Romania: Orthodox Theological Education, 1948 to the Present
Bria, Ion, The Catholic World
The situation of theology--a general term for the teaching of theology, the theological institutions, faculties and seminaries, the research studies and publications in the field of theology, professors and teachers--is totally conditioned by the situation of the church and of the country itself. It is not a rhetoric analogy, but an institutional one, because of the intrinsic character of the link between theological institutions and the church and state structure.
Three years after the revolution in Romania it is impossible to make a sound analysis and comprehensive description. General interpretation of the situation in the country is still based on the emotional reactions and contradictory reports from within the country and outside. But a fresh breath of freedom (libertate) is perceptible. Feelings of frustration of those who were actors in the revolution, inability of the new leaders to define a new model of society, the lack of readiness of the rural people for a major transition, and the superficial commitment of the intelligentsia--all of these are mixed in an ambiguous ethos. The "motherland"--so lauded in poetry, but condemned to be a land of suffering and misery under previous regimes--becomes now a capitalistic bazaar, a mixture of symbols and values, a country economically dependent on outside assistance, sometimes under conditions which are morally unacceptable.
There is one positive sign, however. While many intellectuals and minority groups behave as if their future interest lies elsewhere (because of which Romania has lost international attention), the faithful and priests do not hesitate to commit themselves to changing the country. They are preparing for the day of complete deliverance; they are looking for a time of grace. Rescued from the power of darkness, they know that the demons, of communism are still prowling around "like a roaring lion," looking for someone to devour.
Church Status: 1948-1989
During the period 1948-1989 the status of theology (institutions, curricula, teaching staff) in Romania was dictated by the Law of Cults (1949), and promulgated by the Department of Religious Affairs, one of the most oppressive powers in the atheistic propaganda system. In 1949 the main legal act was the integration of the two institutes of theology in Bucharest and Sibiu into the structure of church organization, under the responsibility of the Synod and of the local bishops (only for the several theological seminaries). Given the different accents in this ecclesiastical dependency, the period can be divided into two parts: 1948-1977, under the influence of Patriarch Justinian, and 1977-1989, in which Patriarch Justin played a leading role. Each part has advantages and inconveniences as the two patriarchs, like statesmen, had different qualities and deficiencies.
Immediately after 1949 the two institutes of theology inherited a group of excellent professors rescued from the old faculties (Bucharest, Chisinau, Iasi, Sibiu, Arad, Suceava, Cernauti), under which the quality of the teaching reached a high level, and the prestige of the theological institution inside and outside the country was excellent.
As part of the church administration, both faculties and seminaries oriented their work towards "ministerial formation," seeking through studies a direct preparation for parish ministry. Because of the shortage of priests, even the graduates of seminaries (a five year course) were accepted to be ordained priests. The patriarch Justinian had a great interest in training future priests in the theological faculties. In fact, all Orthodox priests in Romania (nine to ten thousand) are graduates of the faculty which is now a requirement for ordination. Part of the same sacerdotal orientation was the obligation for the professors to be ordained, and to have a close link with a parish community.
This orientation has some consequences: the curriculum of theological studies was adapted, and the disciplines of practical and pastoral theology gained in interest. The spiritual formation of the students, through liturgical and devotional practice, became a major part of their education, but research on theological subjects and the communication of the faith in literature and culture were limited.
However, the old professors of theology did not forget that one of their tasks was to do research and write books. The Institute in Bucharest maintained a three-year course for post-graduate students in preparation for doctoral degrees. The theological magazines, especially Theological Studies and Orthodoxy, published in Bucharest, became a vehicle for the young assistants' papers and contributions. It was also the time when the first handbook for students was published, Dogmatic and Symbolic Theology (two volumes, 1958), by professors N. Chitescu, I. Todoran, and I. Petreuta. It was one of the rare theological books in the whole of Orthodox literature in communist lands.
