Bl. Theodore Romzha, Bishop and Martyr

(In 2001 Father McNamara wrote a series of articles about Bl. Theodore G. Romzha which were never published. We found them among his papers after he died, and include them here. He never finished editing the last section.)

(1911-1947)

During his pastoral visit to Ukraine in June 2001, Pope John Paul II beatified as martyrs 27 members of the Catholic Ukrainian Church, victims of Nazi and Soviet persecution during and after World War II.

We have heard much of the catastrophic slaughter of Jews by the Nazis in this same bloody epoch. The six million victims of the Holocaust, dying as Jews, can be reckoned as martyrs in God’s eyes. But the emerging story of Soviet persecution of Slavic Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, is turning out to have been scarcely less inhumane. Russian Communists murdered more than 200,000 Catholic and Orthodox priests, nuns and religious, and confined another 300,000 to the living death of concentration camps. To these church people we must add 20 million lay victims of Soviet atheism, many of whom must have died for religious convictions. We think of the ancient Roman suppression of believers as vast. In heavenly arithmetic, Soviet atheists may prove to have been even more callously destructive than either the Roman Empire or the Third Reich. We have only begun to learn about this degrading onslaught on the human race.

It would probably take a good-sized book to tell the story of the 27 newly beatified Ukrainian martyrs. I choose instead to discuss only one of the eight beatified bishops: Theodore Romzha, apostolic administrator of the Greek-Rite eparchy (diocese) of Mukachevo, in Subcarpathian Ruthenia. That his execution was typical of Soviet barbarity is vouched for by credible witnesses. Furthermore, I have a special personal interest in him, as I shall later point out.

Before I get down to particulars, however, I should first explain the relationship between these Greek-Rite Slavs and the bishops of Rome.
The Church established by Christ on Pentecost was one, and was meant to continue so. As it grew, however, in certain sections of the Mediterranean world, it developed somewhat differently in liturgy and administration. This could be harmless. (Does not our American concept of “E pluribus unum” provide us with fifty states in one nation?)

What came about was administrative division along largely political lines. The chief divisions were called patriarchates. In the West there was one patriarchate, that of Rome, seat of the successors of St. Peter. In the East, however, five patriarchates arose: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and (after 1589) Moscow. Long the most influential in the East was that of Constantinople. Unfortunately, political views came to obscure, among the Easterners, the supreme authority of the See of Peter. In 1054 Constantinople took the stand that the bishops of Rome were no more than honorary heads of the Church. After that, most Eastern Christians who followed the liturgy and legal code of Constantinople accepted that patriarchate’s view of the popes as only “first among equals”.

The Constantinople Slavs were slower to embrace this alienation. Even after the Russians of Kiev, in the Ukraine, accepted the schismatic stance of the new Patriarch of Moscow (1589), certain portions of the Ukrainians and kindred Slavic populations reverted to their original recognition of the pope as true primate of the whole Catholic Church. Thus in 1595 eight Ukrainian eparchies (dioceses) officially declared their reunion with Rome; and in 1646 the diocese of Mukachevo in Subcarpathia did the same. (The Subcarpathians were “first cousins” of the Ukrainians.) Since then, the Russian Orthodox Church has been trying, in and out of season, to win back these Greek-Rite Slavs to the patriarchs of Moscow. The martyrdom of Bishop Romzha was simply another episode in that struggle and his loyalty to the pope was the cause of his death.

Ukrainians and Subcarpathians may therefore be governed by liturgical and legal traditions different from those of our Latin Rite, but their readiness to die for the papacy proves beyond question their right to the title “Roman Catholic”.

Now, back to Theodore George Romzha.

He was born on April 14, 1911, at Velikij Bychkiv in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, a remote section of eastern Slovakia, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His family were devout railroad workers.

Theodore first came into public attention as a high school student in Chust. He was judged by his superiors to be bright, personable, and promising. He enjoyed much popularity among his schoolmates, not a little because of his natural skills as an athlete. But he had a deeper side as well. Everybody was surprised when at graduation in 1930 he announced his intention to study for the priesthood of his diocese.

