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January 31, 2023

The martyrdom of charity

Some people wondered why former President Iliescu went to the beatification ceremony of Monsignor Vladimir Ghika. This is proof that a gesture that basically concerns a limited Romanian community – that of the Catholics – has much broader connotations. First of all, it is the phantasm of communism, that politics that transformed a gentle old man, who cared for the fate of the oppressed, into a martyr of the beastly tortures. Let us not forget that, for the communists, Christianity was one of the most formidable and most confrontational opponents. Like other projects of an Enlightenment provenience, communism claimed to free people from the constraints of Christianity. It answered the old totalitarian ambitions of the Churches (Medieval and not only) with the ambition of an atheist state and of a post-religious society that not only sent faith to the ghettos, but even drastically prohibited it.

Yet, the atheist pathos of the Bolshevik beginnings, that animated a  wild persecution – almost the entire episcopate killed, the vast majority of churches closed, if not destroyed, many clerics arrested, deported or massacred – had a second stage. The war – that it was at a certain moment on the verge of losing – brought Stalin close to the concept of his enemy (from many points of view, very similar), Hitler: religion makes soldiers better, more courageous than others because of their sacrificial spirit. So, subdued, the Russian Orthodox Church began its collaborationist career. Under these auspices, Eastern Europe became communist – with the persecution of the Churches, but differentiated, just like their corruption and instrumentalization. In Romania, the religious politics of the new regime included several suspect deaths of hierarchs, the promoting of several fellow comrades (first of all, the new Patriarch Justinian) in key positions, the arrest of the “politicized” clerics and the irreducible “mystics”, using the propagandistic potential of the religious discourse adapted to the “socialist” realities. This, regarding the Orthodox… The Catholics had a harsher treatment: Greek Catholics were simply declared illegal, after some of them had already become Orthodox, following a campaign orchestrated by the state in agreement with the hierarchy of the opposing Church. The Greek Catholic Bishopric and a part of the clergy clogged the prisons of the regime. The Latin rite Catholics too saw their hierarchs arrested and accused of “espionage” for the Vatican, namely for the imperialist Occident. This way, Monsignor Vladimir Ghika, found himself at the whim of the torturers. He was not just a devoted missionary, but a former diplomat with aristocratic roots. Basically, the attitude of the Vatican towards the totalitarian regimes combined, in different proportions, accommodating them, diplomacy and opposition. Towards communism, the reaction was firmer than in other cases, even motivating a certain “understanding” towards the Nazi state, seen as a counterweight to the danger of a Sovietisation of Europe. Even the more diplomatic attitude did not manage to generate anything else but an increased hostility from certain states which could not tolerate a Church with an authoritarian leadership from abroad. Yet, beyond the political context and the conjectural collaboration, Christianity and communism remained the same two ideological enemies. Even if the theology of anti-communism appears, in more cases than one, as being ambiguous. There are however cases, like the one of Monsignor Ghika, that show an obvious moral irreconcilability. Charity vs. torture. We do not know if the Catholic inquisitors were “good Christians” in front of God, but Vladimir Ghika certainly was. And, as “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the new Christians” – according to the memorable words of Tartulian – let us not be surprised that a former communist official like Ion Iliescu honors (demagogically or not) the memory of the beatified Monsignor. But why hasn’t the Romanian Orthodox Church canonized its “martyrs” dead in the communist prisons yet? The Catholics have done that, as well as the Russian Orthodox. Wasn’t the martyrdom of the Romanian Orthodox pure enough? It is clear that the main obstacle were the political implications. Just like in the case of the postponed beatification of Pius XII, the main “recent” Orthodox people who could have been canonized have a background problem: they were legionaries. In other words, they activated – and some were animated even in prison by the same belief – in favor of an extreme right-wing politics, with totalitarian (Christian) intentions, virulent nationalist and with anti-Semitic slippages. The legionaries were not only fervent anti-communists – which can explain their massive presence in the communist prisons – but also promoters of a spirituality of sacrifice, which made them more intransigent and more willing to accept the rigors of sacrifice. The most dazzling case is that of Valeriu Gafencu, called by the well-known Jew intellectual who was converted in prison to Orthodoxy, Nicolae Steinhardt, a “saint of the prisons”. Gafencu, sentenced to many years in prison even before the arrival of communists, getting over the rather youthful political passion, had become, during jail years, a mystic animated by the charity fever.  His most sacrificial gesture was giving up his own medication – he was inside a tuberculosis camp – for an Evangelical Jew, which eventually led to his death. But some of those who now promote his canonization do this to perpetuate, next to the Christian values, a political belief of a legionary provenience. Even the civil authorities sometimes find themselves in the middle, accused by some that they promote the memory of a (supposed) anti-Semitic, and by others that they give up in front of the political correctness blackmail at the expense of their own martyrs. But the question about the type of Christianity promoted by the “mystic” Gafencu and his comrades remains legitimate. Any group of people animated by a belief had its “martyrs”. Is there any Christian martyrdom that is more authentic than the others? Or is it that the ways are less important than the targe ?
The case of Vladimir Ghika reminds of that of a Russian Orthodox, canonized some years ago by the Patriarchy of Constantinople. Maria Skobtova practiced charity in her French exile. For having helped Jews in the Nazi occupied Paris, she ended up in the Ravensbruck camp and, a few months before the end of the war, she was gassed. Yet the analogy of the two martyrs – one Catholic, the other Orthodox – is even more profound. They were both animated by the belief that the true Christian mystique runs through the heart of human relationships. It may seem a triviality of the universal Christian mentality, but, in fact, it is not. Here is what Nae Ionescu, a philosopher and influent journalist of his time, a mentor of so many prestigious intellectuals that were to come (including Emil Cioran, Constantin Noica and Mircea Vulcanescu – another martyr of the communist prisons) and a person close, towards the end of his life, to the Legionary Movement, said in 1926: “Is there, in Christianity, a love of thy neighbor ? Of course there is, but a love of your neighbor through God and in God; like a consequence of our love for God (…) How far we are from the Anglo-Saxon Protestant philanthropy! What can therefore Stockholm or Geneva (the headquarters of important ecumenical institutions) mean to us? An innocent, yet counterproductive occupation for the good people”. Exactly against this wicked war between humanism and theocracy implicitly activate Maria Skobtova and Vladimir Ghika. It is an important moral lesson against the dehumanization in the name of God that still haunts this era.

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