While not having permission to publish Christian literature for the public, the church printed a series of handbooks, catechisms and monographs. A commission of academic theologians prepared a "Confession of Orthodox Faith," one of the most advanced catechisms of the time, published in 1952 and still in use today. Published after only three years of communist regime, it was a sign of the vitality of Christian education in Romania.
The presence of theology and the church in society and public affairs was tolerated as part of the "social apostolate," a trend initiated by Patriarch Justinian. It was an effort to keep alive the old system of "symphony" in order to prevent the legal separation between state and church, the current practice in communist regimes. Many have exaggerated it, hence the abundance of the political language in the theology of the time. However, in spite of this gentle modus operandi, the faculty members suffered a lot of political restrictions. Many professors were arrested, persecuted, and deported in the period 1958-1962, all being accused of "mysticism." This was felt also as an attack against Patriarch Justinian, who succeeded in preserving the status of the church due to his pastoral wisdom and political courage.
Closed Doors: The Church Deprived of Dialogue with Society
In the second part of the period 1948-1989, the political climate changed. The ecumenical context deteriorated and the economical situation became unbearable. Patriarch Justin's ministry was conditioned by his deep dissension with the country's president, Nicolae Ceausecu, over the status of the church--especially in Bucharest, where about twenty churches were removed or destroyed to suit the fantasies of the tyrant. The Patriarch was conscious of the new problems presented by the political developments in the country under the dictatorship. A new political direction appeared, leaving the church authorities isolated, and humiliating the ecclesiastical institutions and the faithful. The ideological gap between state and church was accepted by both sides.
Under the financial protection of the church, the faculty and the students still had a comfortable way of life. All students received scholarship and assistance from their bishops, with the assumption that they would serve in vacant parishes. In spite of this satisfactory state of affairs, the church moved into a period of introversion and isolation, being under total control of the Department of Religious Affairs, deprived of any official dialogue with society, becoming a target for atheistic propaganda. Various discrepancies which had accumulated in the past surfaced now.
The main question was: what is the mission of the church? What kind of "social apostolate" is still possible? The spectrum of the church as a sociological community was ambiguous. Could the church live without the "secular arm," therefore opting for separation from the state? What was the cost to be paid in rejecting compromise and complicity with political powers? The 1948 "social apostolate" appeared naive and inefficient.
Patriarch Justin, himself a biblical scholar and professor of New Testament, tried to restore the identity of theology, put it back in its proper place, and keep it free from ideological ambiguities. He did not modify the study curriculum--still very heavy and irrelevant, as it was conceived in an earlier period--but he opted for more professional teaching of theology and for ecumenical openness within the Orthodox autonomy.
At the beginning of the eighties, "patristic ressourcement" became the vogue. A collection of 100 volumes of writings of the church fathers was initiated. All professors and scholars were involved in the translation from Greek and Latin to complete this collection. It is important to mention that the collection of spiritual writings called "Philokaha," translated by Father Dumitru Staniloae, became one of the most influential textbooks in Romania. (The last, Volume XII was printed in 1992.) But the great event of the period was the publication of Dogmatic Theology, a reference book in three volumes (1978) by Father Staniloae.
Romanian theology was very much concerned with the issues of national history and identity. The place of the church in the cultural life of the country became an over-emphasized subject which attracted hierarchs and priests, some of whom have been made honorary members of the Romanian Academy. All treated various aspects of the Orthodox Church on the national scene. The assimilation of Orthodoxy into national history and culture became central to theology. In this context the church, with the help of the faculty and Romanian scholars on the initiative of Patriarch Teoctist (elected in 1984), succeeded in reprinting the Bible of Bucharest (1688), both in Cyrillic and Romanian characters--the first Bible in Romanian. Thus, the history of the Romanian Church and nation became a refuge for many scholars.
