Saturday, November 13, 2010
The Strength of Constancy
Before you read this, note the disclaimer to the right and understand that my comments are merely the observations of one who has lived here six months, not a sociologist, historian, nor theologian, and certainly not one who speaks for my government and its programs. Since I first arrived, I have struggled to understand the complex relationship between the government of Romania and the Orthodox church. While theoretically there is separation of church and state, in practice they seem tightly woven into a fabric that defies fraying. Here's what I've found through personal observations, comments from others, and online research (mainly having to do with the education system since that's my arena). In every school I've entered here, I've noticed icons of holy figures on the walls of halls and classrooms. Religious messages and notices are on bulletin boards. The state curriculum requires that religion classes be taught--in theory, as non-denominational , but in practice many times they are taught by priests or by teachers whose own orientation is Orthodox. The state pays salaries to priests and augments construction of church buildings. Schools participate in a point-gathering competition throughout the year and one way to gain more points is to have iconic art created by students for a regional exhibit. Priests bless the schools at opening day ceremonies and holy days are observed in schools. I'm sure there are more connections I've yet to learn about, but these have caught my attention and were at first shocking to this American with liberal principles firmly ingrained. Gradually, however, I've come to a better understanding of the importance of the church as a constant in the lives of people who have endured feudal lords, barbaric invasions, vicious monarchs, dictators, communism, frequent redrawing of country borders to add or subtract large tracts of land and ethnic populations, and rampant government corruption. The church has been there from the earliest times and has survived even through the years of atheist communist rule, by means not always noble but certainly pragmatic, in order to keep church doors open and parishioners served. It is a quintessentially paternalistic institution and has come to be--for the 87% of the Romanian population who identify themselves as Orthodox--a symbol of nationalism, its beautiful churches and cathedrals aesthetic foils to the horrors of communist architecture, its solemn traditions and elaborate ceremonies points of pride. It serves an important role in Romanian life and has offered stability and order where other institutions have failed. "If I ruled the world," would I have the church less entangled with the government? You bet I would. But I can at least understand WHY things are as they are...and will be long after I'm gone.