Valeriu Gafencu was born on the 24th of December 1921, in the northern part of Romania, near the Russian border of that time. His parents were both active Orthodox Christians. His father was to be deported to Siberia by the Russians in 1940 for his pro-Romanian activity. When he was in high school, Valeriu joined an Orthodox youth organization called the Cross Brotherhood, and, when this became illegal during the second World War, he was arrested and condemned to 25 years of hard labor. He was only 20 and, at his trial, his fellow students and teachers would come and defend him, pointing out his innocence and wonderful human qualities. At first he was sent to a prison called Aiud.
The first years were a time to reflect upon his Christian legacy. He would soon become engaged in a life of prayer, while avidly reading the Fathers of the Church. During the war, although Romania had a dictatorial regime, prison life was not so strict and some fundamental human rights were still considered: the prisoners could go to the prison's church, confess to a priest, receive Holy Communion, and also meet with each other and read books of their own choice. So Valeriu read a lot: the Holy Bible, the first 4 volumes of the Philokalia (which were then just being translated into Romanian by another holy figure of the church, Father Dumitru Stăniloae, and who would also encounter the communist prisons some years
later) and other Church Fathers.
During the time of the war a lot of priests and monks were arrested for various political reasons (and many more would follow under the communist regime) and the prisoners who wanted to live a religious life had plenty of people to turn to for guidance. Under their guidance, Valeriu thought a lot about salvation in his first years. In a letter from 1942 he says: "In life, faith is everything. Without it a man is like dead." He tried to live among his fellow prisoners in humility and practice Christian charity.
As he was pursued by the idea of sin, he wanted to enter a monastery when he would be liberated. He would confess often and also pray a lot in his cell. With a group of other dedicated prisoners he made a prayer schedule that would go along uninterrupted day and night. They prayed together, as if in a church, and also separately in their cells.
By his deep Orthodox feeling, kindness and rich life of prayer he managed to influence a huge number of people, many of which he never met, but knew him from stories that were on everybody's lips even before he passed away.
His first eight years of prison were the learning years when he became stronger in faith (he would need this for what was about to come). When the political regime changed in Romania, the prison conditions also changed dramatically: all the previous facilities were denied and the prisoners started to be persecuted for their faith (as well as for their participation in the Cross Brotherhoods). In this incredibly hard period Valeriu's word would be like a burning flame warming and comforting the ones around him. When he was in Aiud, Valeriu once encountered a poor man and gave him his student jacket. This recalls the life of Saint Martin of Tours, but it wasn’t his only generous deed. A priest from Paris (Vasile Boldeanu) remembered years later that when he was transferred to Aiud only in shirt and pants, almost frozen, he was saved by his younger brother of suffering, who gave him his warm coat.
Between the years 1946-1948 Valeriu and other older prisoners were sent to labor in some fields near Galda. There it was a milder regime; the prisoners would work, but they had time for praying and they lived in open spaces, and could meet daily.
In 1948 this working colony was closed, and the prisoners were sent back to Aiud where the communist regime would confront them with its official atheist propaganda. After some time the majority of imprisoned students were sent to a special prison called Pitesti, were they were to be re-educated (here took place the horrific and famous Pitesti experiment). There are many things to be told about this horrific phenomenon, and the remarkable Christian resistance that took place here.
Valeriu was held in Pitesti only for a short period of time because from all the torturing, the cold and terrible hunger, he became very sick with tuberculosis (a very contagious disease) and was sent to a penitentiary TB hospital called Targu Ocna. He saw this as the mercy of God Who saved him from the most abominable tortures that were ever conceived by a human mind and that took place in Pitesti soon after his departure.
An ex-colleague of detention remembers about Targu Ocna: "His arrival in this penitentiary hospital was felt by the other prisoners (who knew his reputation) like a miracle. Valeriu would transform this sordid jail living into a truly Christian life. He is the blue-eyed angel who obliges, by his very presence and prayer, to think about repentance and start praying, who would strengthen the ones around him and transform them inside for the rest of their life."
The people that met him during the horrific re-education, which he was comforting, encouraging, and raising spiritually, compared him with another Apostle Paul of our days. That is why the sick from other rooms of the sanatorium would gather near his bed and listen to him, and receive strength to bear the powerful ordeal they lived. The power of his love would shine not only in the hours of the programmed extermination but also in the everyday life of the sanatorium, when death was so close to everyone.
Valeriu’s power of sacrifice was proverbial: it did not take account person, ethnic origin, religion or political opinions. At Targu Ocna Valeriu was very ill because of his tuberculosis. In this state, when the sick usually cling to the tiniest hope for survival, he was capable of a supreme gesture. A friend of his was allowed by the wardens to receive some antibiotics for treatment (this kind of medicine was rarely allowed in the hospital, although it was vital for their recovery from TB), but as he was recovering, he thought to give it to Valeriu who was near his death. But Valeriu donated the medicine to the also dying Richard Wurembrand (a converted Jew who in freedom would become a well known Protestant pastor), saying he needed it more. Because of this medicine he recovered and, when liberated, wrote several books in which he gratefully remembers the one who saved his life.
