Volume > Issue > Briefly: January-February 2010

January-February 2010

Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy

By Sheilah Kast and Jim Rosapepe

Publisher: Bancroft Press

Pages: 373

Price: $25.95

Review Author: Elizabeth C. Hanink

Herta Müller notwithstanding, most Americans think very little about Romania. They know even less. Nadia Comaneci, the gypsies, and Count Dracula comprise the extent of most Americans’ familiarity. Yet there is so much more, and former Ambassador Jim Rosapepe and his wife, journalist Sheilah Kast, have gathered a collection of anecdotes to help explain Romania to us just as they once explained the U.S. to Romanians.

More than a travelogue but less than a full memoir, their book helps us understand a people who suffered terribly under a cruel family tyranny but who have resiliently emerged with hope for a better future. Historically, Romania has often been at the center of clashing empires: Roman, Greek, Austrian, Ottoman, Russian, and German. A popular proverb accounts for its survival: “The bent neck avoids the sword.”

Rosapepe, a Clinton appointee, served as U.S. ambassador to Romania from 1998 to 2001 — years that included the conflict in nearby Kosovo. This timeframe provides some of the best stories in the book. In the most recent Balkan dispute, despite being a longtime ally of the Serbs, Romania sided with NATO. As Prime Minister Emil Constantinescu said, “I saw the opportunity to fight this curse and to create a basis for a new type of behavior — that of decisions being taken in the first moment and consistently….” He later canceled the Russian use of Romanian airspace. When that nation acceded to Romanian wishes, it marked the first time Russia had observed her neigh­bor’s sovereignty. “I realized,” said Constantinescu, “how important it was to earn their respect. I learned that whenever you affirm your position, everybody will respect you.”

Rosapepe tells how, during the same interval, he fielded awkward questions from the press about NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia and illustrates how reporters everywhere “play gotcha” when diplomats spin their stories. The truth gets caught somewhere in the middle.

Not all of the ambassador’s duties involved high political stakes. Much of the time, showing the flag sufficed, and the Romanian people made it easy to do so. Indeed, their hospitality is legendary. Travel, moreover, revealed a country dotted with historical reminders of changing borders, broken treaties, and invading armies. Count Dracula was the creation of an Irishman, Bram Stoker; but he based his character on a real-life prince, Vlad Tepes of Transylvania (since World War I, a part of Romania). Even the non-Slavic language, with its Latin roots, is a reminder of the Roman Empire.

One group with which the authors had friendly exchanges was the Orthodox clergy. The elaborate Easter rituals of the Eastern Church captured their Western imagination, though they noted that the Lenten fasts did not appear to be as strenuous as reported, at least not when the ambassador visited.

The ambassadorial couple, both Catholics, had a keen interest in church/state relations. During the communist era, a lamentable coziness existed between the two. Now, there is less quid pro quo. Still, even today, the state pays clergy salaries and for building maintenance; the Or­thodox Church is a national church, and it accepts the notion of the state’s higher authority.

The conflict between the Romanian Orthodox and Greek Catholics (Uniate) lingers. The memory of property confiscated by the Orthodox is hard to erase from the minds of Catholics, whose Church endured forty-odd years of totalitarian rule. Some rapprochement occurred during Rosapepe’s tenure, at the Vat­ican’s urging. In 1999, and after much diplomatic wrangling, Pope John Paul II even visited Bucharest, bypassing Transylvania where the Greek Catholic Church is centered. Today, Protestant congregations are increasing — mostly Baptist and Mennonite.

Romania has many minority groups; but to outsiders, at least, the nation lives in harmony. Hungarians are the largest minority; yet despite a separate language, they share fully in national life. Political disputes remain peaceful enough, and holdovers from the communist era must run for election like everyone else. There are few Jews, a grim reminder of the treacheries of World War II. At the time of Rosapepe’s stay, some 700 Jewish cemeteries remained in Romanian towns without a single Jew.

