Archbishop O'Brien's Pastoral Visit to Romania
31 August 4 September 2003
A full report of this visit follows below, photographs of the openingmass and the state orphanage are available in JPEG format from the Catholic Media Office
Archbishop O'Brien returned from his pastoral visit having experienced at first hand just a little of the hardships of life for the people of Romania.
His visit began with Mass last Sunday in the Sacred Heart Church in Darmanesti, near Bacau in central Romania. He spoke of the welcome he was given by the parish priest Fr Eugen, the sisters and the young people who had visited his home last month; he recognised the crucifix on the wall of their new Church - it was a gift from St Patrick's Parish Kilsyth, in his own Archdiocese. One of many tangible links between Scotland and Romania.
In his sermon he told the people how pleased he was at last to visit their country and wanted them to know how grateful we are to them for keeping the faith and growing in love of God and one another. He said;
"You have experienced many years of suffering and hardship under a cruel regime. You have witnessed in a very real way to the suffering Christ. Now you are experiencing the resurrection of your nation. I urge you to beware of being tempted to settle for less than the best. There are many false gods in the western world."
Addressing the young people he added;
" Please treasure the heritage given to you. It has been hard won. Many people have suffered great hardship to allow you to have the freedom to worship God. Do not settle only for material values that do not last. Help your country to grow once again into the great nation it once was and to play its full part in the growth and development of Europe and the world."
The Archbishop was greeted with a standing ovation, many of the people visibly moved with his words. After Mass he greeted each person at the door of the new Church.
He then travelled north to Siret in northern Romania, a town two kilometres from the border with Ukraine In the local Church he conducted a simple service with young abandoned people living in the local state orphanage and in homes built thanks to the fundraising efforts of the singer Daniel O'Donnell. The service was an occasion of great joy for the orphans and for the many townspeople who joined them. The archbishop established an instant rapport with the help of his translator Marinella and soon had them all singing and praying. The youngsters from the orphanage were allowed at least for a while to forget the harsh realities of their lives.
From there he went to visit the state "orphanage." Where 150 young people aged 18 and over live in conditions that can only be described as "shocking". The first thing he noticed was the cages, which are visible from the street. The young people are imprisoned in this institution. Commenting on his impressions of the State orphanage the Archbishop said,
"Like many people I have seen reports and documentaries on television about conditions in these institutions but nothing could prepare me for the reality. The smell was unbelievable. Other than the youngsters who had been allowed out to the Church service, the residents were half dressed and dirty. We took buns in with us and it was quite apparent that the poor souls were very hungry, fighting one another to get to the food first. It was a very difficult visit but I am glad that I have seen for myself these appalling conditions. Something must be done to improve their circumstances. The Challenge Charity has done great work here but it is really for the Romanian authorities to sort this matter out and do so as a matter of urgency. I have visited very poor people in Africa and in Central America but I never expected to see so many young people consigned to a life of total poverty and squalor in State run institutions in a European country."
Visiting homes build by Daniel O'Donnell's fundraising campaign, the Archbishop saw young people being cared for in clean and comfortable conditions. He said,
"The contrast between the state institution and these homes is enormous. Here the young people are treated as individuals and given the respect they are due as human beings. It is also evident that they are responding to their new surroundings by learning to become more independent and taking responsibility for the homes and the grounds." He went on "Daniel O'Donnell and the fans who support him have a lot to be proud of in the provision of these beautiful homes for abandoned young people. I feel privileged to be associated with the great work going on here. It is a real expression of the Gospel in action"
The following day the Archbishop returned to Darmanesti for the solemn Dedication of the new Church. The celebration began at the train station where Cardinal Meisner from Cologne joined Archbishop O'Brien and the local Bishop Petru Gerghil on an open horse-drawn carriage. Accompanied by twelve outriders bearing standards: the papal colours, the Romanian National flag and a Marian standard: the procession wound its way along the rough track to the new Church. The street was thronged with people being kept in line by a police guard of honour. The children all carried flowers, which they raised in greeting to the prelates. On arrival at the Church there was a formal greeting by the Parish Priest Fr Eugen. He welcomed the visiting church and civic dignitaries. After the prayer of blessing, the three prelates walked around the outside of the building sprinkling it with holy water.
