Ro­ma­nia: A big cathe­dral, a big bill and a big de­bate

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Religion - KIT GILLET

BUCHAREST, Ro­ma­nia — Long past mid­night, lines of wor­ship­pers snake through the cen­tral hall of the Peo­ple’s Sal­va­tion Cathe­dral, in the heart of the Ro­ma­nian cap­i­tal.

The build­ing — set to be­come the tallest Ortho­dox church in the world when fin­ished in 2024 — is miss­ing its largest dome, and the in­te­rior lacks the lav­ish iconog­ra­phy that Ortho­dox churches are known for.

But even in its un­fin­ished state, the new cathe­dral is al­ready be­ing seen as an im­por­tant sym­bol for Ro­ma­nia.

“Be­ing the na­tional cathe­dral, it is a big build­ing, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive one,” said Ionut Mavrichi, a Ro­ma­nian Ortho­dox church spokesman and dea­con, de­scrib­ing the con­struc­tion as a “soul pro­ject.”

The cathe­dral will even­tu­ally reach a height of nearly 400 feet.

“It has to be mon­u­men­tal,” Mavrichi said.

About 85 per­cent of the coun­try’s 20 mil­lion peo­ple are Ortho­dox Chris­tian, and pro­pos­als for a na­tional cathe­dral were first put for­ward in the late 1800s.

But the tur­bu­lence of the 20th cen­tury, with two world wars and then decades of com­mu­nist rule, ef­fec­tively blocked any real ef­forts. In the end, it was not un­til 2010 that con­struc­tion be­gan.

Church of­fi­cials say more than 50,000 peo­ple at­tended the con­se­cra­tion Mass on Nov. 25, days be­fore the 100th an­niver­sary of the cre­ation of mod­ern-day Ro­ma­nia. Many in the crowd watched the cer­e­mony on screens placed out­side the build­ing for the oc­ca­sion.

In the week af­ter the con­se­cra­tion, the cathe­dral was open around the clock, with tens of thou­sands stand­ing in line to visit.

On Nov. 28, with Ortho­dox hymns re­ver­ber­at­ing in the back­ground, Dra­gos, a 24-year-old univer­sity stu­dent, waited hours in the cold for an op­por­tu­nity to go in­side.

“This is our na­tional cathe­dral — it’s very im­por­tant,” he said. “The Ortho­dox church con­trib­utes mas­sively to the for­ma­tion of our cul­ture.”

Yet the cathe­dral has also come in for crit­i­cism, mostly over how much the state has spent to help build it. Of the $125 mil­lion spent so far, three-quar­ters has come from tax­pay­ers, in a coun­try where hospi­tals, roads and ed­u­ca­tion are des­per­ately un­der­funded.

In the months lead­ing up to the con­se­cra­tion, the con­tro­versy over how the cathe­dral was be­ing paid for only grew.

In Au­gust, when the gov­ern­ment was an­nounc­ing bud­get cuts — in­clud­ing a $30 mil­lion re­duc­tion to the Min­istry of Re­search — it gave the church an ad­di­tional $28 mil­lion for the cathe­dral.

And as re­cently as last month, Bucharest City Hall an­nounced plans to al­lo­cate a fur­ther $2.45 mil­lion to the build­ing work, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously cut­ting an al­most iden­ti­cal sum set aside for the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of the city’s cen­tral heat­ing dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem and the agency that runs its hospi­tals.

“The prob­lem is that there is ab­so­lutely no trans­parency on how the funds were given to the church,” said Claudiu Tu­fis, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Bucharest.

Part of the prob­lem may be bad op­tics.

“Ev­ery time you heard the same story: that the gov­ern­ment is giv­ing mil­lions to the church and at the same meet­ing they are cut­ting mil­lions from re­search and ed­u­ca­tion — it doesn’t look good,” Tu­fis said.

“It’s an is­sue of pri­or­ity, and the gov­ern­ment hasn’t ex­pressed why the cathe­dral is a pri­or­ity,” he said.

The cathe­dral’s lo­ca­tion in cen­tral Bucharest — next to the Palace of the Par­lia­ment, a vain­glo­ri­ous com­mis­sion by dic­ta­tor Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu and a re­minder of some of the grim­mer days of com­mu­nist rule — has also raised eye­brows.

The palace, con­sid­ered the sec­ond-largest ad­min­is­tra­tive build­ing in the world, is now home to Ro­ma­nia’s Par­lia­ment. The new cathe­dral tow­ers over the older struc­ture, and crit­ics say that over­shad­ow­ing points to the po­si­tion the church be­lieves it should oc­cupy in the coun­try.

The church con­tin­ues to play a strong role in Ro­ma­nia, but there are signs that its in­flu­ence is wan­ing. In Oc­to­ber, for ex­am­ple, a ref­er­en­dum cham­pi­oned by the church that would have nar­rowed the con­sti­tu­tional def­i­ni­tion of a fam­ily — to be­ing be­tween a man and a woman — failed af­ter Ro­ma­ni­ans largely boy­cotted the vote.

Still, for many Ro­ma­ni­ans, the cathe­dral is a pow­er­ful sym­bol of their faith.

“I think hav­ing this na­tional cathe­dral is im­por­tant for the coun­try,” said Radu Grig­orescu, 25, a soft­ware pro­gram­mer stand­ing in line to en­ter the build­ing. “When you say the Church of Eng­land, you think West­min­ster Abbey. Spain, you think Sagrada Fa­milia. St. Peter’s in Rome. It’s im­por­tant for Ro­ma­nia to also have a build­ing like this.”

The cost of the con­struc­tion does not trou­ble him.

“There has been a lot of money spent on it, but if you ask me, there are big in­ef­fi­cien­cies and cor­rup­tion in Ro­ma­nia,” Grig­orescu said. “In com­par­i­son to that, the money spent on this im­por­tant cathe­dral is pocket change.”

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