No book about Romania can overlook the legacy of its orphanages, and the ambassadorial couple realize this, if grudgingly. Orphanages did abound, and they were dismal places — places in which AIDS was widespread. The authors focus on the international help, which has lessened the suffering, and remind us that the general standard of living under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was abysmal. In fact, many children of the orphanages were not without parents. Rather, their parents simply could not care for them. Yet in one of the oddest assertions of the book, the authors hold Ceausescu responsible for the full orphanages because he denied access to contraception and abortion. How this squares with the profound religious belief these same authors insist most Romanians possess remains, at best, problematic. Surely, Orthodoxy means more than sumptuous liturgies and painted monasteries.

For Rosapepe and Kast, the orphanages highlight a characteristic of the Romanian people that the authors found to be true: the old bent neck — that is, a profound passivity in the face of state oppression. Still, that explanation provides another likely answer to the question of how Romania “survived” communism — namely, some of her people did and some did not.

One role the ambassador relished was paving the way for international exchanges and alliances. Now that Ceausescu’s mad industrialization has ended, Dracula is once more dead. The nightmare over, Romania is growing into a technological pow­er. Its investment in education (always widespread) is paying off. The country’s turn toward democracy, albeit imperfect, has earned it a place in the European Union. All this is a delight to Rosapepe and Kast, and hence their book. They want you to enjoy the country too, and perhaps you can. Understand, though, that there is much more to the story.

The Mass in My Life: Cries of the Heart in the Prayers of the Mass

By Rosemary Lunardini

Publisher: iUni­verse, Inc.

Pages: 110

Price: $13.95

Review Author: Elaine Hallett

It took me fifty years to get up the courage to approach a priest and ask to be allowed to enter the Church. (Priests were exotic and scary beings for us Protestants.) One of the first books I read after I became a Catholic was Dietrich von Hil­de­brand’s Liturgy and Personality. Everything I encountered at that time was new and wondrous to me, particularly this gentleman’s suggestion that the Mass had within it the power to nourish and shape the human personality. Though von Hildebrand insisted that the primary function of the liturgy is not sanctification but rather the praise and glorification of God, he felt nevertheless that “the conscious, fully-awakened act of performing the Liturgy imprints upon the soul the Face of Christ. In taking part in the Liturgy, we make our own the fundamental attitudes embodied in it” — such as Christ’s attitudes toward the Father — and we are ultimately transformed. I read with understanding and acceptance but lacked the experience to agree wholeheartedly. Formation, I thought, happened in schools or in seminaries but not on Sunday mornings at church.

Two decades later, as I was reading Rosemary Lunardini’s The Mass in My Life, I realized that as I followed her journey from sacrament to sacrament — first Holy Communion, marriage, the baptisms of children and grandchildren, and so on — I was witnessing the realization of the miracle that von Hildebrand himself had been extolling. Here was a woman who had spent her three-score-years-and-ten in close proximity to the Mass — who, in her desire to give thanks to God for all that the Mass has meant to her in her life, reveals (though this was not her object) what a personality formed by the liturgy would be like.

This book is a joy to read. But more than that, it has greatly enriched my own experiences of the Mass. Lunardini’s experiences merge with my own, not only awakening my own memories but also keeping me more alert to all that is happening in each Mass as I live through it in the present. Lunardini allows herself to be aware of others at Mass, and today I found myself aware of the awe in the eyes of the young girls in the pew beside me and of the intenseness of one of them who took up the Adoremus Hymnal to try to follow the Latin as the choir sung the Creed.

What does it look like — a life that was formed by the Mass? The book is full of surprises. The author undertakes, in fact, to follow the order of the Mass from the Introit all the way through to the priest’s concluding words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” — with individual chapters focused on the intents and purposes of its parts, not only the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei, but also examples of scriptural readings, the homily, the Lord’s Prayer, the sanctification of the Host, the Eucharistic prayers, the receiving of the Holy Eucharist, even the final blessing. The surprises come with the memories that the meditations on the parts of the Mass give rise to.