The ones that stood by him along the years remember other extraordinary things about him. For example in Targu Ocna, he was to undertake an appendicitis surgery. When it was finished, Valeriu told the doctor he felt everything, because the anaesthesia did not work. However, he didn’t utter a word during the surgery, only his forehead was full of a cold sweat.
Valeriu died on the 18th of February 1952, at Targu Ocna. His last words were: “Don’t forget to pray to God that we all meet there! Lord, give me the servitude that sets the soul free and take away the freedom that enslaves my soul!” His grave remains unknown, for at that time all the prisoners were buried in a common pit and their head was smashed so that it would be beyond recognition. However, he asked to be buried with a small silver cross in his mouth and if God allows, his holy relics may be found.
Valeriu remained in the memory of all who knew him for the rest of their life. There is not one Christian book that recalls the ordeals of the communist prisons that doesn’t mention his name. His deeds and words were passed on from prisoner to prisoner and helped many to survive the communist hell, until the general liberation in 1964. Since Romania has become a free country many of its prison saints have come to light and are being honored by the faithful. Valeriu Gafencu is perhaps one of the most representative examples, and many call him the "Saint of Prisons" (this name was actually give by his fellow prisoners who knew him during his short life).
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Valeriu Gafencu: The Saint of Prisons and Prisoners
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Θαυμαστά γεγονότα του φυλακισμένου Αγίου Βαλερίου Γκαφένκου
A Romanian website about St. Valeriu Gafencu
A Vision of the Theotokos Before His Death
During the night of his last Christmas, towards dawn, Valeriu testified to his friend loan Ianolide:
"Amazed, I lifted my gaze and at the head my bed I saw the Mother of God, clothed in white, vivid, real. She was without her child. Her presence seemed material to me. The Mother of God was actually beside me. I was happy. I forgot everything. Time seemed endless. Then she said to me:
‘I am your love! Don’t be afraid. Don’t doubt. My Son will be victorious. He has sanctified this place now for future life. The powers of darkness are growing and will frighten the world still more, but they will be scattered. My Son is waiting for people to return to faith. Today, the sons of darkness are bolder than the sons of light. Even though it may seem to you that there is no more faith left on earth, nevertheless, know that deliverance will come, albeit through fire and devastation. The world still has to suffer. Here, however, there is still much faith and I have come to encourage you. Be bold, the world belongs to Christ!’"
A Letter of Valeriu Gafencu To His Mother
7 March 1946
My beloved mom, I saw you in the heart of Norika [his sister], when she visited. You were good, gentle, very understanding. I remained silent and looked within myself. There I found love ... Today I'm so happy! I look calmly at my life and life around the world and see God's intervention in everything. I look at our lives and see the miracle of God.
My dear mom, I feel you so much! Tell me mom that you feel my love! Tell me mom that you always feel me by your side! Tell me mom you're happy! I have so much to tell you, mom! At night I wake up from sleep and pray. I send my thoughts to my mom and then there is so much peace within me! And I feel my dad, I feel the endless love. And I often think of the love you had for my father. What a beautiful family you have created! And what beautiful love!
Mom, remember the summer days when I was a student in high school and we were walking together in our garden, among the trees. I remember what thoughts you had and you told me about my future.
My primary thoughts then were that I would become a man of great value. I meant by this to become a man who played a great role in history and bring many good things to the nation. I wanted to do much good in the world, but man plans and God decides. Life has followed its rapid and imposing journey. I arrived by myself to the University in Iasi. There I saw that truly there is opened for me a great future. I lived a normal life, I was one of the most gifted students, a friend of all, with an unusual thirst for the ideals of a new world, in which govern love and justice, the perfect harmony.
Well, I arrived in prison. I knew that my prison life would bring, through suffering and isolation from the world, many problems. I do believe that I suffer for the truth. This circumstance has brought to my soul a deep peace. I was satisfactorily fulfilling the course of my ideal.
And, my beloved mother, I want you to know that I have suffered much. The first winter I would wake up at night from my sleep, and the loneliness of my incarceration, cold and hungry, I would look into the darkness and whispering low, so that I only heard myself, but loud enough for God to hear: "Mom, I'm cold, hungry!"
At first it was very difficult. But God was always with me. He did not forsake me even a moment. I began to confront my bodily sufferings, and slowly began to savor new joys. I saw that I am a sinful man. I am appalled by my sins and my weaknesses. I realized then that I, who wished with all my heart for an ideal world, was a sinner. Therefore, I first had to become a pure new man. And so I began to war with the evil that was inside me.