An estimated congregation of 2500 people filled the church and the piazza all the way down to the street. In an impressive ceremony the altar and the church walls were anointed with oil as the people sang in wonderful harmony.
At the end of the Mass of dedication everyone was invited to the party. Romanian Challenge workers had come down from Siret and alongside parishioners had prepared a banquet for everyone. Archbishop O'Brien said,
"When I learned some weeks ago that Father Eugen's dream would be to host a reception for everyone, not just visiting dignitaries, I offered to help realise his dream. The ordinary people of this parish have been hands-on building this beautiful new church building. It has taken eleven years. This is a day for them more than anyone to celebrate. I was only too happy to help make that possible. I am very proud of the parishes and individuals back home who have helped make this day possible through their fundraising and support."
The following morning the Archbishop joined Father Eugen in a visitation of some of the housebound parishioners who had been unable to attend the ceremony of dedication. The elderly people were visibly moved as he prayed with them. One old man said,
"This is the best day of my whole life. Never did I think I would have an Archbishop in my home. Only last year our home was burned to the ground and we lost everything. We now have a new home thanks to the generosity of the
people of Scotland. We can never thank them enough Never did I imagine I
would have a new home and a visit from an Archbishop. My life is now complete. I am happy to die because nothing greater can happen to me now in this life."
Later in the day the Archbishop drove south to Bucharest where he met up again with Cardinal Meisner, as well as Metropolitan Archbishop Robu and the papal Nuncio. On the way there, the car he was travelling in was broken into while he was visiting a famous Church in the city of Brasov. The thieves took passports, credit cards, mobile telephone, various documents as well as his vestments and the pectoral cross he was given by the Holy Father at the last Synod of Bishops. Speaking of the incident he said,
"It was in hindsight obviously careless to leave our documents in the car.
In all my travels I have never done so. In mitigation I can only say that
we have felt so secure since we arrived that we were caught unawares. Everywhere we have gone we have felt protected and welcome. It is a hard lesson but one that will be remembered." The archbishop refused to allow the incident to colour his experience in Romania. He said, "This pastoral visit has been a time of great joy for me. To see the obvious deep faith of people who have had such great difficulty in holding on to their faith against the odds has been a great privilege. I have also been very impressed with the dedication and commitment of very many people from our country in working to alleviate the suffering and poverty of the abandoned thousands in so many institutions here."
The archbishop was less positive about the role played by the British authorities in resolving the matter of stolen passports. He said,
"When we arrived at the Consulate in Bucharest on Wednesday morning we were shepherded to a building where hundreds of Romanians were waiting for UK visas. We were told we were wasting our time trying to get replacement passports. Eventually we were given emergency passports. At the airport that afternoon however, Romanian Immigration guards would not allow us to travel
- it seemed we needed an exit visa stamped on our passports- no one in the embassy had told us this. With the help of Archbishop Robu's of Bucharest and his secretary, Father Ionut we succeeded after 24 hours of queuing, pleading and phoning with consular staff in the British Embassy, to obtain the necessary documentation. No apology for the dismal failure of the Consulate to provide any support or help during our difficulties was received. This is especially galling since the Consul James Cameron is a Scot from Glasgow as are one of the vice consuls Stuart Lochrie and a senior official Bob Napier. In short, the Consulate gave us little or no support. I was amazed therefore to read a statement from the Foreign Office dated 9 September, stating; "We have apologised to the Archbishop for the oversight which led to his difficulties on this occasion. When this error came to light, our consular team provided all the assistance they could, including accompanying the Archbishop to the Romanian Visa Department to ensure that he obtained the correct exit visa." This is entirely untrue. No apology was given nor did a member of the Consular team accompany us to the Romanian Visa Office. Thankfully the very positive experience of this pastoral visit where he witnessed the marvellous results of the fruitful partnership between the Scottish and Romanian Church far outweighed the miserable performance of the British Embassy. At the very least the Consular Office even at this late stage should be honest, admit their shortcomings, and issue a public apology."
Archbishop O'Brien and Father Fallon both expressed very great admiration for everyone involved in the great apostolate of support for the abandoned young people and they look forward to welcoming Father Eugen to Scotland next month and hope to repay the wonderful hospitality extended by him and his people.
As Archbishop O'Brien said in his opening sermon in Romania,
"It has been a privilege for the people of Scotland to continue to share in the resurrection of the people of Romania."
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