That fall, Peter Gebey, bishop of the Greek-Catholic diocese of Mukachevo, sent young Romzha to Rome to study at the Jesuit theological university, the Gregorianum. For the next two years, Theodore lived at the German-Hungarian College, a residence for German-speaking theological students. In 1933 he transferred to the Russian College, a seminary established in 1929 to prepare priests for work in post-Communist Russia. This move was significant. At the Russicum, Romzha would learn much about the mind-set of the Soviet Union.

After making a good course, Seminarian Theodore was ordained to the priesthood in Rome, on Christmas Day, 1936. A new bishop, Alexander Stojka, welcomed him home in the summer of 1937, and Father Romzha was able to celebrate with his family and friends his new status in the Church.

Bishop Stojka had planned to send Father Romzha back to Rome for doctoral studies in the fall of 1937, but that part of the plan was never fulfilled. Hitler was about to dissolve Czechoslovakia. During the next two years of national trial, Father Romzha showed himself swift to see in all things the guiding hand of divine Providence.

For example, as the Nazis assailed Czechoslovakia, the Czech government drafted Romzha to serve with the defense army’s medical corps. Although surprised, he accepted this military assignment as “the will of God”. Mustered out of the armed forces in August 1938, he accepted even more readily the pastorate of two poor “forgotten” mountain parishes. Equally attentive to the spiritual and economic needs of his parishioners, he quickly won their deep affection. “I live here as a pauper,” he wrote to a school-mate, “and yet I feel happy and satisfied.”

Bishop Stojka soon had to recall him from the mountains, however. In September 1939, he named him professor of philosophy and spiritual director of the diocesan seminary at Uzhorod. Fr. Romzha proved to be a demanding teacher and a fatherly counselor. Furthermore, he began to work with the youth of the vicinity. It is quite clear that the Bishop appreciated the zeal of this young priest. Indeed, as early as 1942 he obtained for him the honorary rank of papal monsignor.

The year 1943 was critical for Subcarpathia and its Greek Catholics. Bishop Stojka died unexpectedly on May 31. Since the Soviet forces were just then moving west, the Vatican could ill afford to have nobody of episcopal rank in the Mukachevo diocese. Pope Pius XII therefore appointed Nicholas Dudash, bishop of Hajdudorog (in Hungary) as temporary administrator of Mukachevo. When the Soviet forces drew nearer to Subcarpathia, however, the Holy See named Msgr. Romzha auxiliary bishop to Bishop Dudash, with the instruction that should the Russians take over the territory of the vacant see of Mukachevo, Romzha would replace him at once as its temporary administrator in residence.

Bishop Romzha, at age 33 the youngest Catholic bishop in the world, was consecrated on September 8, 1944. Thus, when the Soviets occupied Subcarpathia a month later, they found a Catholic bishop awaiting them.

Would that bishop, young and inexperienced, be able to withstand the inveterate malice of Soviet communism?

He was sure of the stance of the communists: “the dark powers” as he publicly pronounced them; but could not hope to best them in the short run. He was not sure of his own clergy, of his own people, and, most of all, of his own self.

Prayer and tears, then, was the only possible approach. In his private Gethsemani he would have to place the whole problem in God’s hands.

“Father, your holy will be done!”

U.S.S.R. had originally planned, it seems, to leave Subcarpathis within the boundaries of a communized Slovakia. However, in 1945, it extended the borders of Russian Ukraine west to embrace the territory of the Slovakian Diocese of Mukachevo.

Administrator Romzha tried at first to be as conciliatory as possible in his dealings with the new regime. Typically, that regime had begun at once to confiscate Catholic Greek-Rite church properties. Confronting one of the Russian generals on this matter, Romzha all but succeeded in persuading him of the injustice of the policy. But the general who replaced him reiterated to the Bishop the unyielding party line: “We know the unfavorable attitude of the Vatican towards the Soviet Union. Therefore, our government cannot tolerate a Church loyal to the Vatican within its borders. You must recognize and submit to the Patriarch of Moscow.”

Was piety the motive of this atheist program? No, it was pure politics. The Soviets cared no more for the Patriarch of Moscow than they did for the Patriarch of Rome. But they knew they had the former, and indeed all Russian Orthodoxy, totally under control.

Bishop Romzha s response to the second general was calm and forthright: “I would rather die than betray my Church.”