And as if this objective were not a monumental endeavor by itself, Lunardini moves through time from the Latin Mass to the new Mass in the vernacular, for, during her lifetime there were massive changes in the structure of the Mass, owing to the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Fr. George Rutler, having read this book, wrote in a letter, “It is edifying to read an account of someone who remembers the delights of the 1950s family culture and survived the changes without rancor or regret. I especially appreciate the author’s mature affection for the old liturgy without nostalgia and her way of praying the revised liturgy while not being deterred by its defects.”

As the book’s cover says, “Each chapter focuses on a milestone or period in the author’s life and a prayer from the Order of the Mass. The two themes, life and Mass, interweave chronologically in a unique twofold structure.” As in life, there is a steady process of questioning and learning, and the questions grow more and more profound. The early stages of the Mass are described in the context of a seven-year-old girl’s anticipation of her first Holy Communion. She wants to receive Jesus, but she is also fascinated by the prayer book with its small gold cross embedded in the cover. It is a precious image of childhood and innocence. Later, there are more difficult questions. How does the Credo differ from other prayers of the Mass? How does one respond to doubts that arise when pondering the doctrines of the Creed?

The Creed, writes Lunardini, “is truly a prayer, not a test. More than any other Mass prayer, it speaks of the three persons in one God and what each one of them does. It is well placed after we have just heard the word of God proclaimed and explained. Now as the first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, comes to an end, the time is right for us to stand up and say, ‘we believe.'” Nevertheless, one’s understanding of the mysteries of the Creed can — indeed should — be nurtured and deepened in private moments outside of the Mass. The chapter on the Credo leads to a discussion of spiritual reading, with a particular focus on the relationship between the Father and the Son. Lunardini lists commentators and spiritual writers to whom she is indebted — Adrienne von Speyr, Fr. Henri Nouwen, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, and Pope John Paul II among them.

There are also “situational” questions that appear during the course of the author’s life as a result of various moments of human crisis — for example, in a chapter on an unexpected disaster. How does a young woman cope with the devastating news that her 17-year-old brother and two of his friends have just been killed in a traffic accident? How does everything she has been taught to believe help her then? What was the Mass for the Dead like and how did it help?

What makes this spiritual mem­­oir so important is that two lives intertwine here, that of the woman who is writing it and that of Jesus, with whom she becomes more and more deeply acquainted through a lifetime of meeting Him at Mass. This book gives evidence that the Mass is an inexhaustible treasure — one is always discovering new areas of God’s infinite being to explore. May the unique structure and thoughtful presentation of The Mass in My Life serve as a model for those of us who feel within ourselves an urge to explore, as spiritual advisors suggest we do, where God has been present in our own lives — and how He has formed our personalities.

The Death of a Pope

By Piers Paul Read

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 215

Price: $21.95

Review Author: Mary Westwood

The Death of a Pope, Piers Paul Read’s new novel, is as much an ecclesiastical thriller as it is a study of human strengths and weaknesses. Each of the main characters possesses qualities which, if extracted then recombined in one person, could form one of the most heroic characters in literature. As it is, Read creates characters as realistic as they come; their heroic intentions encased in acedia, ferocity, or fear.

Juan Uriarte is on trial at the Old Bailey in London for terrorist activity with the intent to take human life. During the proceedings he testifies that he was once a Catholic priest, but left the priesthood to join the FMLN, a Marxist guerilla group fighting the oppressive government in El Salvador. Since that time he has worked for the Catholic relief agency Misericordia International in the Sudan and Uganda.

The charge against Uriarte rests on the fact that he attempted to obtain sarin nerve gas. The ex-priest claims he intended to use the gas to kill the livestock and camels of the Arab militias that are terrorizing the refugees his organization is trying to protect in the Sudan. He speaks of the “inert establishment which does nothing to prevent genocide,” convicting the lawyers, jury, and spectators of their own tranquility in the midst of others’ suffering. Uriarte proves himself to be a man of passionate conscience, convincing the jury of the veracity of his defense when he proclaims, “After a time the voice of conscience cries out within you. Basta! Enough! Something must be done.” He is acquitted.

