During a short business trip to Romania, I acquainted myself very superficially with some features and rites of the Romanian Orthodox Church, one of fourteen universally recognized Local Churches of the Ecumenical Orthodox Community. In the religious sense, Romania is an almost monolithic country, as 90 percent of the country is Orthodox. These are mostly Romanians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and small Slavic communities; nearly all of them have their own churches and services in their mother tongue.
Some scholars believe that the history of Christianity on the territory of Romania began after Dacia, the old name for Romania, was conquered by the Roman emperor Trajan (106 AD). The First Ecumenical Council (325) was attended by Gothic Bishop Ulfila who, according to legend, preached the Christian creed to the Dacians. The only thing that is known about the Dacian language is that it did exist, and that after the country was conquered by Rome this language became totally absorbed by Latin. In its place appeared the Romanian language. Like many other Western European languages, it belongs to the Romance group of languages. Ninety percent of the words in the earliest known Romanian text of the Creed are Latin and 10 percent of Slavic origin.
“What is the connection with Slavic things?” an inquisitive reader will wonder. This is a special story. It so happened that in the course of wars and the resettlement of peoples during the early Middle Ages, the Romanians gradually lost contact with the Roman and Byzantine churches and came under the influence of the Eastern Slavs, including the Bulgarian church. As a result, in the 10th century they adopted the Slavic liturgy of Cyril and Methodius, along with the Church Slavonic language, books, and the traditions of the Slavs living near the Danube River. For the Romanians the Slavic language became what Latin had once been for the entire Western church. This is the only such occurrence in the Christian world (not counting Moldova, which is historically connected to Romania). The first diocese in Romania was recognized by Constantinople in 1359 and the first Romanian metropolitan, in 1401.
The first church texts in Romanian started appearing in the 15th-16th centuries. The first Romanian-language New Testament was published in 1648, and the Romanian version of the Holy Bible appeared in Bucharest in 1688. This completed the process of the Romanization of the liturgy and church life.
Why did the Romanians reject the Church Slavonic language? There were two main reasons. At the time, the Romanians had clearly formulated their Great Objective: national independence. Also, Church Slavonic had become almost totally incomprehensible to most Romanians, including the clergy. After nearly 700 years of liturgies conducted in Church Slavonic, they were supplanted by services in the Romanians’ native language. However, Church Slavonic elements are still in evidence: in the vocabulary, inscriptions on icons, church banners, and walls. You can see this when you visit churches and the Museum of Arts of Romania. Church Slavonic was used by icon painters and portraitists until the beginning of the 20th century.
The Romanian church language became somewhat of an obstacle on the road to the Romanization of Orthodox Ukrainians who had immigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even though both peoples were Orthodox, they seldom visited each other’s churches. So if there is no Ukrainian church in a village, Ukrainian believers will go to a Bulgarian rather than a Romanian church.
Meanwhile, Romania should serve as an historical example for Ukraine. It became independent in 1859 and in 1864 its Orthodox Church proclaimed its autocephaly. An appropriate decree was signed by the Romanian government and the Synod of the Romanian Church, despite vociferous objections from Constantinople. Twenty-one years later, in 1885, Patriarch Joachim IV of Constantinople finally published a decree recognizing the autocephaly of the Romanian Orthodox Church, although the enthronement of the first Patriarch of Romania took place only in 1925.
Like all the other Ecumenical Orthodox Churches, the Romanian Orthodox Church has a number of rites that differ from ours. Some of these are instantly noticeable. The first thing you notice is rows of chairs, or pews (like in Greek Catholic or Roman Catholic churches). Another amazing thing is that lit candles are placed not in front of icons inside the church but in special iron boxes with doors by the entrance to the church.
One Sunday I saw a large church in the center of Bucharest, surrounded by small flickering lights placed on the ground. Believers buy small book-size iron boxes near the church or bring them from home, fill them with sand and place short lit candles inside in the form of a cross. People of all ages kneel in front of them and pray to these family “altars.” There were hundreds of these small burning crosses around the church.
The architecture of Romanian churches is somewhat unusual to a Ukrainian believer. It is not like Catholic or Eastern Orthodox architecture. As a rule, two tall round towers are built over the roof of a rather low basilica. The overall composition appears to lack harmony (in our eyes, that is). Churches built in the 15th-16th centuries are considerably more attractive with their marvelous colorful domes (cupolas) resembling upended flowers with their petals bent upward.
Not far from an old church in the very center of the city stands a modern and very strange monument. Imagine a statue of a slim young man thrusting forward six strong swimmer’s hands. At first you don’t even realize that he is headless. Too bad there was nobody around that I could ask for an explanation. After mulling it over for a long time, I decided that this is a very good idea that can be widely used in Ukraine: erecting “Monuments without heads” to our politicians with many greedy hands.