Introduction: Romania's ethnic Hungarian minority takes pride in 'Catholic homeland'

  • The pilgrimage of Saint Anthony in Romania's Csík valley.

Catholics in Romania don’t talk about their personal faith much, which is a surprise in this country where religion is so visible and audible in everyday life. Latin-rite Catholics in Romania are members of an ethnic Hungarian minority, a small community surrounded by Orthodox Christians in one of Europe’s most religiously observant societies. Romanian public culture and everyday life is deeply marked by Orthodox Christian visual and aural values. Churches and monasteries are visible from the road as you drive through any part of the country. Step off a tram or a bus in a major city square and the first thing you will notice are the dramatic circular towers of a large Orthodox Cathedral. You might have even been riding next to a black-robed, bearded Orthodox priest.

Catholics in Romania live mostly in homogenous enclaves in the eastern part of the Transylvania region. There is a sense that these areas are a kind of “Catholic homeland.” There is a widely-known legend (believed by many ordinary Catholics to be historically true) that the Virgin Mary appeared to a group of Catholics defending this region against an invading Protestant army. An annual pilgrimage to the site of this apparition helps bolster the sense that Catholicism has a “home” in this region.

Everyday life in this enclave can look and feel just as devout as in Orthodox Christian and Romanian parts of the country. In these Catholic areas, everyone you meet — from the town mayor to the bus driver — is Hungarian and Catholic. The bus drivers will have pictures of the Virgin Mary tucked into the dashboard in front of them and rosaries dangling from their rearview mirrors. In small villages, the local parish will ring its bell at noon, which can be heard at a great distance. The noon-bell is a part of everyday life and most village-dwellers do not take notice of it, although Catholics are also proud to point out this sign of everyday religious observance to visitors. Catholics in Romania are comfortable with these signs of religious observance that mostly go unnoticed as people go about their daily business.

Catholics are proud that many continue to attend Mass regularly, go on pilgrimage to important local shrines, and return home for holidays such as All Souls Day (in Hungarian, halottak napja). In Catholic enclaves, many will be eager to tell you about visiting the important pilgrimage site at Csíksomlyó dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Catholics will be able to recite the Rosary by heart, even if participating in a regular Rosary prayer group does not appeal to them. Those who have traveled by foot during the annual procession to this shrine will also be able to perform by heart one of the popular hymns to the Virgin Mary that pilgrims sing during their journey.

Catholics feel that it is important to pray and to support their local parish financially. Each year before Christmas priests will recite the list of families who have made donations to the parish, including the amount each has donated. Being a member of one’s lay parish council is a mark of being a community-minded individual and a good citizen. Charismatic Catholic groups work to keep young people participating in the Church by providing worship services, camps, and conferences that feel like popular rock concerts. Attending Mass, celebrating annual holidays, and eating and praying together is a way for Catholics in Romania to reunite and feel a sense of belonging as a family, as a village community, as Catholics and as Hungarians.

Many Catholics in Romania will say they are proud to see so many Catholic churches and large crowds at pilgrimage sites because Catholicism (and all other religious traditions) could very well have disappeared from this area. From 1949 until 1989, Romania was ruled by a communist government. In the 1950s, many Catholic leaders were imprisoned after show trials intended to undermine the Church. The Greek Catholic Church was absorbed into the Romanian Orthodox Church and its buildings taken over. Until the end of the 1980s, the government tried to discourage most people in Latin-rite Catholic enclaves from attending Mass by requiring employers to remain open on Sundays and scheduling cultural festivals to conflict with the traditional dates of holidays. Although many regular people were free to be baptized and attend Mass, teachers and government officials were forbidden from observance.

The result is that, while not every baptized Catholic in Romania attends Mass on a regular basis, everyone says they belong in some way to the Catholic Church. Many will say they like to attend Mass because it gives them a feeling of spiritual uplift, but, in private, they will attribute their regular practice to gratitude for one of the Virgin Mary’s miracles. People explain their feeling that it is proper to keep some aspects of one’s faith private. For example, they fear that others will mock them for talking about miracles publicly. Still, people also believe that is rude to criticize belief in God or someone’s decision to go on pilgrimage. As a reaction against a time when the Catholic Church was subject to public criticism, Catholics today embrace a “to each their own” attitude toward Catholic belief and practice, an outlook Catholics in Romania will express with the proverb, “there are as many customs as there are houses.”

Miracles don’t distract Catholics from complaining about social disorder

Believing in worldly solutions to social injustice and miraculous interventions are not mutually exclusive in the worldview of Catholics in Romania. Studies have shown that Hungarians living within the borders of the current Hungarian state constantly compare their communities — often negatively — to the well-ordered life of Western Europe. The same holds true for Hungarian and Catholic communities in Romania. Complaining about bad and corrupt government officials sometimes seems like a national pastime in this area. Malfunctioning mass transit, poor healthcare, bad roads, collapsing industry, and environmental degradation are the object of regular complaints in conversations with outsiders from comparatively prosperous parts of the world. Social inequality and large gaps between the rich and the poor are attributed to a broken system that allows people to exploit unfair advantages. The average wage in Romania is enough to get by on. Still, providing one's child with a good education can be very difficult without costly tutoring and other opportunities. Although one can make enough to put food on the table, people often say that meeting basic needs includes far more than simply having something to eat.

Catholics in Romania can complain that Romania’s economic and political system is broken — and needs a governmental fix — at the same time as they also believe that the Virgin Mary performs miracles on their behalf. In fact, the new Transylvanian branch of the World Family of Radio Maria has grown rapidly, in part, by broadcasting listeners’ stories about Mary’s miraculous interventions in their lives. The growth of Radio Maria as well as the rise of Charismatic Catholicism are challenging Catholics’ apprehensiveness about talking about their faith publicly.