Kate Ramsey, a thirty-something reporter covering his trial, finds herself ashamed to be a member of the “inert establishment” of timorous English culture. She becomes fascinated with what Uriarte does — indeed, with Uriarte himself — and accompanies him to Africa to write a story about Misericordia International. Once in Uganda, Kate witnesses the intensity of refugees’ suffering, particularly those with the AIDS virus, and the intensity of her passion for Uriarte as she naïvely becomes involved in his secret work.

Two men in Kate’s life worry about her attraction to the imposing ex-priest. Her uncle Luke Scott, a Catholic priest himself, distrusts Uri­arte’s intentions with the nerve gas and considers Kate’s description of Uri­­arte as “charismatic” to mean that he is manipulative. David Kotov­ski, an agent for the British Security Service who posed as a writer for The Law Review during the trial, also worries about Kate’s safety with Uriarte. Ko­tov­ski frequently lunched with her during the trial and was attracted to her, but found they differed too much in their opinions of Uriarte. Kotovski believes that Uriarte has terrorist intentions with the nerve gas and used the “camel killing” story as a front. While Kate and Uriarte are in Africa, Ko­tov­ski spends his time looking for evidence that Uriarte is indeed guilty as charged.

Back in England, Kate is frustrated with the comfort of her family and is often unable to contain her irritability. She is visited by Kotovski, who reveals his position with the Security Service and asks her if she helped Uriarte beyond her volunteer work with Misericordia. She denies it. After Kotovski leaves, she realizes the danger of trying to sustain a lie.

At this point the significance of the title is revealed. Pope John Paul II has died. Uriarte is off to Rome, intent on paying a visit to the Dutch Cardinal Doornik, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Culture. He obtains a private audience with the cardinal and persuades Doornik that it is not only likely that he will be chosen the next pontiff, but also that it is the will of God for the Church to be blessed with a pope who will not be bound by the teachings of the past. Doornik tries to retain humility, but is convinced Uriarte’s arguments are logical. Uriarte warns Doornik that his destiny is in danger, however, because of an indiscretion in his past. He convinces Doornik that if this indiscretion becomes public knowledge there will be no chance for God’s will to be done and the conclave will be forced to choose someone less controversial. Uriarte offers a solution for Doornik that could greatly compromise his position as a “prince of the Church.”

Kate is also in Rome, covering the papal election. Her interrogation by Kotovski makes her realize that Uriarte may be in danger of being discovered, so she attempts to visit him at his residence in Rome. Eventually she discovers his true motives, which could cause one of the greatest disasters in Church history. It would lessen the readers’ enjoyment of the book to learn the ending now, which combines triumph with defeat and relief with regret.

Read masterfully molds his characters and conversation to make what could be a preposterous tale quite believable. His characters argue on behalf of the essential goodness of humanity. Uriarte is not self-serving, but a slave to his conscience and full of hatred of suffering. His heroism is wonderful though warped. Doornik also possesses a warped sense of heroism, though on a smaller scale. He is willing to risk severe temporal and eternal consequences in an action that is, as Uriarte calls it, “the lesser of two evils.”

Though the uncanny manner in which everything works for Uriarte’s fast-paced plan is at times a bit unbelievable, it is no more unbelievable than some of the extraordinary terrorist events that take place in real life. The depth of Read’s characters furthers the believability of the plot and adds to the sympathy with which one relates to each of them.

This is not a story of beautiful, triumphant good versus blatant, base evil. The best qualities of a terrorist may far outshine the best qualities of a cardinal. Read treats such realities with verisimilitude, never glorifying evil or making good seem dull.