By now it was clear that the Russian government, aided by the compromised Orthodox, planned to proclaim all Greek-Rite Roman Catholics in Subcarpathia once more in schism from the Holy See, as in March 1946 they had proclaimed of the Greek-Rite Ukrainian Catholics. To this end they hastened to take over Catholic church properties and programs, to deport Catholic Basilian monks, and to threaten the Catholic diocesan clergy with exile unless they submitted to the Muscovite Patriarch.

Bishop Romzha replied to this process of alienation with a resolute campaign to strengthen the faith of his people. In the face of every type of pressure, he made two complete circuits of his diocese, preaching the constant theme, “We will remain faithful to our Greek Catholic Church until the end.” He ordained thirty new priests and even set up new parishes. Stirred by such valor, the Subcarpathian Catholics rallied to his cry. Indeed, two Subcarpathian Orthodox parishes, inspired by his leadership, asked to be reconciled to the Bishop of Rome.

The Greek Catholics of Mukachevo had long celebrated the August feast of Our Lady’s Assumption (the “Dormition” ), with a big pilgrimage to the monastery of Basilian monks in that city. At Easter 1947, Bishop Romzha urged his faithful to come out in great numbers for that year’s pilgrimage so as to manifest their faith and do honor to the Blessed Virgin. As a matter of fact, he placed the whole diocese under Mary’s special protection: “O Most Holy Mother of God, Protectress of Mukachevo, save us!” But where were the pilgrims to rally? The Basilian monastery had already been confiscated and its monks exiled. Romzha told them to gather on the grounds of one of the parishes of Mukachevo.

Russian agents had been working apace to prepare for the “reconciliation” of these Greek Catholics with the Orthodox Patriarch. As early as October 1945, the Patriarch had sent Orthodox Bishop Nestor Sydoriuk to Subcarpathia to expedite the spurious conversion. Aware of the Assumption Day tradition, Nestor planned to formally announce the de-Catholicization of the Subcarpathian Catholics at that festival. To make the ceremony as “solemn” as possible, he invited a number of Orthodox bishops to attend. Through the Sovietized local press he advertised the pilgrimage enthusiastically. But he designated a different site for the pilgrims to gather at: the “Chernecha Hora”, a hilly locale outside Mukachevo.

Heeding the Soviet invitation, the Greek Catholics “dutifully” marched to Chernecha Hora from every direction on the eve of the feastday, singing the traditional Marian hymns. They remained there in vigil all night long. Meanwhile the parishioners of the Mukachevo parish designated by Romzha for the celebration had asked and received permission from the Soviet authorities to have a Divine Liturgy celebrated on the parish grounds. Not knowing what was up, the authorities granted their request. Parishioners quickly erected a platform with altar and pulpit. When all was ready, they sped the news to the pilgrims waiting at Chernecha Hora. Come morning; the hymn-singing Catholic pilgrimage set out at once. for town, in such vast numbers that the civil authorities could not control it., This was the largest-ever Assumption pilgrimage in the history of the diocese – 80,000 strong. Bishop Romzha himself did not attend the field Mass, remaining at his residence of Uzhorod. (The Communists had threatened to arrest him if he put in an appearance at Mukachevo.) But he did send the pilgrims this steadfast message: “We’d rather die than abandon the faith and the Church of our forefathers. If we must suffer for our faith, let us be grateful to God who is giving us an opportunity to achieve the glorious crown of martyrs.”

And what of Bishop Nestor, his Orthodox bishop-guests, and those who had remained at Chernecha Hora to hear the pope denounced? Since only 3000 were left, the “Reconciliation with Moscow” was postponed. Nestor himself, completely disgraced, was sacked.

The “reconciliation” of the Greek Catholics to Moscow would indeed be staged, and at Chernecha Hora, but not until 1949. Meanwhile the Soviet authorities decided that Theodore Romzha must die.

Not crudely, of course, at the hand of a trigger man, but anonymously, as the victim of an “unfortunate” traffic accident.

What Is the outlook of a prospective martyr? Anxious, no doubt, for “he knows not the day nor the hour.” Yet spiritually calm, thanks to a special grace that makes him strong in love, even for his enemies.

The “automobile accident” took place on Monday, October 27, not far outside of Mukachevo.

