This week begins with Halloween, my favorite holiday as a kid, and (as the name suggests) the night before All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows’ Day). October 31st, however, is not just a day for tricks and treats, or even simply a time of preparation for the holy day on the horizon—it’s also, and for some Byzantine Catholics primarily, the feast day of Blessed Theodore Romzha, a holy priest and bishop martyred by the Soviets nearly seven decades ago.
Bishop Romzha is one of those easily-forgotten treasures of the Church, killed not only for his piety but, more specifically, for his adherence to the faith of the Catholic Church, his commitment to the Vicar of Christ, the Pope of Rome. In short, he’s a worthy man to remember this week as we pray for all the dead.
Born in 1911 in modern Ukraine, Bishop Romzha’s upbringing was humble enough, but his scholarly successes and piety led to his desiring to enter the priesthood, which he eventually did in Rome, before returning to his homeland in the late 1930s. This was an especially difficult time for the Rusyn people (his ethnic group). Their minority status and precarious position as “Greek Catholics,” whose liturgy looked Orthodox, but whose commitments held them fast to the Church of Rome meant no power, and a lack of respect from their peers. Their home, torn apart first by the Nazis and then later by the Soviets was not secure. As a result, the people suffered. Caught up in all of this, Bl. Theodore was drafted to fight against the Nazis, declaring to a friend in Rome: “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.” In 1944, after the War and at the age of 33, he was made the Bishop of Mukacheve.
Though already a well-liked priest and professor turned bishop, his true achievement—his martyrdom—still lay ahead. The Soviets, attempting to centralize, and thus control, religious authority, began to confiscate Byzantine Catholic churches and exile their priests, intending to hand them over to Orthodox loyal to the Patriarch of Moscow. Bl. Theodore refused, and so, in late October 1947—his car already having been taken away—his horse-drawn carriage was rammed by a Soviet vehicle filled with soldiers disguised as civilians. The men rushed out and beat the bishop and his companions until another car came along. The bishop’s own words would soon come to fulfillment:
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.
On October 31st, the nuns caring for him were dismissed, a Soviet nurse entered, and he was poisoned, dying that night before midnight local time. Later research suggests that Nikita Khrushchev himself may have ordered the murder. Regardless, the bishop was dead, and by 1949, his entire Church would be denied the right to exist, driven underground by the Soviets.
And so we remember him, we remember a martyr whose life and work stand to show us that one need not be old to be holy (he died at 36), one need not have a long and distinguished career to give glory to God; no, one need only keep the name of God on one’s lips at all times, as Bl. Bishop Romzha’s own episcopal motto reminds us:
I love you, O Lord, my strength; You are my stronghold and my refuge! (Psalm 18:2-3)