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November 3, 2001|
Saint Martin de Porres
Who is the priest whose faith obtained this supernatural healing from God?
«To be more Orthodox»
In 1878, the young State of Romania, created sixteen years earlier by the joining of Moldavia and Wallachia, succeeded in freeing itself from the yoke of the Ottomans, and became a kingdom. Jan Ghika was named ambassador to Paris, where he died in 1881. Princess Alexandrine then had her sons Vladimir and Demeter enrolled in school in Toulouse. As there was no Orthodox parish in this city, she entrusted them to a governess who took them to the Protestant church every Sunday. Disgusted by the coldness of reformed worship, Vladimir discovered, through his friends at school, the Catholic religion. He ardently desired to make his First Communion with them, but his mother was indignant: «Think of your ancestors! You, the descendant of Greek Orthodox princes, you want to become a traitor?» Much later, he would confide, «I waited sixteen years before deciding. The more I waited, the more my soul caught fire. Even at night, this call was within me!»
After concluding brilliant studies in Paris, Vladimir was stricken in 1895 with angina pectoris, and he had to give up on a career as a diplomat. In 1898, he joined his brother Demeter, named the Romanian ambassador to Italy. He would call the six years spent in Rome «a time when the Catholic faith took hold of my mind and heart.» He understood that Christian unity is not possible unless it is under the authority of the Pope, the Successor of Saint Peter. «No,» he thought, «I am not a renegade. I believe in this Catholic Church that my ancestors left without thinking of a split, without thinking of the treasure they were losing.» On April 13, 1902, he was officially received into the Catholic Church by Cardinal Mathieu, the Archbishop of Toulouse, who was passing through Rome. However, the Romanian newspapers condemned this step, accusing Prince Ghika of treason, «which,» he confessed, «distressed me greatly.» Later, to an Orthodox monk who asked him why he became Catholic, he simply answered, «To be more Orthodox!»
Wishing to give himself totally to God, Vladimir Ghika considered the priesthood, but he ran into opposition from his mother, who intervened in high places. Pope Saint Pius X himself advised the young man at that time to put off his decision out of regard for the princesshe could work as a lay man for the glory of God. Vladimir earned a doctorate in theology at the Dominican Minerva Institute in Rome, and pursued studies in Romanian political and religious history
The neighbor's liturgy
In 1913, Prince Ghika, with Sister Pucci, organized Saint Vincent Hospital, a lazaretto for cholera victims. On this occasion, he went out to meet the sick, in the neighboring regions of the Danube, accompanied by religious sisters, and made himself everything to everyone, at the constant risk of contracting the disease. In order to make possible a graft for an accident victim with a burned face and body, he went so far as to give his own skin: «He who casts off his skin for his neighbor will be clothed again with Christ; nothing makes God as close as our fellow man,» he loved to say. For Vladimir Ghika, taking care of the poor was not reduced to a simple philanthropy. When it is done for the love of God, it is a veritable act of religion which he called the «liturgy of the neighbor.» «In the great human family, such as Christ wants it, all of the sufferings of individuals (be they material, moral, or spiritual) can be, thanks to God, wiped out, eased or at least reduced by the generosity of others.»
Priest for the diocese of Paris
Ordained a priest by the Archbishop of Paris on October 7, 1923, Vladimir Ghika received the privilege of celebrating according to the two rites, Latin and Byzantine. On the back of the holy cards from his ordination was printed a prayer for the union of Orthodoxy with the Church of Rome, and for the conversion of Russia. Father Ghika did not go anywhere unnoticedvery thin, with a thoughtful expression, his long hair and long white beard flowing freely, he looked like an old man by the time he was 50. He was «a saint from a stained-glass window, a living icon,» said those who approached him. His Mass deeply moved those in attendance, for he seemed to relive in it the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross. Appointed the director of the Foreigners' Chapel, on Rue de Sèvres in Paris, he was consumed with a boundless zeal. For him, «every need we meet upon our way is a visit from God.» His plan? «To go seek out those who haven't dared to expect it. To give to him who asks not of you, to love him who pushes you away.» In confession, he was the instrument of numerous conversions, including those of Satan worshippers and occultists. His ministry left him overwhelmed by the ugliness of sin, but amazed at the power of Christ's merciful grace.
From the Auberive dungeon to the Villejuif shack
However, the experiment at Auberive failed, for the living conditions there were too difficult. What's more, the founder, whose health made stays in a sanatorium necessary, was not able to breathe a lasting impulse into the community. It dissolved in 1931, and its members went on to bring to fruition in other religious institutes the graces received in Auberive. Saddened by this setback, Father Ghika nevertheless did not lose courage. He wrote, «It is by no means how much you have done that matters, but the manner in which you have done it; it's not what happens, but the manner in which you receive it.»
