Yesterday’s Washington Post brought news that the Rev. Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa had died at age 80. Father Calciu was a Romanian Orthodox priest, and a staunch anti-communist, who endured 21 years in prison, but was allowed to immigrate to the United States in 1985. When Romania rose up against Communism four years later, the Post sent me to Bailey’s Cross Roads, in suburban Virginia, to interview him. To read that piece, clilck on “continue reading.”
The Exiled Priest Who Defied Ceausescu
Romania’s Gheorghe Calciu, With New Hope for His Homeland
Copyright The Washington Post Company Dec 30, 1989
The church sits between a Big Boy’s Restaurant and a chiropractor’s office, across Leesburg Pike from Skyline Mall. It is a whisper of contemplation in a landscape that shouts of condos and consumerism. In the basement kitchen, the telephone is ringing as it has been, almost continuously, since the people of Romania took to the streets and brought down their government.
The Rev. Gheorghe Calciu moves toward it deliberately. News has poured from his homeland in such violent convulsions these past two weeks that every call has had the potential to reshape his world. This time the news is good.
“A group of my former students were able to speak on Romanian TV,” he says. “They said, `Father Calciu, don’t forget your motherland is not America, but Romania, and we are waiting for you to lead us on the true way of faith in Jesus Christ and in our nation.’
“Then there was a demonstration in the street with my picture.”
When it is suggested that this must be very gratifying, he says simply, “Yeah.”
Calciu (pronounced Cul-chew), pastor of Holy Cross Romanian Orthodox Church in Baileys Crossroads, has spent 21 of his 61 years in prison for opposing his country’s Communist government. Despite long periods of imposed silence, he became what a former U.S. ambassador calls “a kind of folk hero to the religious people in his country.” Now, after four years of exile, during which he continued to preach over the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, he is eager to return to Bucharest to be reunited with students, past and future.
“This was a revolution of the children,” he says. “Never have so many babies been sacrificed as now.
“They have been struggling for life since their most tender childhood. They proved to us they are generous. They proved to us they are brave. They proved they are ready to fight to the death. But really, they need-in addition to freedom-spirituality and culture.”
Calciu believes that it is his role to bring this spirituality, but he cannot return unless the new government grants amnesty to exiles and political prisoners, a move he is not yet certain it will make.
“The Communist Party is still very strong,” he says. “Members of the Central Committee are still in important positions in the provisional government. We hope the students and the people will continue the fight to install real democracy.”
In the meantime, he solicits donations, continues to give his radio sermons and searches for a plane to carry 80,000 pounds of medical supplies to Romania.
Calciu dresses in a black cassock that enhances the whiteness of his thick hair and closely trimmed beard. His reputation among Romanians is that of a living martyr, yet his face is pink as a child’s and his eyes are an unclouded blue. Something in his gaze suggests the triumph of joy over anguish. A golden crucifix hangs from a chain around his neck.
“I lost my instinct for self-preservation,” he says with a sort of helpless amusement. “Sometimes I ask myself, `Am I a normal person?’ But I don’t fear.”
Three weeks ago, when the FBI informed him that Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had dispatched men to kill him, Calciu went briefly into hiding in Pennsylvania. But he returned each weekend to offer Mass at the anomalous little church on Route 7 in Fairfax County. Calciu believes he has already survived two attempts on his life through poison. An ardent nationalist, he has come to believe that God has a mission for him and for the people of Romania.
“No other people suffered so long and so much, and no other people gave so many sacrifices,” he says. “For this I am sure their faith will be the strongest in the world.”
Calciu’s own faith has not always been so strong, his relationship with his God not always so unquestioning. He was a 21-year-old medical student in 1948 when he was imprisoned for making speeches against the imposition of Communist rule. “We protested atheism, the collectivization of the means of production, destruction of the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie,” he says. “The Communists did not support this, and I was put in prison for 16 years.
“We were young people and never were we prepared for such suffering,” he says. “We lost our hope. We lost our faith. We lost our love.”
But in what he calls “the dark universe of prison,” Calciu found his vocation. “The priests who were in prison with us, because this was a time of great persecution of the church, they cured us when we were ill. They might share a piece of bread. They gave us consolation,” he says.
“In this special condition, I understood strong belief. I understood what it meant to be light of the world and salt of the earth, the words of Jesus Christ. I promised to become a priest.”
But becoming a priest in Romania was an exceedingly difficult and dangerous task. Calciu was released from prison in 1964 under a general amnesty, but he was forbidden from studying theology. Instead, for four years, he studied French. Then, in 1968 he approached Justinian, the patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, and asked to study for the priesthood in secret. Justinian, whom many religious Romanians regard as the last true patriarch, consented.
For four years Calciu pursued his clandestine studies until, in 1972, he was discovered by the secret police. “And in order to save me,” he says, “the patriarch appointed me a professor of French and the New Testament at the Orthodox Seminary of Bucharest.” He was ordained later that year.
As a priest of the official church, Calciu could count on a certain protection. For five years, his anti-Marxist sermons and lectures were tolerated by the Ceausescu regime, and his following grew. But in 1977, Justinian died and a new hard-line patriarch was named. What ensued was what David B. Funderburk, former U.S. ambassador to Romania, calls “a guerrilla war within the church.”
In the winter of 1978, Calciu announced that on each of the seven Wednesdays in Lent he would deliver a sermon. He called them “Seven Words to the Romanian Youth,” and these homilies led to his reimprisonment.
