The Saint of the Prisons - Notes on the life of Valeriu Gafencu

“Therefore Also Among the Romanians Are Many Saints…”

The Romanian people – situated, according to historical chronicles, “in the path of all evils” – were destined to pass through many trials. The latest was the worst: the Communist steamroller. This demonic ideology, nothing other than the religion of Satan on earth, as someone who passed through Communist prisons called it, claimed hundreds of thousands of victims among us. It did not succeed, however, in breaking those who, not wanting to lose their souls held steadfast with all their being to Christ. Enduring horrible suffering and finally dying at the hands of Communists, they acquired the crown of sainthood.

“Communism filled heaven with saints,” said Father Arsenie Papacioc.[1] If one could somehow come to know all those of our people who passed the threshold of sainthood during the Communist persecution, he would also understand the words spoken in the 17th century by the holy Metropolitan Dosoftei of Moldavia: “Therefore also among the Romanians are many saints…. but no one has sought them out.”[2]

The words of the holy metropolitan have been confirmed in our days. In general, too little is known about the spiritual life of confessors in Communist prisons and the various types of such confessors. It is true that until the collapse of Communism it was impossible to uncover anything, while after the collapse in 1990 testimonies of the survivors were not always available to those who were interested. But beyond these objective reasons, the almost complete ignorance of the spiritual life of these prisoners – a period full of significance for our Romanian Orthodoxy – has a much deeper root: the lack of interest among Romanians themselves regarding testimonies about their own past. Apparently, we seek more readily and with more zeal what happened in other lands than to search for testimonies of sainthood in our own land. It would seem that in this Romanian vice can be found the cause of the holy metropolitan’s observation, “… no one has sought them out”.

Nevertheless, it would be of no small benefit to anyone to devote oneself to reading testimonies of those who passed through these prisons. In them, one would find such valuables which can rightly be compared to those found in a Paterikon or in the lives of the saints.

Among the many portraits of the confessors, one will be found in particular that is recalled with reverence by all and is considered a saint: Valeriu Gafencu. Nicknamed “the saint of the prisons”[3] by Father Nicolae Steinhardt in a truly inspired moment, Valeriu Gafencu was one of the more impressive figures who lived an admirable spiritual life amidst prison conditions. Through his sacrificial love springing from a perfect dedication of his life to Christ, he remains painted in the most luminous of colors in the hearts of those who knew him. Father Gheorghe Calciu[4] wrote, “I have no doubt that he is a saint. He lived the word of God to such a level that it was incomprehensible for us.”[5] Another companion in suffering, Father Constantin Voicescu, is convinced that “Sooner or later, the Orthodox Church will canonize him.”[6]

Although Valeriu Gafencu is often mentioned in testimonies of those who passed through the Communist prisons, articles about him have been published, a documentary has been shown on national television, all of these serving to make him the most publicized of all those who passed through these prisons, his life is nevertheless still too little known among the ranks of the faithful.[7]

Using everything that has been published thus far and including some as-yet unpublished testimonies, we will now put before the reader fragments collected about the life, manner of living, and thinking of this twentieth-century saint.

We will begin by saying a few words about his family and his life before he was arrested. We will then go on to testimonies from the time period of his imprisonment at Aiud (1942 – 1948). Here, Valeriu and a few other prisoners gathered around the lawyers Traian Trifan and Traian Marian. This group, which included the then-young Anghel Papacioc, who is today’s Archimandrite Arsenie, had as its main concern Christian living in a philocalic spirit. The spiritual atmosphere of Aiud played an important role in Valeriu’s spiritual formation. It was here that he experienced a moment of illumination and succeeded, through the grace of God, to see his own sins. The work of repentance that began at that time gave rise to a state of spiritual joy that would accompany him through all of his trials. After Aiud came the prison at Piteşti (1948 – 1949), then a few months at Văcăreşti, and finally the convalescent prison at Târgu-Ocna (1950 – 1952).

Confined to bed rest at Târgu-Ocna in an advanced stage of tuberculosis, Valeriu was the haven where his prison mates found comfort and drew their strength. Through his faith and influence many things were made possible. Several atheistic prisoners returned to God, so-called re-education-through-torture attempts were thwarted, bonds of special brotherly love among prisoners were forged, a spirit of sacrifice for the sake of the more seriously ill was promulgated. His grace-filled presence created a spiritual atmosphere unique in the history of the Communist gulag. A former prisoner is known to have said, “I miss Târgu-Ocna so much!”.