Slowly there descended upon me the light of truth. I began to live the happiness in pain. And the hole in my heart was overfilled by Christ, my great love. And I realized then that truly great is he who has this great love, though he seems small. Today I am happy. Through Christ I love everyone. It is a difficult journey for these things to be accepted and known by the people! But I am very convinced that it is the only path that leads to happiness ....
Translated by John Sanidopoulos from the Greek here.
Questions and Answers
In answer to one question, he said:
Atheistic materialists, obsessed with pleasure, the desire for domination, and egotism, have created modern civilisation, which culminates in technology. They have isolated human nature and have abandoned the commandments of God. Their attempt to create an earthly and sensual paradise has failed. Nature has been exhausted and polluted, and has become unsuitable for life. Technology, in turn, has a much greater capacity for destruction than construction. On top of all this is the worst evil of all: Man’s alienation. In these conditions, the advocates of anthropocentrism (humanism) no longer feel that they are in control of the fate of the world that they themselves have created. And thus the world, alienated from God, bears the punishment for its own evil deeds.
He also said:
The fulfilment of man is [to be found] in communion with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is called to bring unity into diversity, to bring order into history, to bring holiness into life. Holiness is not something seraphic, unearthly, or esoteric, but is an opening that Christ makes toward a world steeped in the Holy Spirit.
Q: Will the Christian world of the twentieth century accept the vision of creative and messianic freedom?
A: The tragic events through which the modern world is passing will create conditions that favour returning to faith. We must come back to the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, to apostolic force. We have the duty of crying out with all our strength the Truth, repentance, and the world’s return to God. Christianity is being reborn in the ovens of fire and torture of materialistic atheism. It is exactly through his own methods of operation that Satan will lose the world that he thinks he will gain.
Q: What is the most repulsive aspect of Communism?
A: Its poverty is hard to endure, its imprisonment of man within a system is indeed serious, but nothing is more dreadful than the determination of conscience, which transforms man into a controlled tool.
Q: But doesn't Communism have its weaknesses, its cracks, its fissures?
A: It has many ideological ‘fissures’, but they are kept concealed, for Communist power cannot accept any freedom (outside of it], it cannot give anyone the right to criticise or deny Communism. Communist tyranny is formidable. (Communism was created to be] an institutionalized system that holds on to power relentlessly and which seeks at any and all cost to extend itself. The prospects of a triumphant Communist empire in this century are opening up with a degree of darkness never before imagined. ‘Re-education’ at Pitesti is but a symbol of the new Communist world order.
Q: Therefore what future do you see for mankind?
A; God works in the world. Mankind will be delivered through many sufferings and Communism will be defeated, but the world has even more serious problems to solve. The world must change its style of life and its orientation. Therefore Communism will perish, but what is important is what will replace it.
Q: Valeriu, what is the essence of today’s crisis?
Q: What do you see in today's world?
A: I see internal chaos, a decomposition that is leading toward nihilism, because people are obsessed with the nothingness of matter, with the fiction of forms, with sensual exhaustion, with historicism without transcendence, with ceremonialism without God, with consumerism without spirituality, by the falseness that conceals itself within the self-deification of man. Disaster is unfolding on all planes of fortitude of human life. Much suffering will be necessary in order to re-orient the world spiritually and to change its way of life.
Q: Why did God allow the world to sink into this present crisis, after some 2000 years of Christianity?
A: This crisis is not from God, nor is it from faith, but rather from the freedom of the human conscience. In the past few centuries, man has profaned the world, devastated souls, encouraged sensuality and has fallen prey to the pride of materialism and atheism. At the same time, satanic forces are more refined and better organised in the 20th century than in the first Christian age. The way in which saints are killed by the beast and perish in the 20th century is much more diabolical, more perverse, more complete, better studied, more horrible than the way in which martyrs were killed during the age of the catacombs.
He also said:
The desire to rise up to heaven can be seen in all of nature. The mountains, the skies, the skylarks, the eagle, and the soul of man are ever thirsting to rise higher, higher, closer to the Lord, further away from this world.
I long for a quiet, distant place, for a hut or cabin hewn out of rock, for a monastic cell in the foothills, to be with the birds of the sky. With nature as a friend around me and the Lord Christ ever in my heart. To love in peace, humble, and forgotten by the world. Sometimes I think about becoming a priest, but I am not worthy. I look at the soil. One day I will be earth myself and others will dig up the ground. My body will turn into dust. From my body another life will probably grow. My soul will be in heaven, where it will wait to be judged. I want to be saved.
Apolytikion in Plagal of the First
Flowers of Romania, planted by God, children of the Church true and faithful, let us exalt, O faithful, as martyrs of Christ; for they competed brilliantly, confessing Christ before the atheists, and were worthily crowned, in His glorious kingdom.
The beginning of a documentary on Valeriu can be seen below:
The beginning of an Akathist to Valeriu can be heard below: