CNA Staff, Feb 24, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- Archbishop Aurel Percă has never led his archdiocese in normal times. He was installed as Metropolitan Archbishop of Bucharest on Jan. 11, 2020, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Romania.
In his first year in office, the 69-year-old has faced tremendous obstacles in getting to know his archdiocese, which covers more than 35,000 square miles, including not only Romania’s capital city but also much of the south of the country.
In a Feb. 21 interview with CNA, Percă acknowledged that his first 12 months as archbishop have been “pretty hard.” He has been unable to introduce a “concrete pastoral program” or meet as many members of his flock as he would have liked because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“Thus, my messages were able to reach a much larger number of Catholic believers, and not only, both in Romania and abroad,” he said.
“But it was very difficult to communicate with them, having an empty church before my eyes and addressing myself to empty benches — where you usually cross eyes with the faithful.”
Romania, a nation of 19 million people bordering Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary, has one of the highest poverty rates in the European Union. It has recorded more than 20,000 COVID-19 deaths as of Feb. 24, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
“During the lockdown, for three months, we celebrated a Holy Mass in the cathedral every week, usually on Fridays, for coronavirus victims, for patients in hospitals, but also for sanitary and medical staff,” recalled the archbishop, who was elected president of the Bishops’ Conference of Romania in September 2020.
“It was a way to show solidarity with all those affected by COVID-19 and to be near those people who lost someone in their families.”
Percă was born on Aug. 15, 1951, in Săbăoani, Western Moldavia. He was ordained a priest in 1979 in Iași (pronounced “Yash”), Romania’s second-largest city. He studied in Rome, earning degrees in Oriental Theology and Moral Theology.
From 1989 to 1994, he was rector of the major seminary in the Diocese of Iași and later vicar general. In 1999, he was named an auxiliary bishop of the diocese. He was serving in that position when Pope Francis made his three-day visit to Romania in May 2019, which included a stop in Iași.
Percă told CNA that he had found some respite in the second half of 2020 when lockdown eased. But as he traveled around his archdiocese, he was unable to meet everyone he wished to.
“The reason why is because in the meantime the number of participants at celebrations decreased, out of fear of possible contamination,” he explained.
“I am still concerned that I could not meet the children, the young people, the associations in the communities of the archdiocese, and I could not visit our Catholic kindergartens and schools.”
Like many Church leaders in Europe, Percă worries that the pandemic will have a long-term impact on Mass attendance.
“At the moment, it is difficult to make a prediction about what the local Church in the Archdiocese of Bucharest will look like after the coronavirus crisis. The perspective points to a decrease in the presence of believers in churches for liturgical celebrations,” he commented.
“I am afraid that the fear caused by the pandemic in different categories of believers will extend over time, and they will find it easier to watch the celebrations in their homes, sitting comfortably in their armchairs, than to travel the distance to their churches — often with difficulty.”
“Thus, we will have to do a double pastoral work and find the most effective ways for their catechesis and evangelization.”
But the archbishop emphasized that he would continue to encourage people to return to church.
“However, we insist on strengthening the community and promoting the physical presence at the celebrations of Holy Mass and other Sacraments, without which there is no basic support for living the faith,” he said.
“I think that the modern means of communication are very useful, but they will never replace the physical presence in the churches, and I am thinking, first of all, of the pastoral, educational, catechetical activities with young people and children.”
Catholicism is a minority faith in Romania, where around 80% of the population belongs to the Romanian Orthodox Church. Catholics account for about 5% of the population, with both Latin Rite and Byzantine Rite communities.
The Romanian Greek Catholic Church is one of the 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome. Its head, Cardinal Lucian Mureșan, is one of only four Catholic leaders worldwide to hold the title “Major Archbishop.”
Percă said that in general relations between Catholics and Romanian Orthodox Christians were cordial, both at the local level and among hierarchs.
“People live in good understanding in their communities, they work together, there are many mixed marriages,” he said.
“When it comes to the rights of the Church, regardless of denomination, everyone is united in the defense of the principles that guarantee the rights and freedom to exercise worship.”
Nevertheless, there are challenges, some of them relating to the communist era, which lasted from 1947 to 1989.
“Unfortunately, there are also a few specific situations in which Orthodox who enter and pray in a Catholic church are reproached by some Orthodox priests; and Catholics who want to be godparents at an Orthodox baptism or wedding are asked to convert to the Orthodox Church; or in a mixed marriage in the Orthodox Church, there might be requests that the Catholic side be re-baptized,” the archbishop said.
“More strained relations are on a larger scale in Transylvania, where the restitution of property belonging to the Greek Catholic Church has not yet been resolved. In 1948, the communist government outlawed the Romanian Greek Catholic Church, confiscated its properties, and handed them over to the Romanian Orthodox Church.”
But Percă underlined that, despite these problems, ecumenical ties were positive.
“At the hierarchical level, there are contacts between bishops, exchanges of greetings and messages at major holidays and invitations to events on both sides; also, joint participation in various national, regional and even local events by priests,” he said.
“The Catholic Church of both rites in Romania desires to cultivate a healthy ecumenical spirit, which is to the benefit of all, believers, priests and bishops.”
The archbishop is already looking ahead to the post-coronavirus era, when he will govern an archdiocese much changed from when he inherited it from his predecessor Archbishop Ioan Robu, who served from 1983 to 2019.
“It has often been heard, even since reaching the height of the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, that after this crisis, that the world will no longer be as it was, that we have to be more responsible to those around us and to the environment, that we have to consider solidarity between people as a priority,” Percă said.
“I believe that it will be difficult to achieve these ideals in the short term. I think there is the need to form a ‘post-COVID-19’ generation that will establish a different kind of relationship between people.”
He continued: “Here I feel there is a special challenge regarding the way the Church will be able to implement and propose different pastoral actions for the mission among the faithful, taking into account the fact that often these interventions must be correlated with the steps taken by other denominations, but also with the approaches of the civil society.”
“In Romania, the general population still regards the Church with great hope. But many state interventions seem to counteract its effectiveness: for example, the tendency to eliminate the teaching of Religion in schools, the imposition of sex education in school curricula, without prior consultation with family associations or with representants of denominations, thus restricting the free choice of families to choose what they consider to be good for their children, freedom guaranteed by the Romanian Constitution.”
The archbishop added that the Church must work for fundamental cultural change.
“So, I wonder how we can prepare the young generation for the ‘post-COVID-19’ period. We need to change the underlying cultural orientation; first of all, we Christians need to do it, by cultivating a very strong sense of responsibility,” he reflected.
“Without the conjugation of all forces of all denominations, but especially without the support of the state — with correct laws — we will reach a situation of permanent conflict. I hope that in Romania, as in the whole world, the power of faith for the renewal of the world will be taken into account.”
He noted that Catholics were already returning to church in Bucharest archdiocese, as new coronavirus cases continue to fall from their peak last November and the government opens vaccination centers around the country.
“Before the coronavirus pandemic, the participation in celebrations in churches was 50-60%. Despite the restraint that some people have for the time being, an increasing number of believers have returned to churches, sometimes assisting to the Holy Mass outside the church premises, facing the low temperatures of this winter,” he said.
“The faithful of the Archdiocese of Bucharest, and not only, know that the Church is their support, hope, and salvation.”
“So, I encourage all Catholic believers in other parts of the world to have the courage to live the faith in the parish communities to which they belong.”