In 1948 as a 24-year-old up and coming academic Tertullian Langa was told to join the communist run union or lose his job. Renouncing his university career, he went to work on a farm. Known as a committed Greek Catholic (in union with Rome since the eighteenth century) he was hunted down and arrested in Blaj at the office of Bishop Ioan Suciu – who was later martyred.
After the fall of Ceaucescu I had the privilege of meeting the late Cardinal Todea, then head of the Romanian Catholic Church. Neither he nor any of the Romanian Catholic bishops collaborated with the communists. Cardinal Todea spent years on the run – often hiding in barns and hay wricks -, and years in prison. The Greek Catholic church was outlawed and the hierarchy liquidated. Most, like Bishop Suciu were executed.
Tertullian Langa’s fate was prison. For two weeks he was beaten with a rod on the soles of his feet, suffering excruciating pain. When he still refused to provide information against the church, a wolf hound was brought to the cell and set upon him, badly mauling him. Later, he was beaten on the head, rhythmically, with a bag of sand: “After approximately twenty blows, I began to apply the moral principle ‘age contra’, do the opposite, saying to myself at each blow: “I will not speak.”
He was moved to another prison, twenty five feet below the marshes of Jilava, where “men were packed like sardines – not in oil, but in their own juices, made of seat, urine and the water that seeped in, that tricked ceaselessly down the walls.” Sixty men fought for space and air, and humiliation was piled upon humiliation.
In his moving account, Father Langa (for he would later be ordained) said of the inmates, “We were animated by a people’s mysterious will to remain in history, and by the vocation of the Church to stay alive…When the sun abandoned me, I felt yet that I had not been abandoned by Grace.” Redolent of Solzhenitsyn’s writings from his Soviet gulag, Tertullian Langa’s story, challenges each of us to take more seriously the continuing suffering of the church in many parts of the world. His story is replicated in China , North Korea and Vietnam today.
"But the Heaven Above Us Is Greater"
by Tertulian Ioan Langa
My name is Tertulian Langa, and eighty-two are the years of my life that I will not see again. Of these, sixteen were bestowed upon the communist prisons.
At the age of twenty-four, in 1946, I was a young assistant in the faculty of philosophy at the University of Bucharest. The Russian troops had occupied almost a third of Romania, and it was intimated to me, as a member of the faculty, that I should urgently become a member of the teachers´ union manipulated by the communist party thrust into power by the armor-clad Soviets.
I was already aware of the firm stance of the Catholic Church´s magisterium against communism, which it defined as inherently evil. So there was no place in my conscience for compromise. I renounced my university career and retreated to the countryside as a farm worker, but that was not sufficient, because I was already known among the faculty as a militant Catholic and anti-communist. An accusatory dossier was quickly improvised against me, and as the accusations were founded on circumstances not yet criminalized by the penal code (relationships with bishops and with the nunciature, lay apostolate), my dossier was grouped with those of the big industrialists. After interrogations accompanied by atrocious treatment, the procurator declared, with perfect communist logic: "There is no proof of the guilt of the accused in his dossier, but we nonetheless ask for the maximum penalty: fifteen years of forced labor. After all, if he were not guilty, he would not be here." I objected: "But it´s not possible for you to condemn me without proof!" And he: "It´s not possible? Here's how it´s possible: twenty years of forced labor for having protested against the justice of the people." And this was the sentence.
This happened before the Greek-Catholic Church of Romania had been outlawed. It was taken for granted that my arrest, and the tortures applied to me, would succeed in transforming me into an instrument for the future incrimination of bishops and priests of the Greek-Catholic Church and of the Vatican nunciature.
I will recount just a few of the moments from my interrogation and my imprisonment in the communist extermination camps.
I was arrested at Blaj, in the office of bishop Ioan Suciu, the apostolic administrator of the Greek-Catholic metropolitan see of Romania, and a future martyr. I had presented myself to him, the head of our Church, to ask for the enlightenment of Holy Providence, because my spiritual father, bishop Vladimir Ghika, another future martyr, had gone into hiding. Someone had offered me the possibility of leaving the country. As this was an important step, I did not want to take it without determining if it were the will of God. And the answer came: my arrest. I understood that I was to spend my life in the prisons created by the communist regime, but I was serene: I was following the path of Holy Providence.
