Modern Day Saints
Blessed Martyr Bishop Theodore Romzha
A Victim of Soviet Persecution and Martyr for Papal Primacy
1911 - 1947
"I love you, O Lord, my strength; You are my stronghold and my refuge!" - Psalm 18: 2-3
These were the words which Bishop Theodore G. Romzha, Apostolic Administrator of the Mukachevo Eparchy (1944-1947), chose as his motto. These words were the guiding principle of his episcopal ministry. He was only 33 years old, yet he had to face invasion by the Soviets followed by the persecution of the Greek Catholic Church in Subcarpathian Ruthenia (area on the southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains bordered by Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland). However, he did not lose heart. He defended his spiritual flock with great courage and love, even laying down his own life for his sheep. In Bishop Theodore Romzha we have a powerful protector in heaven.
Theodore Romzha was born of humble parentage on April 14, 1911 in Velikij Bychkiv, in the heart of Subcarpathian Ruthenia. He was a pious and gifted young boy, and his only ambition was to become a priest. Due to his friendly disposition and scholastic achievements, he became one of the most popular students in his high school. He was an all-around athlete, excelling in soccer. At his graduation he took everyone by surprise by announcing his intention of becoming a priest. Theodore was sent to Rome for his priestly formation.
He lived at the German-Hungarian College in Rome for the first two years. In 1932, he moved to the Russian Pontifical Seminary, known as the "Russicum," in order to prepare himself for missionary work in Soviet Russia. The move was providential, since in the Russicum he was expected to study communist atheism and its ideology. Thus unwittingly, he prepared himself for the Soviet occupation of his native land. Theodore was ordained to the priesthood in Rome on Christmas Day, 1936.
In the summer of the following year he came home to celebrate his first Divine Liturgy with the intention of returning to finish his doctoral dissertation. But instead of returning to Rome, he was drafted into military service and sent to protect his country against the German invasion. To a friend in Rome he confided: "I am going to the front with a deep conviction of doing the will of God. Therefore, I do not fear what will happen to me."
Those were turbulent days in Europe. Even after Fr. Romzha's discharge from the army in August of 1938, the danger of approaching war remained. For this reason Bishop Alexander Stojka did not permit him to leave the country, but appointed him to a forgotten parish in Berezovo. The young Fr. Romzha became a poor pastor among poor people.
Fr. Romzha was a holy and dedicated priest. He taught his parishioners not only to know their Faith, but also to live it. The parishioners once again became proud of their small church. In March of 1939 the Hungarians once more occupied Subcarpathian Ruthenia by force. Great political and ecclesiastical changes followed. Bishop Stojka was forced by the Hungarian government to reorganize the seminary staff. Thus, in the fall of 1939 Fr. Romzha was appointed Spiritual Director and Professor of Philosophy at the Eparchial Seminary in Uzhorod.
One of his students later recalled: "He was strict and demanding as a professor but as a spiritual director he was fatherly and kind. He knew how to inspire us and to bring out the best in us. Staying in close contact with us, his students, he was able to transplant into our hearts the main features of his strong priestly character: his dedication, genuine piety and generosity of heart."
Even at the seminary Fr. Romzha found time for pastoral work by helping in the neighboring parishes. He enjoyed conducting missions and retreats for young students. Every penny he earned he generously distributed to the poor.
Bishop Stojka appreciated the dedicated work of Fr. Romzha, and in 1942 obtained for him the papal dignity of Monsignor. Even then he remained a humble and dedicated priest, inspiring and winning the admiration and respect of all those who met him.
On May 31, 1943, during a critical time of the war, Bishop Stojka suddenly died. In view of the uncertainties of the time, the Holy See appointed Bishop Nicholas Dudash of Hajdudorog as the temporary administrator of the Mukachevo Eparchy. With the Soviet army rapidly approaching the Carpathian Mountains, the Holy See promptly appointed Msgr. Romzha to succeed Bishop Dudash as the Apostolic Administrator of Mukachevo. His episcopal ordination took place in Uzhorod on September 24, 1944.