In the meantime, he had devoted himself to a new project: living as a missionary in the most deprived Parisian suburb, where the «absence of God» was the most tragic. In 1927, he had found a piece of land in Villejuif, in a shantytown populated by ragpickers. The nearest church was two kilometers away. He built an unheated wooden shack there, nine meters by three, which served as his chapel. His move was all settled, but Father Ghika confided to one of his fellow workers: «I feel terribly down.» Not without suffering insults and mistreatment, he little by little gained the confidence of the population, beginning with the children, not hiding his identity or his apostolic goal in any way: «We bring the Good News. There must not be the least doubt as to this.»
Near the shack lived a fiercely anticlerical anarchist, who was seriously ill at that time. His wife was a chair upholsterer. Looking for a pretext so as to approach her, Father Ghika found among one of his friends a chair to be upholstered, and he introduced himself to his neighbors. Seeing him, the anarchist erupted in a torrent of insults against «the priests.» Father Ghika listened to him tranquilly and, when his insulter had finished, placed his hand in a friendly gesture on the anarchist's shoulder. «Don't touch me,» shrieked the anarchist. «If someone saw us, they might think...»«That what?»«That we're friends!»«Better than thatwe are brothers,» and the priest left, leaving his listener flabbergasted. He returned several times to inquire about his chair... and to chat with his anarchist, whom he softened little by little, and whom a Sister of the Assumption discreetly came to look after. Some time later, the sick man called for Father Ghika and asked him to administer last rites.
Everything to everyone
His apostolate was equally carried out towards the Greek Orthodox clergy, whom, by means of conferences, he instructed in Catholicism, particularly in the Romanian Greek-Catholic Church, born in 1698 by an act of union between the Transylvanian Orthodox Church and Rome. On March 23, 1991, Pope John Paul II described this union as «a happy and blessed event.» The Greek-Catholic Church retains the liturgy of the Greek rite celebrated in Romanian. In 1948, before the Communist persecution, it included six bishops, 1,700 priests, 2,500 churches and more than a million and a half faithful. Today it is experiencing a veritable renaissance.
Under the red star
Evicted from his home, which was ransacked, then from Saint Vincent de Paul Hospital, Monsignor Ghika took shelter in an attic and continued his apostolate, comforting, converting, baptizing, in spite of close surveillance by the police. He received many Orthodox into the Catholic Church, while Catholic bishops and priests were arrested one after the other. He likewise baptized many Jews. However, he ate little and his health deteriorated appreciably. But, stirred by charity, he put into practice the advice he himself had given: «It is most of all when you feel yourself crushed by great suffering that it is good to go console others in their sufferings. To give oneself, in times like these, when you are no longer anything, when there is no longer anything inside you, is truly to give a little of God... and to find Him.»
«I believe in Your goodnessmore than in what has made me suffer»
In his Conversation on Suffering, he had written, «One suffers in proportion to one's love. The power we have to suffer is the same as the power we have to love. But God watches over His children at night. He is the great watchman of all nights, nights of the flesh, of the intelligence, of the heart, nights of evil whose shadows descend at all hours upon suffering humanity. Who can say with what love He watches over us? This love has a name and quality. It is infinite love.»
Faithful to divine preferenceseven unto martyrdom
The absence of breathable air in the overpopulated cell, the lack of basic hygiene and food, and the terrible cold of the winter of 1953-54 depleted his strength, though not his courage. In January 1954, prisoner Ghika was classified incapable of work and transferred to the infirmary, where he slowly faded away in a state of constant prayer. He was heard to say, «Lord, do not abandon me. I embrace Your Love to triumph over the hate of my enemies...» He offered his life for the Church and for Romania. On May 17, he went to his final rest in the Lord. «Our death,» he had written, «should be the greatest act of our lives. But God may be the only one who witnesses it...»
Monsignor Ghika's process of beatification is in progress. The prince will bewe hopesoon elevated to the glory of the altars, along with Romanian Catholic bishops in office in 1945 who all died in prison or in exile without denying their faith.
During his trip to Romania, May 8, 1999, Pope John Paul II celebrated a Mass in the Byzantine-Romanian rite. In his homily, he stated, «I am here to honor you, sons of the Greek-Catholic Church who, over the course of three centuries, testify, at the cost of even unimaginable sacrifices, to your faith in Unity. I come to you to express to you the gratitude of the Catholic Church... You have given witness to the truth which sets free... I have just come from the Catholic cemetery in this city. I have appealed to your martyrs both known and unknown, who intercede for you before our Father who is in Heaven.» Henceforth, for all these martyrs, there are neither walls nor heavy doors. They rejoice forever in the perfect and sure freedom brought by the vision of God face to face. May they intercede for us, so that we might be worthy of attaining, as they did, this unending happiness.