THE IRON ROD
I remember Holy Thursday of 1948. For two weeks, every day, they had beaten me with a rod on the soles of my feet, through my shoes: it seemed that lightning coursed through my spine and exploded in my brain. But they didn´t ask me any questions. They were getting me ready, using the rod to soften me up for the interrogation. I was bound hand and foot and hung upside down, and my jailers stuffed into my mouth a sock that had already been long employed in the shoes and the mouths of other beneficiaries of socialist humanism. The sock had become the noise-reducer that prevented the sound from passing beyond the place of interrogation. But it was practically impossible to emit a single moan. Moreover, I had frozen psychologically: I was no longer capable of crying out or moving. My torturers interpreted this behavior as fanaticism on my part. And they continued with increasing fury, taking turns in torturing me. Night after night, day after day. They didn´t ask me anything, because they weren´t interested in answers, but in annihilating a person, something that was delayed in coming. And as the effort to annihilate my will and overshadow my mind was prolonged, so was the torture indefinitely prolonged. The battered shoes fell from my feet, piece by piece.
That Holy Thursday night, in a nearby church, they were celebrating the liturgical office, accompanied by bells that wept as if frightened. I started. Jesus must have heard my suffocated cry when, how I don´t know, I howled from within that hell: "Jesus! Jesus!" Coming out through the sock, my cry was incomprehensible to the jailers. As it was the first sound they had heard from me, they said they were satisfied, sure of having broken me. They dragged me on a blanket to the cell, where I fainted. When I awoke, the inquisitor was standing before me with a ream of paper in his hand. "You´ve been stubborn, criminal, but you´re not getting out of here until you´ve brought out everything you´re hiding inside. You have five hundred sheets of paper. Write about everything in your life: everything about your mother, your father, your sisters, brothers, in-laws, relatives, friends, acquaintances, bishops, priests, religious, politicians, professors, neighbors, and criminals like you. Don´t stop until you´ve finished the paper." But I didn´t write anything. Not out of some kind of fanaticism, but because I didn´t have the strength: even my mind seemed empty.
After four days, the same individual: "Have you finished writing?" Seeing that the paper hadn´t been touched, he said, "If that´s how things are, strip! I want to see you like Adam in paradise." Days went by like this, days of bare skin on pavement, a comfort typical of humane socialism. Another individual appeared at the door after a while: "Let´s see, what do we have on the paper? Nothing? Still stubborn! You´ll see that we have other methods." Then he left. He returned with an enormous wolfhound, with its threatening fangs bared. "See her? She´s Diana, the heroic dog your criminal friends shot at in the mountains. She´ll teach you what you have to do. Start running!" And I: "What do you mean, run? In a room nine feet long?" In the room there was also a three-hundred watt bulb, too bright for a nine-by-six room, and fixed not on the ceiling, but on the wall, at eye level. "Run!" The wolf, growling, was ready to attack. I ran for six or seven hours, but I realized it only near dawn, seeing the light begin to creep into the cell and hearing movement in the building. Occasionally the man let the wolf out to take care of her needs. This was not allowed to me. When I began to lose my balance and showed signs of stopping, the vigilant wolf, as if by command, sank her teeth into my shoulder, neck, and arm.
I ran under her eyes and her fangs for thirty-nine hours without interruption. At the end I collapsed, and the wolf pounced upon me. She bit my neck, but without strangling me. Then I felt something hot and stinging on my forehead and in my eyes, and I understood that the beast was urinating on my face. And it is from the words of my butchers that I understood that I had run for thirty-nine hours. "We could send this one to the Rio marathon! What endurance, the fascist pig!" But seeing that not even the marathon had succeeded in convincing me to make a declaration on the bishops and the nunciature, or on some friend they were seeking, they thought it useful to pass to another form of persuasion: the bag of sand.
