After the end of hostilities between Nazi Germany and the forces allied with the United States in 1945, the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe began with violence targeting Catholics, especially those of the Greek rite. The young Bishop Theodore Romzha of Mukachevo in eastern Ukraine had tried to not antagonize the increasingly violent communist government, but soon, he faced a dire choice similar to St. Thomas More, who chose martyrdom centuries before in England.
Born in 1911, Romzha came from Ruthenia — an ethnic and religious enclave in the Carpathian Mountains of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire that straddles modern Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine. He was a Rusyn, an East Slavic ethnic group that entered the Catholic Church in the late 800s through the work of the missionary saints Cyril and Methodius.
The majority of Rusyns are of the Ruthenian Greek Catholic rite in communion with Rome that shares the rich Byzantine liturgy and traditions of their Orthodox Christian neighbors. They are found in Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Many immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s, especially to Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Romzha prepared for missionary work as a priest in Russia: a virtual death sentence after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. He was ordained to the priesthood on Christmas Day 1936.
Auxiliary Bishop Milan Lach of Slovakia recalled that Romzha was sent to a small parish in the Carpathian Mountains. “But God had a mission prepared for him: to become a shepherd bishop in the most difficult time,” he told CNA.
At the age of 33, Romzha was ordained bishop of Mukachevo in eastern Ukraine during the Nazi occupation in 1944. He chose for his episcopal motto: “I love you, O Lord, my strength; you are my stronghold and my refuge!”, which is taken from Psalm 18.
Reflecting on the martyr’s legacy, Lach — who recently served as bishop of the Ruthenian Greek Catholic diocese based in Parma, Ohio — said: “Romzha knew Marxism and Leninism very well, because he studied them in detail. Already as a seminarian, he was preparing for a mission to Russia. This is evidenced by his presence in the papal Russian college in Rome. God changed his plans through his bishop.”
Soon after, Soviet troops invaded and occupied that region. Lach said that this meant “the end of freedom and democracy and the rise of dictatorship and communism, which had no mercy on its enemies. Not even with the Greek Catholic Church, of which he was a bishop.”
The Second World War ceded to a “cold” war pitting the United States and NATO countries against the Soviet Union. Communists of the Soviet-bloc countries waged war internally against political and religious dissidents, sometimes with the cooperation of the Russian Orthodox Church.
But Romzha was implacable in defending the Catholic Church in Ukraine. Soviet authorities seized churches and seminaries, turning them over to the Russian Orthodox Church and demanding Catholic clergy should abjure the pope. In the presence of Soviet Gen. Ivan Petrov in 1947, Romzha refused to break communion with Rome. This would cost him his life.
“Why must the young pious bishop die? To bear witness to the truth. To show that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, that the highest degree of love is to sacrifice one’s life for others, that is: for Christ,” Lach told CNA. “Bishop Romzha did not run away, although he could. He had contacts in the West. He stayed with his people until the end.”
In October 1947, a Soviet army truck rammed Romzha’s horse-drawn carriage while he was returning from a pastoral visit. Soldiers dressed as civilians emerged from the truck and mercilessly beat the bishop and companions.
Taken to a hospital in Uzhhorod, Romzha was recuperating under the care of nuns. But late on the night of Oct. 31, the nuns were dismissed and replaced by a civilian nurse. She poisoned Romzha by an injection of curare (a poison originating from plant extracts used as a paralyzing agent) provided by the feared Soviet NKVD state security agency. According to the Soviet-imposed time zone, his death date was Nov. 1. Romzha was the last public bishop of the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine until Soviet domination ended in 1991.
Later research revealed that dictator Josef Stalin’s henchman, Nikita Khrushchev — a future Soviet premier — had personally ordered the assassination.
Recalling the cost that faith may exact on believers, Lach wrote:
“To be faithful to one’s calling until the end is a legacy for each one of us. Blessed Hieromartyr Theodore, pray for us!”
In the Eastern Christian tradition, a hieromartyr is a bishop or priest who dies for the faith. Pope John Paul II beatified Theodore Romzha in 2001.
In 2014, Pope Francis praised the fidelity of Byzantine-rite Catholics of Ukraine during a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the restoration of their religious liberty. He said that while experiencing persecution, they “gave a most beautiful example of faith.” The Argentine pontiff paid tribute to Romzha, who “merited to attain the glorious palm [of martyrdom] on account of his untiring fidelity to the Church.”