dominates the ‘religious’ travel industry and even contemplates setting a strong for in the bio-product market. However, one more pretentious though could also germinate in the patriarch’s mind. The sequels of populist equalitarianism and of individualist materialism, the recrudescence of democracy-inspired humanism, the glam of syncretic spirituality also blind the eyesight of all those who refuse the idea of a representative cathedral. Where has the healthy satisfaction of Christian national identity gone? One that would find its fulfilment in a construction capable of defying centuries. And, more deeply than anything else, the patriarch’s thought could remind him of Judah. He was also demanding ‘hospitals instead of cathedrals’, deploring the waste even in the name of faith.

But let us now walk out of the patriarch’s parlour and descend into the ‘street’. Amid protesters. Why do they oppose the Orthodox cathedral project? The issue of poverty is central to the polemic that feeds much sensitiveness separating the religious from the social. Since the beginning, the Church has arrogated the responsibility for the ‘disinherited of fate’: the poor, the sick, slaves, prisoners and aliens. Much of its rhetoric with the due excesses has been focused exactly on the recovery of those banished by collective mentality to the outskirts of society. A Church of the poor headed in a princely fashion. This is the contraction that has aroused a lot of scepticism to such a ‘service’. But times have changed and, especially after the atheistic leftism culminating with the ‘real socialism’, the Church aligned itself with the ‘conservatives’, somehow abjuring its vocation as a social justice-maker. Jesus was the first labour union member, a Romanian priest from Oltenia, engaged in quite an unusual union movement, was claiming. But his project was crushed in the egg by the ‘princes’ of the Church. So the Church preferred to be on the State’s coat tail, legitimising all its derailments from track.

Here we have another specific inveiglement: authoritarianism. Not long ago, the Romanian Orthodox Church reformed its operating statute in a fundamental point: the election of senior clergy – bishops, metropolitan bishops and patriarch. The lay people, meaning the immense part of the Orthodox, have been excluded from the decision-making project. Important decisions for the course of religious life, commensurate with the political choices for the society as a whole. For the most part of its history, the Church has been a strongly clerical institution. A trend of recuperating the lay element only emerged under the adverse conditions of being a minority.

In a Catholic and multinational Habsburg Empire, Metropolitan Bishop Andrei Saguna, recently beatified, put his bet on having lay people engaged in the leadership of the Church. Accused of secular and Masonic innovation, Saguna was actually a man of foresight. Unfortunately, his work was buried by a following bishop, current Patriarch Daniel. And so the election of high-ranking Church officials became even more a battle of egos. The proof of that is the ridiculous situation where the Cluj metropolitan seat is facing the risk of becoming purely formal. History is paradigmatic. An ambitious bishop, in a coup, broke the Transylvanian metropolitan seat into two, taking the lion’s share under his jurisdiction and leaving Sibiu with the frustration of a fait accompli. The revenge only waited for the death of the author, ‘the lion of Transylvania’, in order to show its claws. His follower, accepted by a Synod controlled by the patriarch, consented to the slaughtering of the legacy of the deceased metropolitan. Not just Alba-Iulia, but also Oradea want to return under the jurisdiction of Sibiu, leaving Cluj in an enclave. Facing this spectacle that has nothing to do with the elements required for an effective pastorship, but looks more like a calked replica of a purely egocentrist political establishment, what support ‘from the heart’ could the patriarch still hope for regarding his pharaonic dream?

Those shouting ‘we want hospitals, not cathedrals’ therefore should be in the first place the Orthodox preoccupied with their vocation. The Orthodox Church has become more clerical than the Catholic Church in that respect. Protected from the spiritual chaos of contemporary world, the Church is selling its ‘religious assistance’ at the price of renouncing the values of a relative social justice, denunciation of political alienation, fairness and honesty as well as the virtues of cooperation. The Church has become rich, conformist, authoritarian to an autistic extent, deaf to ‘the signals of the times’. In this ‘language confusion’ which is the contemporary world, the Church should be wise and courageous, honest and truthful. As a ‘classic’ of Christian thinking John Chrysostom (Golden Mouthed), was saying, ‘before we had wooden liturugical vessels and gold faith, now we have gold vessels and wooden faith’. Who should be caring after the ‘gold of faith’?

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