By the time he died at the age of 50, Greek Catholic Bishop Vasile Aftenie was crippled, maimed and, according to accounts of those who knew him, out of his mind due to torture endured while imprisoned by Romania’s communist regime.
When he finally succumbed in 1950, Aftenie was too tall to fit into a makeshift coffin provided by the prison where he was being held, so his legs were cut off and thrown on top of his corpse before burial – a final gesture of disdain from a regime whose hostility to religion, and to Catholicism in particular, had already become the stuff of legend.
On Tuesday, ahead of a late May/early June trip by Pope Francis to Romania, Aftenie and six of his fellow bishops who died under the Romanian communists have been officially recognized as “martyrs” by the pontiff.
Born in the Lodroman village in Alba County in June 1899, Aftenie was a member of the Greek Catholic Church, the largest of the 23 Eastern churches in full communion with the pope. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1926, he was named auxiliary bishop of Bucharest in 1940, seven years before the country was officially declared the “Soviet Republic of Romania.”
Before long, Aftenie was arrested and imprisoned by the communist government for refusing to convert to Orthodoxy, which, at the time, had formed close ties to those in leadership of the Romanian communist party.
After chastising fellow Greek Catholic bishops for joining the Orthodox church under pressure, in 1949 Aftenie was sent to Romania’s Căldăruşani Monastery, which had been converted into a prison. A few months later he was put into isolation, tortured, and eventually died.
Aftenie is just one of thousands of Catholic faithful and clergy who faced a similar fate in the Socialist Republic of Romania, which existed from 1947-1989 and was led by the Romanian Communist Party.
Francis also recognized the martyrdom of bishops Ioan Suciu, Tito Livio Chinezu, Ioan Bălan, Alessandru Rusu, Iuliu Hossu and Valerio Traiano Frenţiu, all of whom, like Aftenie, were killed “in hatred of the faith” between 1950-1970 without a trial or proper burial.
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