A small mission church at Lavki had just been redecorated, and the parishioners asked Bishop Romzha to rededicate it. Although aware of the risks, the Bishop consented. Their invitation, he felt, was a cry for encouragement, and hence for-him a “sacred duty.”

He and his party drove out to Lavki in a carriage on Saturday, October 25. (The Soviets had long since confiscated his automobile, and he had had to resort to slow-paced horse-drawn vehicles for transportation.)

The ceremony at Lakvi went off splendidly. Bishop Romzha, celebrating the Mass of Christ the King, did not fail to remind the faithful that “to die for Christ means to live forever.”

Staying over a second night, the Bishop’s party set out for Mukachevo  on Monday mid-afternoon in the black carriage of the Lavki pastor, Father Peter Washko. All the seats were filled. At the front sat the driver, Mr. Choma, who owned the two horses, and a seminarian. The middle seat, facing backward, was occupied by another seminarian and Fr. Andrew Bereznay, the Bishop’s secretary. In the last seat, facing forward, were Father Daniel Bachinsky, pastor of a parish in Uzhorod; and at his right, Bishop Romzha.

After a while on a country road the travelers reached the highway. The passengers were quiet and Bishop Romzha was just finishing the rosary, when without warning a heavy military truck appeared from nowhere, smashed into and demolished the carriage, killed the horses, and catapulted the six riders into the ditch. But all six were obviously alive. So seven Communist agents jumped out of the parked lorry, heavy cudgels in hand, and began to beat the victims, particularly about the head and shoulders.

Bishop Romzha suffered a broken jaw and lost all his front teeth. Father Bachinsky sustained a double fracture of the right leg, a cracked hipbone and several broken ribs. (Some of the agents thought he was the bishop.) Only Mr. Choma, the driver, died of the bludgeoning, his brains literally beaten out. The other three were less seriously wounded. Fortunately, a young man walking through the fields heard the crash and ran to the sound. When he approached the highway and saw what had happened, he cried for help. The agents at once ceased their bashing, ran back to the truck and sped off. The outcry was also heard by other natives. Thanks to their efforts the victims were taken to the hospital in Mukachevo, where an able local surgeon treated them and Basilian nuns who served as nurses made them as comfortable as possible.

Choma died that night. The two deacons and the secretary were released after three days. On Friday Morning, the 31st, his physician permitted the Bishop to leave his bed. His first thought was to visit his roommate, Father Bachinsky, strung up in painful traction in the other bed. Unable to talk but with tears in his eyes, he touched his own bandaged face to that of his priest, and stayed with him for a long period. At 6:00 P.M., the Bishop asked Father Washko to hear his confession. Father Bachinsky asked the same favor, and received Communion as well. Unable to open his mouth, Bishop Romzha had to forego that privilege, but having asked Washko to leave the Blessed Sacrament in the room, he devoted the next three hours to prayer and adoration. Then he returned to his bed, but unable to fall asleep, he came over and tried to adjust Fr. Bachinsky’s bed to make him a little more comfortable. Did his wakefulness suggest a premonition of further peril? Well it might: The would-be assassin had botched the job, but the Soviets  insisted on one aim: Romzha must be erased, and at once.

On October 29, changes began to be apparent in the Mukachevo hospital. An unknown new nurse (named Masha) was assigned to the hospital and detailed to the Bishop’s room. On the evening of October 31, the regular night nurses (apparently all of them nuns) were told to leave the hospital and go to their residence. At 11:15 the hospital director ,Dr. Bergmann, and the “new” nurse, both dressed in white medical coats, approached Bishop Romzha’s room, the “nurse” with a medical case in her hand. When a nun came out, Bergmann, surprised, told her to leave the hospital at once. Then the pair entered the sick room. Dr. Bergmann, it turned out was a Russian; the “nurse”, a quite sturdy woman and former member of a Communist partisan unit. Bergmann told the Bishop he had come to give him an injection for “a good night’s sleep.” The Bishop refused, since injections only worsened his condition. The Doctor insisted. The nurse seized his arm firmly and held it for the physician to inject some lethal liquid into the bloodstream. Then the pair bade him “Good night” and left the room and the hospital. Apparently Father Bachinsky observed these actions. When the Bishop moaned for water, Bachinsky with difficulty, rang for water. The nun, who had hidden rather than departed, hurried in, but Bishop Romzha expired shortly after midnight on All Saints Day.

