Student Mission Society Presentation: Rev. Trifa, Romania (Part 2)

Today is part two of yesterday afternoon’s post. Quick recap: Rev. Sorin-Horia Trifa is the only pastor in the very young Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania. He was recently here for two weeks of intensive classes as he works towards a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) degree. He’s since returned to Romania, but shortly before he left he spoke about his home country and church body in a presentation hosted by the Student Mission Society. Yesterday’s post summarized Romania’s history, setting the stage for the challenges and opportunities they face today. You can read about it here.

Because Romania is a country of three major ethnic groups (Romanian, German, and Hungarian), the main Christian denominations tend to be split along cultural lines, serving more as a cultural tradition than a religious practice. Everyone in the country uses Romanian as their everyday language, and so church for the Hungarians and Germans is a place to practice their language. In fact, every church in Romania has three names, reflecting each of the three languages—and that’s not three different translations of the same name, but literally three different names.

The primary church body in Romania is the Orthodox Church. Many believe that to be Romanian is to be Orthodox. “If you leave the Orthodox Church, you leave your family, your identity, your Romanian community,” Rev. Trifa said, speaking of a common fear. He knows of at least one priest who teaches that, even if you come back to the Orthodox Church, there is a chance that you may still go to hell.

On the other hand, the German Lutheran Church in Romania has adopted liberal theology and focused their services exclusively on German speakers, abandoning the Romanians even after the fall of communism and 90% of the Lutherans in the country emigrated. Most of their churches have closed, some sold to the Orthodox Church, others having become museums, and still others repurposed as sheds and garages. There are over 250 Lutheran Churches in Transylvania but only 50 parishes are active. About half of these pastors are women.

“They are Lutherans but not Christians,” Rev. Trifa explained of the church body. “‘Lutheran’ means something cultural—but not Christ or the Bible.” As he spoke, he showed picture after picture of fortified churches, gorgeous in their architecture and surrounded by the incredible Romanian countryside. He is both proud of this visual history and simultaneously aware of the great tragedy on display. “The church buildings are not important; not if the church is closed. Just a monument. No more Gospel, no more liturgy: just a museum. People pay to have photos taken there. Difficult to call them churches. A building is a church when Christ is there.”

The Hungarian Church (a Reformed church) has never been interested in doing anything for Romanians either, their services held in Hungarian and their doctrine ranging between very liberal and deeply pietistic. And despite the doctrinal differences, many of these churches across denominations partake in the Lord’s Supper together. “The Lord’s Supper becomes nothing,” Rev. Trifa said. “Just a tradition.”

However, with neither the German nor Hungarian churches interested in offering anything outside of their own languages, the Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania has an incredible opportunity. “To understand the meaning of grace—it’s a big mess by the Hungarians and Germans on this subject—” Rev. Trifa said “—it is our duty to have Lutheran books as resources.” Even the Book of Concord has never been translated into Romanian, despite the fact that the Reformation took place in the country almost 500 years ago. Today, the Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania is one of the only church bodies using Romanian. “Wonderful,” Rev. Trifa remarked, “and shameful.”

Translation, then, is a big part of their focus. They want to be able to explain why confessional Lutheranism matters, why doctrine matters, why the right teaching of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper matter. They work to make these resources available and free. So far they have translated “The Small Catechism,” “Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation,” “The Means of Grace in the Confessional Lutheran Church,” and hundreds of theological articles, which are available on their website.

“I’m so happy that God chose to put me here,” Rev. Trifa said, who grew up in the Hungarian Church. “He’s given me the opportunity to share the Gospel with the country and people, where the Reformation began so long ago.” He grinned and added: “My dream is to make the Lutheran Church Great Again.”

Begun in the autumn of 2016, the Confessional Lutheran Mission in Romania was an initiative of LCMS Eurasia and the St. Michael Lutheran Church in Prague, Czech Republic. The first Romanian service took place in Bucharest (Romania’s capital) on December 4, 2016, the liturgy adapted from the LSB into Romanian. After a year of vicarage at St. Michael’s in Prague, Rev. Trifa was ordained and installed at St. Paul Confessional Lutheran Church in Bucharest on October 8, 2017.

They currently have 11 confirmed members, five catechumens (all adults), and five children. There are an additional nine adults and six children who regularly attend but have not yet enrolled for catechesis, plus dozens of others who occasionally attend. (Rev. Trifa spoke briefly of the handful of liberal pastors interested in their confession once they discovered the mission; one felt particularly torn. “You could see the agony in him.”) Services take place on Sunday evenings, following an hour-long class for catechumens. Rev. Trifa and his wife also host a midweek Bible study class and meal every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in their home.

The Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania is also known in the academic world. As a PhD student at the University of Bucharest and a student in the STM program in Gothenburg, Sweden (CTSFW partnered with the Lutheran School of Theology in Gothenburg in order to offer advanced study to our confessional Lutheran brethren in Europe), Rev. Trifa is known in academic circles and is often invited to speak at various international theological conferences. “God makes something very, very interesting,” he said of the—so far—54 opportunities. “Silence the Hungarian and German Church, just so we can be loud. [The international theological conferences] ask for us—not the Germans or Hungarians.”

The Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania also have a mission in Italy, holding a Saturday church service every month in Padua, Italy. There is a very big Romanian community in Italy, as the two languages are very similar, and thus easy to learn. “Learn [Italian] in two months even for low-educated people,” Rev. Trifa explained. “One week for high-educated.” When the mission first began, they worshiped in Romanian, but after only two or three weeks decided to switch to Italian, translating even the liturgy. He knew it would open up the mission field to the wider Italian population.

Dr. Masaki, who teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology in Gothenburg almost every summer, knows Rev. Trifa through the STM Program very well. “An exemplary student,” he said of Rev. Trifa, following the close of the presentation. “He is doing a great job as pastor, missionary—he is doing the maximum.” Throughout the presentation Rev. Trifa urged his listeners to come see Romania and the church for themselves, and Dr. Masaki echoed that sentiment: “He needs support. He’s alone.” Rev. Trifa’s wife is known for her hospitality, their home always open to both their congregation and their many guests.

“I invite you to discover the land and discover the church,” Rev. Trifa said. “To share the Gospel. And they need this, almost 500 years after Reformation in Romania; they need the Reformation.”

The final slide in his presentation asked that we pray for the Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania. “To preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ with faith and passion in Romania and in Italy. To translate Lutheran materials into Romanian, including the Book of Concord. To have our own Church building in Bucharest, Romania.”

From left to right: Dr. Just, Rev. Trifa, and Dr. Masaki. Dr. Just can trace his family history back to the church building in Romania where his grandparents were baptized.

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