But the most critical aspect of this theology was its inability to help the church in its attitude towards the political power. Unable to synchronize any opposition, or to express a critical voice in a context of terror and misery, the Patriarch, the church and faculty had to keep silent during the disastrous evolution of the country. It was an impossibly difficult time in which to live. Facing daily its institutional survival, it was practically impossible for the church to formulate a critical view on the communist party decisions and actions, or to openly support political prisoners or the politically marginalized.
Instead, they concentrated on the internal issues of ethics and piety. Indeed, the faculty continued to teach and educate priests for the parish, but abandoned debate on issues belonging to the sphere of church and society. The church tried to approach the controversial issues from a different angle. Spiritual forces have to save the human condition and human history; thus, spirituality was seen as a religious area where the church could say something. Society would be renewed by the renewal of church life! The birth of a new society would be facilitated by sustaining spiritual Christian values.
The level of theological studies and teaching, as well as the commitment of the faculty on public affairs, suffered a lot because of the profile of professors at the end of the eighties. The general impression was that this generation had less passion and vocation for theological education and was more interested in protecting the institution. Some of the professors did not meet the requirements of academic theology and research.
At the end of the period, on the eve of the revolution, the situation appeared to be an ambiguous mixture of symbolism and values: symphony, autonomy, separation, complicity. Unprepared for such an event, the faculties of theology entered into a real crisis which continues still. In some areas, the theological scene has to be completely reconstructed because it gives the impression of being several decades behind the times.
The Search and the Struggle for Real Change
Since 1990 the faculties of theology have been reintegrated into the university system. Almost all big university centers now have a faculty of theology. Hopefully that means more than administrative arrangement in order to solve the economic crisis of the church. It should be an exceptional opportunity to put theology back in its proper place at the heart of human philosophy and history. It should become an instrument for intellectual education of the country, for the understanding of God, and for the development of Christian humanism. There is already a great interest in the history and philosophy of religion among the younger generation of students.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this integration. For example, in terms of methodology we can rediscover the proper epistemology ("scientific status") of theological thought and the autonomy of theological disciplines. It can have a great impact on the academic training and configuration of the students; it can reemphasize the Christian roots of Romanian culture. In practical terms, it can alternate "ministerial formation" with the training of future professors of theology in the seminary, and especially teachers of religion in public schools. The revolutionary change whereby nuns and other young women are being accepted to study theology brings a new element into the content of theology. It is a great challenge to the traditional pattern.
Another positive possibility is a biblical and theological culture that shapes the public opinion hence the place of theology in the world of communication and literature. Liberated from ideological captivity, the faculties can respond to the insufficient Christian instruction of the people through various forms of associations and networks. The religious needs of society are urgent and many because of the proliferation of sects, the religious syncretistic misbeliefs, and perfidious secularism. In such a climate, concern for evangelism becomes a priority.
Outside the ecclesiastical boundaries, the faculty of theology may take the risk of diminishing the links with the church authorities, as well as with the ecclesial spirit of the faithful. The allocation of the graduate students to parishes depends on the bishops' decisions. Teachers of religion are confirmed by the church. (The theological seminaries are still dependent on local church administration.) But the real danger comes from the separation between academic studies and liturgical and spiritual experience. There are signs that the interest of students for a life of prayer, meditation, integrity, and self-discipline are not accompanying their cultural and professional interest in theological disciplines. Each faculty has its own chapel for liturgical practice (sometimes with the participation of the faithful and friends of students), precisely to show the importance of the sense of community in training future priests.
The revolution brought to the surface not only political tensions between students, professors and church authorities (both in Bucharest and Sibiu), but also discrepancy between various interpretations of theology as such, and of its role in human knowledge, secular society and church life. Some main tendencies emerge. One group appreciates the presence of the faculty within the university, but is inclined to continue the ancient system of teaching, curriculum, methodology. For them, theology is in the service of the "defense of Orthodoxy" in the country, protecting the national, cultural role of the church, keeping theology close to the old Romanian spirituality and nationalism. (It is important to remember that this was one of the aims of the communist regime, which indicates a similarity between the old and new systems.)
Another group is searching for real change in the subjects of theological studies, and also in the church's attitude towards the crisis in society and reaching people with a new profile. Theology has to help the students to communicate with society with new, fresh language, symbolism and thinking, and to be involved in the missionary role of the church--bringing the younger generation to Christ in the ways which the Holy Spirit opens for them. This group is interested in publishing new theological literature for students. A lot of affirmations of traditional theology are questioned today--not only by the new generation, but also by investigations elsewhere, and by ecumenical research and documents.
One of the great hopes of Romanian theology today is the fact that a new generation of hierarchs, professors and students has been formed. This constitutes a great potential for research, teaching, education and communication staffs.
The Case of Dumitru Staniloae
Dumitru Staniloae is the most outstanding theologian of the church in Romania today He is an intellectual figure and spiritual father, a holy man who can save the city! Before 1947 he was professor and dean of the faculty in Sibiu. During the next forty-five years, Staniloae wrote several of the spiritual and theological works that became very influential. He wrote a theological synthesis, Dogmatic Theology (three volumes, 1981), one of the best known of all works on systematic theology. He translated into Romanian twelve volumes of Philokalia, which demonstrates not only the level of his knowledge, but also his power of perception and his spirituality. Many of his works have been translated into English, French and German. Because of their influence, a "school" of theology has been formed which includes many intellectuals, writers, philosophers, scientific researchers, and theologians--not all related to faculties and seminaries. This group tries to discern the "creative vision" of Father Staniloae, convinced that a renewal of theology is necessary.
Indeed, the high level and originality of Father Staniloae's thought can be a resource for this renewal. Somebody has to put his vision into practice. The problem is that a certain type of fundamentalistic dogmatics, still dominant in some institutions (especially in Bucharest), does not understand the need for a fresh, theological method and language. Yet the so-called "custodians of Orthodoxy" are more and more challenged by the young professors of the Staniloae school.
The case of Father Staniloae is symbolic. First of all, because during the period 1948-1989, in spite of many ideological limitations, he was able to keep alive the interest in theology as an instrument of analysis of history and culture--for which he had to pay the price! If the Romanian theology has crossed this difficult period, it is due to his constant plea to put the theme of holiness and truth at the heart of theology. Secondly, he introduced a new style of teaching which emphasized the contacts with the students, not the method. The professors have to "reveal" to the students their own hearts. Theology means spiritual unction, a kind of transfer of a "seal" to the disciples. Thirdly, Father Staniloae has primarily shown that theological development is possible in the understanding of the faith. Therefore, the future of Romanian theology depends on how this vision is being implemented today. Staniloae is a visionary who seeks a reformer! (Dumitru Staniloae died on October 5, 1993 after this article was completed.)
Challenges and Potentials for Renewal
In the difficult period of transition, there are many needs and challenges confronting theological education in Romania. Let me briefly mention a few:
1. What most firmly resists change are the theological subjects, symbolism and language. The students are shocked by the old, passive thematology, protected in the name of continuity and identity of theological disciplines, and by a strange, distant, repetitive language, defended with the same arguments. Most theologians are convinced that this orientation is due to a serious gap between holy scripture, modernity and theology. They are convinced, too, that there is no renewal without biblical studies, without intensive exegetical work, in order to discover the ways of the presence of God in history, in church, and where we do not seek him.
2. It was said that, because of the lack of profound biblical and modem theological investigation, the church was unable to discern the perverse nature of communist totalitarianism, which considered religion an anti-personal and antisocial force. The critical, prophetical function of theology was paralyzed by ideological idols hidden under the roof of national social concerns--hence the need for a theology which reveals with force the complexity of human history, and especially which recognizes human limitations in ecclesial organisms, and in its relations with society. What are the social choices of the church? There are various scenarios. It seems that the Orthodox Church cannot confiscate the "civil society," but it also cannot accept being considered a simple association of public utility, as was the case in the past. Its role is rather to be an instrument of mediation between individuals and society. Theology has to intervene here, because it has its own responsibility in the failure to formulate a criticism of the social movement and ideologies.
3. The ecumenical dimension of theology is underdeveloped. (It is not the subject of this article to survey the situation of theological education in the institutions and schools and the historical churches [Roman Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran], and evangelical communities [Baptist, Pentecostal] living in Romania.) All big university centers (Bucharest, Iasi, Sibiu, Cluj) are a potentially inter-confessional milieux. Each faculty is proposing comparative confessional studies. But how are the orthodox professors going about the teaching of the history of other churches and the history of the universal church? How do the orthodox students treat the other Christian students? The Orthodox themselves easily fall into the trap of "confessionalism," which they want to criticize in others. They have delayed the re-examination of the historical and theological assumptions which they operated at the beginning of the ecumenical movement. Ecclesiology deserves special attention and requires a change in depth in an ecumenical methodology.
4. After a period of institutional fluctuation, it is hoped that theological education in Romania will find its proper place and way in the mission of the church and construction of a new society. The faculty of theology was one of the most impressive institutions in the past. The present profile of the faculty is flawed, especially because of the modest standard of teaching and research, and the lack of commitment to the problems of society. The profile of many professors and publications is deficient. The problem is not only to regain the venerability of an institution, but to be aware that theological scholarship appears to have moved a long way from the subjects of the church and society of today. The epistemology of theology was not actively explored so as to see the development in the intelligence of faith and the understanding of history.
Multiple potentials for renewal are there. All twelve recently-established faculties (Bucarest, Iasi, Sibiu, Cluj-Napoca, Craiova, Arad, Oradea, Pitesti, Alba Iulia, Baia Mare, Constanta, Tirgoviste) have new departments--pastoral, social assistance, humanistic--which offer various fields of activity for the graduates. Some of the faculties have recruited competent leaders and young professors. But the basic system of academic formation and education--still an introspective, ecclesiastical and archaic system--needs to be regenerated. The future of Orthodox theological education requires some drastic and urgent action, especially when approaching the problems of curricula, stereotyped teaching, symbols and language of communication, all of which contribute to the apathy of the younger generation of students towards their faith. (This article originally appeared in Ministerial Formation #61, April 1993, pp. 26-33, published by the World Council of Churches, Unit 1: Unity and Renewal. It has been edited slightly for publication here.)
Daniel Ciobotea, "Spiritual Theological Formation through the Liturgical Life of the Church," in Ministerial Formation, WCC, Geneva, October 1989, No. 47, pp. 12-20. Ion Bria, "Romanian Orthodox Theology," in Dictionary of Orthodox Theology, Biblical Institute Publications (BIP), Bucharest, 1981, pp. 365-380. --, "Themes in Contemporary Romanian Theology," in the Destiny of Orthodoxy, BIP, Bucharest, 1989, pp. 80-103. --, "Modern Romanian Theology,"in Theological Studies, Bucharest, 1990, No. 1, pp.142-143
Ion Brian is Deputy of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, Director of the Sub-unit on Renewal and Congregational Life, and interim Convener of Unit 1: Unit and Renewal, of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland. Dr. Brian is the author of numerous articles and books, including Jesus Christ, (Romanian--Editura Enciclopedica/Bucharest, 1992) and Spirituality for Our Times, (Romanian--Bucharest, 1992). He holds a Doctor of Divinity degree from the Faculty of Theology, Bucharest, and a Doctor of Theology degree from the Orthodox Faculty in Presov, University of Kosice, Slovakia.…
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Publication information: Article title: Romania: Orthodox Theological Education, 1948 to the Present. Contributors: Bria, Ion - Author. Magazine title: The Catholic World. Volume: 237. Issue: 1417 Publication date: January-February 1994. Page number: 17+. © 1993 Paulist Press. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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