He had “died defending the faith.”

Soviet government officials finally asserted in the press that the Bishop had died as a result of an automobile accident, but his flock knew better. When he was laid out in state they came in great numbers to view his body, kiss his hand, and touch his body with religious articles. In a summary of the execution, one of the Basilian nun-nurses of the hospital set down her recollections of the “heroic death” of “our martyred Bishop Romzha.” “We were certain that we had gained a strong Protector in heaven.”

In those days it was difficult to communicate such reports through the Iron Curtain, but this eye witness was somehow able to send her report to Rome as early as December 1947, and it was first published in 1948 in the Vatican magazine Eccklesia, In the years that followed, the Subcarpathian Catholics came into possession of other accounts of the martyrdom, varying in small details, but basically reliable.

They missed greatly his protection on earth, however. The USSR government continued wholesale imprisonment of thousands of priest, confiscation of church property, institutions and enterprises, and expulsion of the clergy. Then on August 28, 1949, under Russian Orthodox Archbishop Macarius and two other Russian Orthodox archbishops, at a solemn service held in Mukachevo, they officially declared the diocese and its properties no longer under Rome but under the orthodox Partiarch of Moscow. This was the same procedure as had been used in the larger Ukrainian portion of the faithful once they had been deprived of all their bishops, at a spurious synod in March 1946. What had become of both the Podcarpathians and the Ukrainians behind the Iron Curtain remained largely unknown until that Curtain vanished in 1989. But it turned out that the Ukrainian Catholics still numbered 4 million, were still loyal to Rome (not one of the Ukrainian Catholic bishops had yielded, despite imprisonment; and in Podcarpathia, between February and August 1949, only one tenth of the 340 priests broke down and joined the Orthodox Church – and they were doubtless under great pressure). When John Paul II visited the Ukraine in June – July 2001 it was evident that both the Ukrainian and Podcarpathians were more proudly Catholic than ever.

I said at the beginning that I had a special interest in Bishop Romzha. Here is the reason. He and I were classmates at the Jesuit Theological University of the Gregorianum in Rome (1933-37). Not that I knew him personally, or ever met him. He was then a student in residence at the German-Hungarian College, I at the North American College; and in those days seminarians at the various national colleges were not encouraged to fraternize. But I remember well noticing him in his College’s red uniform across the crowded lecture amphitheater. What first caught my eye, I suppose, was that he was probably the only man among the Germans and Hungarians who wore a little black spade-shaped beard. Somehow I knew his name. After his death in 1947, creditable reports of his martyrdom slowly reached Rome. I followed all reports carefully. Since then I have been anticipating as inevitable the beatification of my Podcarpathian classmate, who was a year my junior and was ordained a priest on Christmas 1936, just 17 days after my own ordination.

Among the many dependable accounts of his life and brutal execution were security files of the Soviet Union itself. The General of state security wrote a report to the 23rd Assembly of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that the plan for assassinating Romzha was undertaken because “he had actively opposed the uniting of Greek Catholics to Orthodoxy”; and that the carrying out of the plan had been approved by the first secretary of the Politburo of Ukraine, who was none other than Nikita Khrushchev, later on the last of the major tyrants of the USSR.

Another of the Ukrainian Martyrs beatified at the same time was Fr. Emilian Kowch, who has close relatives in Rochester. The only priest-prisoner at the Majkanek Nazi death camp, arrested December 20, 1942, he had been active in protecting the Jews in Przemsl, aiding orphans. He felt “except for heaven, this is the only place you would like to be. Here we are all equal as prisoners: Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Latvians and Estonians.”

Like so many of the World War II martyrs he had not an ounce of animosity, and he urged all to pray for those who had devised the concentration camp system. “They are the only ones who need prayers. May God have mercy on them.” Khrushchev, though dictator, mellowed somewhat after the death of the monstrous and discredited Stalin. One of the most impressive things about the Nazi-Soviet victims was their embracing love of all God’s creatures, friends or enemies. May not their prayers have saved even Khrushchev?

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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