Knowing beforehand the day of his passing to the Lord, Valeriu was found at the moment of death in such a state of grace, that his friend Ioan Ianolide, who was beside him at the time of his passing, later testified, “In eternity I could not wish to be in a more exalted state, for then [at the moment of Valeriu’s passing] I was totally, completely happy.”[8]

Fragments from letters sent to his family, a few poems, a guide to confession drawn up in prison, testimonies regarding miracles that occurred in his presence, his thoughts about the meaning of Christianity today, and an explanation of some aspects of his past as a Legionnaire will complete, like a mosaic, the holy portrait of the confessor of Christ, the martyr Valeriu Gafencu. All these things, however, are only humble signs of a spiritual life that cannot be expressed in words, especially since, as one of his companions in suffering has said, “It’s difficult to imagine and impossible to convey in words what Valeriu experienced throughout his years of detention and what he did during this time for every soul that came into contact with him.”[9]

“A man, as well as a people, has value to the degree to which he has understood the Gospel and can follow the teaching of Christ”,[10] said the scholar Simion Mehedinţi. Men like Valeriu Gafencu and other confessors of the prisons through whom the Holy Spirit worked with power, men worthy of high regard, await their place in the calendar, being the surest models of Christianity for us in these times dominated by confusion. Their lives deserve to be made known not for earthly glory, but “so that people living in these times, darkened by so much stray wandering, a result of estrangement from God, will know that such chosen ones existed in the twentieth century, men who raised themselves to the same level of faith and sacrifice as that of the early Christian martyrs.”[11]

[1] Father Arsenie Papacioc (1914- ): a Romanian Orthodox priest who was imprisoned for 14 years during the Communist regime, Father Papacioc is a well-known author and spiritual advisor in Romania. Residing until recently at the Techirghiol monastery near Constanţa, he has now retired into seclusion. (Translator’s note)
[2] Archimandrite Ioanichie Bălan, Patericul Românesc (Romanian Paterikon), Ed. Episcopiei Romanului, 2001, pg. 224.

[3] Many others in addition to Gafencu sanctified their lives in prison and deserve this exalted nickname. Father Nicolae Steinhardt mentions him as “one of the saints of the prisons.” (Jurnalul fericirii, Ed. Dacia, Cluj-Napoca, 1992, pg. 133)

[4] Father Gheorghe Calciu (1925-2006): a Romanian Orthodox priest imprisoned by the Communist regime; underwent the “re-education” experiment at Piteşti. In large part due to pressure from the Reagan administration, he was released in 1985 and lived in the United States for twenty years. (Translator’s note)

[5] Testimony of Father Calciu regarding Valeriu Gafencu given in October 2005 to the monk Moise.

[6] Părintele Voicescu – Un duhovnic al cetăţii (Father Voicescu – Spiritual Father of the Fortress), edited by Ioana Iancovescu, Ed. Bizantină, Bucharest, pg. 28.

In 1992, former political prisoners began a campaign to gather testimony about Valeriu Gafencu which would be forwarded to the Commission for Canonization of the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church. After the death of Alexandru Virgil Ioanid, who initiated the campaign, collected testimonies languished on the shelves of the Association of Former Political Prisoners of Romania (AFDPR). They have since been claimed by Father Nicolae Trifoiu and await publication together with letters Valeriu wrote home while imprisoned. (Nicolae Trifoiu, Studentul Valeriu Gafencu – Sfântul închisorilor din Romania, Ed. Napoca Star, Cluj-Napoca, 2003)

[7] This wave of ignorance was at least partially alleviated by the publication of the testimony of Ioan Ianolide, Întoarcerea la Hristos (Return to Christ), the richest source of information about Valeriu Gafencu.

[8] Ioan Ianolide, op cit., pg. 189.

[9] Virgil Maxim, Imn pentru crucea purtată (Hymn For the Born Cross), Ed. Antim, Bucharest, 2002, pg. 185.

[10] Simion Mehedinţi, motto of Creştinismul Românesc (Romanian Christianity), Fundaţia Anastasia, Bucharest, 1995.

[11] Nicolae Trifoiu, op cit., pg. 130.


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