THE BAG OF SAND
The next day, in an office, they bound me hand and foot before a table with a small sack on it. Behind me there was a pale and speechless jailer. At a desk in the corner their was a bald man with a goatee, clearly trying to look like Lenin. He was also speechless, but made a sign by moving his head. My tormenter understood the command. He took the bag and beat me rhythmically on the head with it, accompanying each blow with the word: "Speak!" Dozens, hundreds of times; I don´t know, perhaps thousands: "Speak!". But no one asked me anything. There was only that cavernous, monotonous voice pounding into my brain the imperative to talk, to respond to any question put to my conscience by the inquisitor. It wasn´t hard for me to decipher the satanic idea of wanting to overmaster my will. After approximately twenty blows, I began to apply the moral principle "age contra," do the opposite, saying to myself at each blow: "I will not speak!" Dozens of times, hundreds of times. Through autosuggestion I had implanted within myself the response "I will not speak!", with the risk of becoming a slave to that way of expressing myself. And that´s what happened: from that time on, I responded automatically to any question put to me on any subject: "I will not speak!" It took me an entire year of mental effort to free myself from this sinister reflex.
As a subject devoid of value and interest to the interrogators, I was transferred to the prison twenty-five feet beneath the marshy ground of Jilava, constructed for the defense of the capital but unusable on account of serious water damage. Nothing survived there except for man, the greatest treasure of historical materialism. In the cells of Jilava, the poor men were packed like sardines - not in oil, but in their own juices, made of sweat, urine, and the water that seeped in, which trickled ceaselessly down the walls. The space was utilized in the most scientific way possible: a patch of six feet by one foot for each person, lying on his side on the ground. The oldest lay on wooden tables, without sheets or blankets. Their thigh bones and the outside of their knees and calves lay along the wood. We lay on the edges of our bones in order to occupy minimal space. Our hands could rest only upon the ankle or shoulder of a neighbor. We couldn´t endure this for more than half an hour; then everyone, at a command, turned onto the other side, because this would have been impossible to do separately. The stack of bodies arranged this way was in two levels, as in bunk beds. But beneath this there was a third level, where the detainees lay upon the bare cement. On the cement, the condensed vapor of the breath of sixty men, together with the water that seeped in and the urine that seeped out of the latrine, formed a viscous mixture in which the unfortunate basted. At the center of the cell-tomb was enthroned a metal container holding about fifteen to twenty gallons, for the urine and feces of sixty men. It had no cover, and the smell and the liquid flowed from it abundantly. To reach it, one had to pass through the "filter," a severe inspection applied to the bare skin, an inspection during which the entire body and all of its orifices were examined.
They scraped our mouths, the area under our tongues, and our gums with a wooden baton, in case we criminals had hidden something there. The same baton penetrated nostrils, ears, anus, beneath the testicles; always the same baton, rigorously the same for all, as a sign of egalitarianism. The windows of Jilava were made not to give light, but to obstruct it, as they were all completely sealed by wooden planks fastened with nails. The lack of air was such that in order to breathe we went to the door in shifts, three at a time, belly up, with our mouths against the gap beneath the door, a position in which we counted sixty breaths, after which the other inmates would come to recover from fainting and from the lack of oxygen.
Thus we contributed, in our way, to the construction of the most humane system in the world. Did Churchill and Roosevelt know these things when, with a stroke of the pen at Tehran´s shameful table, they established that we Romanians should be ground by the jaws of the red Moloch of the East, that we should be made the cord to secure their comfort? And could the Holy See have had any idea of this?
NAKED IN THE COLD
From Jilava, after long years of the profanation of our humanity, we were transferred, with leg chains, to the prison of maximum isolation, called Zarka, the pavilion of terror of the prison of Aiud. The welcome followed the same sinister, diabolical ritual of the profanation of man, created by the love of God. Here was the same scraping and probing, the same heavy boots that sank into our ribs, stomachs, and kidneys. In spite of this, we noticed a difference: we were no longer subjected to the regime of preservation in urine, sweat, condensation, and lack of oxygen, but were subjected to an intensive treatment of oxygenation with bare skin and in the cold, criminal after criminal (meaning ministers, generals, university professors, scientists, poets), including me, who was nothing but a great "I will not speak!", a firm and humble trust in the Grace that would make me stand the test.
