A miracle of hope for Romania's pensioner underclass

 

Letter from Bucharest/Patrick Comerford: The main shopping streets of Bucharest are now lined with elegant boutiques and department stores, with fine restaurants, full banking services and even casinos vying with each other.

The elegance and prosperity in the heart of the Romanian capital are a sharp contrast to the visible poverty when I first visited the city immediately after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime, or the struggling economy I witnessed when I returned during the 1996 election campaign.

But today Romanian society faces new problems because of the continuing devaluation of the Romanian currency and spiralling inflation. According to the president of Volksbank Romania, Mr Laurentiu Mitrache, the average income of working families is 3-4 million lei (€100) a month, leaving them unable to meet living costs, despite Romania's low prices. Old people are on fixed pensions, which have not kept pace with inflation and have lost their spending power due to devaluation. He told of one couple - a retired judge and a retired pharmacist - living on a monthly pension of €60. A priest told of a parishioner who is a former energy minister and is now living on €40 a month.

According to Mr Mitrache, many pensioners, unable to pay their electricity and heating bills or buy enough food, have been forced to sell their apartments and move out. The new underclass in Romania is made up of these once-respectable old people, now a regular sight, quietly and humbly begging in streets, in the subways and on the steps of the Metro stations.

Until the revolution in 1990, the churches in Romania were not allowed to engage in social witness and outreach. Today, despite their best intentions, most Orthodox parishes are unable to begin social projects because of a shortage of money, space and organisational skills.

However, at the inner city parish of All Saints' Church, the Romanian Orthodox parish priest, Father Gheorghe Tudor, has built an old people's centre and started a project that includes three-storey sheltered housing and a food programme. The project began two years ago and is now feeding up to 100 people three times a week, with a further 25 families receiving food parcels with food donated by local restaurants. The sheltered housing will provide a new home for 20 old people on fixed pensions who have lost their apartments and short-term respite for old people who cannot afford to pay for their heating and lighting.

Romanian tradition expects a wake and burial within three days of death, but many old people find their flats are too small for the traditional Romanian wake, and too hot during the summer months to allow mourners to file through the cramped rooms.

Now the new mortuary chapel built by Father Gheorghe serves these needs too. The modern chapel interior is decorated in traditional Orthodox style, and all the work and craftsmanship have been provided by voluntary local labour.

"The closer you are to people, the closer you are to God," Father Gheorghe says. However, a lot of work remains before the project building is complete. Present priorities include the installation of heating, at an estimated cost of $10,000. He puts the total cost for completing the building at $50,000, with an annual running cost of $36,000.

The project is only one of a handful of such projects so far in the Romanian Orthodox Church. However, Father Gheorghe believes it could inspire similar outreach and witness - a hope echoed by a neighbouring parish priest, Father Mihail Spatarelu of the Church of the Dormition, who is also Project Co-ordinator of AIDRom, the Ecumenical Association of Churches in Romania.

The project at All Saints is also attracting ecumenical interest. The Anglican Church of the Resurrection, just off the busy shopping streets and close to many of the Romanian capital's embassies, has a unique record as the only Anglican church to maintain a presence in the Eastern Bloc throughout the post-war years of communism. The chaplains during those bleak days have included the Rev Dr David Hope, now Archbishop of York, and the Rev Ian Sherwood, a former curate of the Saint Patrick's Cathedral group in Dublin.

In the 1980s, Ian Sherwood found his flat had been bugged by Ceausescu's secret police. Today, the Anglican Church in Bucharest finds itself working in a more open climate. Father Gheorghe's determination has moved the present chaplain, the Rev James Ramsey, to work more closely with his Orthodox neighbours. "The project is a sign of discipleship in Christ, a miracle of the love of God," he says.

The Rev Patrick Comerford, a former Irish Times journalist, is Southern Regional Co-ordinator of the Church Mission Society Ireland (CMS Ireland). Contact: theology@ireland.com