The Perennial Novelty of Jesus

By Stanley L. Jaki

Publisher: Real View Books

Pages: 89

Price: $6

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Fr. Jaki begins The Perennial Novelty of Jesus by remarking on the “growing effort to bury even the memory of Jesus” and noting that some Catholics, even cardinals, have gone along with it. Some Scripture scholars discard most of our Lord’s statements and deeds, yet the Gospels have a “realist character” that “born realists” savor. Jesus’ perennial novelty lies “on the level of ontological reality.” Among other things, Fr. Jaki notes, our Lord “directed events” so that His hour would come just when He could be the “paschal immolation” for an “infinite weight” of sin, at the very time when countless lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. To the end, He was “in full command of his wholly novel life story.” This novelty deserves to be studied, and indeed it “is the only study worth doing.”

There are three parts to this book. The first examines the Old Testament prophecies of Christ. One of these, the messianic Psalm 109, which our Lord repeatedly invoked, shows that though the Messiah was to be a descendant of David, He would be greater than David and enthroned at God’s right hand. In antiquity, however, these prophecies were not assembled into a coherent whole by interpreters, who were mainly concerned with the law.

In the second chapter, Fr. Jaki examines Jesus’ public life and declares that our Lord proposed the “greatest novelty” to the human race when He revealed the “fact” that “he had God for his Father in the strictest sense.” No one expected God to step into time, yet here He was, forever “fixed in the center of all history.” When He spoke of Abraham rejoicing “to see my day,” and when He said, “before Abraham came to be, I AM,” He made the boundaries of time vanish, and for the first time, “eternity, in which past and future coalesce into an ever fresh Now, appeared on the scene.” Novelty indeed!

In the same chapter, Fr. Jaki dwells lovingly on the concrete details that make our Gospels so real and credible, as when St. John remembers that it was at the tenth hour, or 4 PM, that John the Baptist pointed at Jesus and uttered the words, “This is the lamb of God” (1:35-39). Then there’s the concreteness of Jesus’ unparalleled miracles, to which He attached “inferential value,” and the “unearthly tone” of His parables on the Kingdom of God, not the same “old dreams about heaven on earth,” but teachings with a “seriousness” that “only the perspective of eternity can provide.” Fr. Jaki also shows our Savior’s predictions as unprecedented in their minute detail, as when He said that Peter would find a coin in the mouth of a fish, and that the two disciples sent to prepare the Passover would encounter a man and follow him to the house where they would hold the Passover meal — a detail recalled in each of the synoptics. Also, the “peace” Jesus promised was of a “most novel kind, unseen beforehand by the world,” a peace brought by the Holy Spirit and producing “perennial vigor” not just in the Apostles, but in a long line of saints, who would replay “the novelty which is Jesus.”

In the last chapter, Fr. Jaki speaks of the “unfading freshness” of the New Covenant. Jesus knew that “his purpose was wholly novel” — to liberate man from sin — and that only an infinitely holy man, who was also God, could do it. Thus, “an infinite holiness is the fulcrum of all events and considerations. This is the supreme logic of sound theology, whose chief business is to set forth the novelty of Jesus which does not fade as time goes on while man changes his perspectives, because he can never get out of his sinful skin.”

St. Athanasius and Pope St. Leo the Great summed up the effect of the Incarnation: not only men and women, but even little boys and girls willingly shed their blood to win eternal life. St. Irenaeus spoke of the true disciples of Christ as not just healing the sick and driving out devils, but also — the “greatest novelty” of all — living “in full chastity well into their old age.” St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, stood up to the Christian emperor Theodosius and reproached him for a massacre: He was one of a long line of bishops who would “forever be a novelty in history” for daring to say that “politics does not supersede morality.” Thus, despite attempts to wipe out the memory of Jesus, His saints continue to be “the deeds” that speak of His “perennial novelty.”

Fr. Jaki ends by reflecting on the image that appears on the Shroud of Turin. It is the “negative of an image that stuns, by its positive richness, all viewers, and especially those who ponder that nobody thought of negative images until the advent of photography.” Chance, that idol of the modernist, cannot explain this image that “radiates a perennial novelty.”

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