A month later the entire territory of the Mukachevo Eparchy was occupied by the Red Army. Bishop Romzha was informed that Subcarpathian Ruthenia would again be incorporated into post-war Czechoslovakia as an autonomous province. However, it soon became evident the Soviets would not relinquish this politically strategic region. Consequently, on June 29, 1945, Subcarpathian Ruthenia was officially incorporated into the Soviet Ukraine. Thus the young and inexperienced Bishop Romzha found himself and his flock under Soviet atheistic rule.
Initially, Bishop Romzha tried not to antagonize the Soviet authorities, even though abusive and violent actions committed by the Soviet soldiers against clergy were reported to him. But when Soviet authorities began to expel priests from their parishes at random and confiscate church property, he was forced to protest against such abuses.
The Soviets declared the Bishop must recognize and submit to the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow. Bishop Romzha replied that he would rather die than betray his Church. This defiance signaled the open persecution of the Greek Catholic Church in Subcarpathia. Intimidation, violent removal and imprisonment of leading Greek Catholic priests and faithful followed.
As the Good Shepherd, Bishop Romzha was ready to lay down his own life for his sheep. Although Soviet authorities confiscated his car, he traveled long distance by horse and buggy in order to reassure his faithful and to encourage them to persevere until death. He told them: "They are taking from us our own priests and churches, but they will never be able to take away our Faith from us. Faith is our greatest treasure on this earth. To preserve our Faith we must even be ready to lay down our life. If we must die, then let us die as true martyrs, defending our Faith. One thing is sure, that we never will abandon our faith nor betray our Church."
The faithful, supported by dedicated clergy, responded enthusiastically. They stood united behind their fearless shepherd. Even some Orthodox parishes, seeing the violence and injustice perpetrated by the Soviets, asked Bishop Romzha to accept them back into the Catholic fold.
During these days of violence and open persecution, Bishop Romzha offered his prayers and sufferings for the perseverance of his clergy and the faithful. He was sustained by his unshakable confidence in God's Providence and vividly felt the protection of the Theotokos (Blessed Mother). There was no power that could shake his loyalty to the Holy See. There was only one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, established by our Lord on the rock of Peter and headed by His Vicar on earth, the Pope of Rome. For this truth Bishop Romzha was ready to sacrifice his own life.
The Soviets were unable to intimidate Bishop Romzha; therefore, they decided to rid themselves of him. First, they staged a highway accident. The horse drawn carriage in which the bishop was returning home from the re-dedication of a church was rammed by a military truck. Bishop Romzha was seriously injured, but survived the attempted murder. Passersby took him to the hospital in Mukachevo, where after a few days he began to regain his strength. Then suddenly, early on the morning of November 1, 1947, he was found dead after being poisoned by a Soviet agent posing as a nurse.
By his dedicated life, Bishop Romzha glorified God on earth, and by his heroic death, he gave living testimony to his Catholic faith, achieving the crown of martyrs. In him we gained a powerful Protector in heaven. Let us then resolve to pray for his beatification!
Prayer for Beatification
O gracious Lord, in Your infinite goodness You have given us a fearless Bishop, Theodore G. Romzha, who by his uncommon courage, sufferings and violent death gave a heroic witness to his unshakable Faith and inspired our people to hold fast to their Faith in time of persecution. Therefore, we humbly beseech You to glorify Your faithful servant, that Man of Faith, Bishop Theodore, and to strengthen our Faith by granting us through his kind intercession...[here make your request].
For you are a merciful and gracious God, and we render glory to you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever, Amen.
(With thanks to Fr. Christopher Zugger, author of "Finding a Hidden Church: The wondrous tale of the underground life and revival of the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church in the former Soviet Union" and "The Forgotten: Catholics in the Soviet Empire from Lenin through Stalin", the Eparchy of Passaic, EWTN, & Byzantine Seminary Press.)
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