The sermons were an attack on Ceausescu’s persecution of the church and his refusal to recognize religious groups like the Lord’s Army, a secret evangelical organization with an estimated 1 million members. Calciu drew a stark contrast between the gospel of Christ and the gospel of Marx and called on the faithful to choose.
“The third week we were thrown out of the church, and so I spoke on the steps of church,” he says. “The fourth week they closed the gates, because there were gates around the seminary, and people climbed over the walls.
“I didn’t say extraordinary words,” he says. “I just said to them the truth. The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But I had the courage to say them in a new way.”
In response to the sermons, the new patriarch expelled Calciu from the church.
“God allowed me to pronounce all my seven words,” Calciu says. “Then I was arrested.”
His second term in prison was more brutal than the first. “Ceausescu saw me as his personal enemy,” Calciu says. “For this he applied to me special methods of torture.”
The psychological torture, he says, was sometimes the worst.
“They would bring me to a room, an office, and I would be sitting at a small table. And the room would be filled with interrogators all around me. And they would ask the same questions over and over: What is your name? Where were you born? Who is your father? Who is your mother? When did you meet so-and-so, an American whom I knew.
“And after 48 hours of the same stupid questions I started to lose my mind. I would fall asleep between the questions. How long could that be? Seconds? For me this moment of sleep seemed like a long time.
“They were trying to substitute my own system of reason with theirs. I was thinking, `Perhaps I did something without knowing.’ But after 48 hours I decided not to answer.”
Calciu says that when he did not break under these conditions, the government decided to have him killed. He was put in a cell with two convicted murderers who had been promised leniency if they would kill him.
“From the beginning they told me why they were with me, what was their mission,” Calciu says. “I was made to stand in a corner. I was not allowed to eat, to drink, to relieve myself, to speak, without asking permission. They beat me, but they didn’t kill me.”
After three weeks the two other prisoners were summoned by the head of the secret police. When they returned, Calciu says, his tormentors were subdued and “thoughtful.” The three men were taken to a small prison yard. Calciu’s tormentors told him to stand in one corner while they stood in another, speaking in hushed tones.
“I was sure it was a plan for my killing, and in my corner I started to pray,” he says. “I confessed my sins. I expressed my love for my wife and son. In 15 minutes they told me to approach them. And the youngest one said, `Father,’-and that was the first time they called me Father-`we have decided not to kill you.’
“You can imagine the situation. I was prepared for the death, but I was given life at their hands. I started to cry.”
That Sunday, he asked their permission to celebrate the Mass. “I had my back to them making the preparations, and I felt them approach to see and hear. When I turned, I was very astonished to see the two criminals were kneeling with me on the cold concrete of the cell. That Monday we were separated. But, I am sure they were saved.”
Throughout Calciu’s imprisonment, the Reagan administration lobbied Ceausescu for his release. In August of 1983, those efforts-coupled with the dictator’s fear that the United States would rescind the most favored nation status it had granted Romania in 1976-led to the priest’s release.
The secret police “were asking me to beg pardon of Ceausescu,” Calciu says. “I refused. And after six months of pressure, the chief of the security police called me. He said, `We want no more discussions with you. You are a very stubborn prisoner. We are sending you to a special prison. You will die there, and nobody will know where your bones will be.”
The following day he was released.
The move was so unexpected, Calciu remembers, that his wife, Adriana, who had been summoned to the prison, did not know he would be released. “And my son, when I entered the house, he was petrified to see me.”
Calciu spent the next two years under house arrest before Ceausescu sent him into exile in the United States in 1985. “From the beginning of my time here, I decided to tell the truth, to awaken the conscience of the Western people who thought Ceausescu was like a maverick from Communism,” he says. “He was a big criminal and I knew it.”
Calciu has spent much of his time in the Washington area trying to organize the Romanian American community into an opposition in exile. The results have been mixed.
“He hasn’t had too much success,” says the Rev. Daniel Branzai, pastor of the Romanian Baptist Church in Anaheim, Calif. “The Romanian American community here came from a very sad experience. They do not want to trust anyone. He couldn’t make them believe in him and in his fight.”
But the Rev. Cornel Avramescu of St. Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Church in Tustin, Calif., says Calciu has created “a unity” within the Romanian Orthodox Church and served as a rallying point for anti-Communist activity.
Working with Washington resident Victor Gaetan, Calciu lobbiedCongress to rescind Romania’s most favored nation status, which it did in 1987. Meanwhile, he continued to deliver radio sermons and remains popular in his homeland.
“His voice in Romania is something that people believe,” Gaetan says. “They need his broadcasts like bread.”
Calciu is still wary of the foment in his country. The secret trial and executions of the Ceausescus troubled him.
“It is hard to judge from America,” he says, “but from the point of view of the whole nation these executions without a public trial, without letting people know the truth, without letting people speak out … were not correct.”
He also has deep reservations about the provisional government.
“The Communist Party and Communism in general oppressed so many people that for them to continue to be in front in this new government is to despise the people. The true people who understand the situation are the ones who died in the streets, not the members of the Central Committee and their sons.”
But if he is allowed to return, his principal energies will be devoted to rebuilding the church, both spiritually and politically.
“All the members of our hierarchy are compromised,” he says. “They gave a statement right after Timisoara saying they would support the foreign and internal policies of Ceausescu. I understand they were obligated by Ceausescu, but they are guilty for this. They were not servants of God, they were servants of Ceausescu.
“It will be very difficult for us to rebuild the idea of a pure church in front of the people. But the church was involved in the Communist destruction of the country. The church has a right and a duty to work for the rebuilding and the welfare of Romania.”