We all had to disappear, being enemies of the people. If not, how could the much-vaunted "New Soviet Man" have come forth? The cell into which I was placed contained nothing: no bed, blanket, sheet, pillow, table, chair, or mat - not even a window. There were only the iron bars, and I, like all the others, was alone in the cell. I wondered at myself, dressed only in my skin and blanketed by the cold.
It was the end of November. The cold became ever more penetrating, like an unpleasant cellmate. After about three days, the door was slammed open and they threw to me a ragged pair of pants, a short-sleeved shirt, underwear, a striped uniform, and a pair of worn out shoes with no laces, and no socks. There was nothing to cover my head. They also gave me a sort of latrine, a miserable container of about a gallon. I dressed myself hastily. On the fourth day, they counted the freezing inmates. They gave me a number in place of my name: K-1700, the year in which the Church of Transylvania united with Rome. In the public registry, I was already dead. I survived only as a number, a statistic. Then came the broth, four and a half ounces ladled out: it was a thin liquid made by boiling corn flour. For lunch they distributed to us a bean soup, in which I could count eight or nine full kernels. There were many empty husks. For supper, they brought us tea with a crust of burnt bread. After a week, they substituted for the beans a porridge of bran, in which I counted fourteen whole grains. From time to time they alternated the beans with the bran porridge. We lived on less than is given to a hen.
WALK OR DIE
To survive the cold, we had to move constantly, to do gymnastics. As soon as we fell down, overthrown by weariness and hunger, we plunged into sleep, but a very short sleep, as it was bitterly cold. A voice from the other side of the wall woke me one day from such a sleep: "I´m professor Tomescu, the former health minister. Who are you?" When he heard my name, he said: "I´ve heard about you. Listen to me carefully: we have been brought here to be exterminated. We will never collaborate with them. But whoever doesn´t walk, dies, and becomes a collaborator. Tell the others: whoever stops, dies. Walk without stopping!" The pavilion, immersed in the dismal silence of death, echoed with the sounds of our unlaced shoes. We were animated by a people´s mysterious will to remain in history, and by the vocation of the Church to stay alive. We stopped working only at about 12:30, for a half an hour, when the scant sunlight lingered for us in a corner of the room. There, hunched down with the sun on my face, I stole a bit of sleep and a ray of hope. When the sun abandoned me, I felt yet that I had not been abandoned by Grace.
I knew I had to survive. I walked, repeating to myself like a refrain, spelling out: "I don´t want to die! I don´t want to die!" And I didn´t die! With each step, I mentally recited prayers, composed litanies, recited psalms.
We continued walking this way, so as not to stumble into death, for seventeen weeks. Anyone who lost the strength or the will to move, died. Of the eighty men who entered Zarka, only thirty survived. The iron bars, little by little, put on coats of frost, formed from the exhalations of our living breath, a dazzling traveler´s garment for the road to heaven.
BUT ALL IS GRACE
I believed strongly, many times, that I had come to the very edge of darkness. But I still had a long way to go. Having arrived, years later, in what I imagined must be freedom, I realized that it was in reality nothing more than another way of living in darkness, that the coldness between the Greek-Catholic Church and the hierarchy of its Orthodox sister Church still would not thaw; that our churches continued to be confiscated, and our flock continued to dwindle, killed off by promises. But Christ the Lord also gained the victory only when he could pronounce, with his last breath, "Consummatum est"; it is finished.
I have not written very much about my dramatic experiences. Who can believe what seems unbelievable? Who can believe that the will can overcome the laws of nature? And what if I were to recount the miracles I have experienced? Wouldn´t they be considered mere fantasy? It would be harder for me to bear this disbelief than to undergo more years of imprisonment. But Jesus was not believed, either, by everyone who saw him: "After this, many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him" (Jn. 6:66).
Nothing in life happens by chance. Every moment the Lord gives us is fraught with Grace - the benevolent impatience of God - and with our will to respond to it or refuse it. It is up to each one of us not to reduce everything to a hard, fierce, unbelievable tale, but to understand that the acceptance of Grace does not hinder man, but carries him beyond his expectations and powers. I sincerely hope that this testimony will open a window into Heaven. Because it is greater, the Heaven above us, than the earth beneath our feet.
FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD (PARTS 3 & 4 OUT OF 14)
A commentary on Fr Alexander Schmemann's book on the Sacraments