The speakers of a Romance language surrounded by a sea of Slavs and Hungarians, and inhabiting a former Roman province once home to Ovid, the Romanians have always been an unusual European nation. With regards to religion, Romania is also unique: as the Old Continent, particularly its western half, is increasingly denying its religious roots, it is experiencing a revival of Orthodoxy and a turn toward conservative social norms. As such, it is a society trying to pull itself out of the abyss of a painful history while rediscovering its Christian culture.
From May 31 to June 2, Pope Francis will travel to Romania, the first pope in twenty years to visit the country. The last pope to do so was John Paul II, who in 1999 became the first pope to visit an Orthodox-majority nation.
According to the 2011 census, 81.04 percent of Romanians identify as Orthodox Christians, 6.2 percent are Protestants, and 5.1 percent are Roman and Eastern Rite Catholics.
In recent years there have been many headlines, articles, and books proclaiming the death of Christianity in Europe. While that is true in most of Western Europe, east of the Elbe there are numerous countries in which the Catholic and Orthodox Churches play a major role in social life and rates of religious practice are stable or rising.
Since the fall of communism in 1989, Orthodox-majority Romania has been experiencing a major religious revival. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center published late last year, 55 percent of Romanian adults define themselves as “highly religious”—the highest percentage among thirty-four surveyed European countries. The same study revealed that 50 percent of Romanians attend religious services at least monthly (second place in Europe), 44 percent pray daily (third place), 50 percent say religion is important in their lives (fourth place), and 64 percent believe in God with absolute certainty (fourth place).
The results of the Pew poll are not isolated: a 2010 Eurobarometer survey showed that 92 percent of Romanians believed in God, the second highest result (after Catholic Malta) among twenty-seven European Union member states.
Perhaps the most tangible symbol of the rise of Orthodoxy in post-communist Romania is the construction of the People’s Salvation Cathedral in Bucharest, which, when completed in 2024, will be the world’s tallest Orthodox church. Last fall, 50,000 believers attended the consecration ceremony. However, the construction of the church has been controversial because three-quarters of its $125 million construction budget has come from the state, which at the same time cut funding for social expenditures.
Romanian society is also socially conservative. Last year, a referendum was held to add an amendment to the country’s constitution that would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The “Yes” campaign received explicit support from the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, as well as Calvinist denominations. The referendum failed because turnout was a mere 21.1 percent, short of the 30 percent required for its results to be binding. The English language press twisted the results of vote to imply that Orthodoxy was on the wane in the country. For example, Reuters quoted LGBT activists who said that the poor turnout was because Romanians were sick of political polarization, the BBC wrote that the turnout marked the success of the “No” campaign’s boycott of the referendum, and the New York Times claimed that the referendum was a sign that “Romanians largely boycotted the vote” and that it was symptomatic of Orthodoxy’s declining social influence.
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