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The church at the end of Romania. The struggle of a former soldier in Iraq who became a priest to help the elderly and children of a parish in the Delta: “God said to me: ‘Oh, you stay here!'”

A graduate of Theology, but having joined the Army, Ionuţ Iftimia returned to the Church after seven years and a journey of tens of thousands of kilometers that took him through Iraq, Italy and Malta. Now he serves in a small parish of almost 1,000 inhabitants in Tulcea, Sălcioara village, Jurilovca commune, where there is always something to work on.

The priest Ionuţ Iftimia arrived in the village of Sălcioara, on March 6, in the commune of Jurilovca, in 2019. The distance between Constanţa, where his father was born, and the village in the Delta is 92 kilometers. On the map.

In life, in order to reach the small parish on the shores of Lake Razim, the priest Ionut made a detour of thousands of kilometers, in space, and for over 20 years, in time.

Father, welder and boxer, mother, cook

It’s a parable-like route. No matter how much you walk on earth, you can’t stray from your calling. About “that thing I was ordained to do in this world”, as the father from Sălcioara says. He is 41 years old. From high school, he recalls, he started approaching the church. To sing at services. He has a pretty good tenor voice. From one Sunday to the next, the thought of attending the Faculty of Theology began.

Entrance to the village of Sălcioara

Where did this thought come from? Not known. Mystery. The father says that “out of love” he chose the path of the priesthood. No one in his family shared his church concerns. His father’s father was a professional welder, a former boxer at the Farul Constanţa club. He was part of the national boxing team, together with Francisc Vaştag.

“At the club there are still the medals he won at competitions. My mother is a cook, retiring in September this year. I didn’t think to follow in my father’s footsteps for a moment. I mean, I played handball, at Hidrotehnica, in Constanţa, I was on tour with the team, I played extreme. But I don’t think I was ordained to serve a performance sport, but to serve God. “

The priest from Sălcioara says that he chose the path of the priesthood out of love

“I worked during the day, I studied at night”

When he was 16, Ionuţ Iftimia lost his father. “My mother woke up alone with three children. I have another brother, Ciprian, and a sister, Iuliana. I am the eldest and my mother sent me to my grandparents, near Vatra Dornei, to take care of me. I dropped out of school. I got a job at a bakery and went to high school in the evening. During the day, I worked at the bakery, at night, with the blanket on my head and the flashlight, I studied for Bac and college ”.

He passed the entrance exam. “All the boys had come with their parents. I was alone. They asked me: but don’t you have anyone? I have God, I was answering them. And so it was. I passed the exam. I went to college. But I didn’t think I’d get a parish. You have to wait a long time for that. I went to the army, I did my internship, I stayed there “.

Infantryman at Topraisar

Before the priest Ionuţ Iftimia, there was Corporal Ionuţ Iftimia. As in Stendhal’s “Red and Black,” only in the opposite direction. And in the story of the young man from Constanta, God appears from time to time, who speaks to “May”, in order to resemble his grandparents from the north of Moldova.

At the 341st Topraisar Infantry Battalion (Constanța County), the future priest received the offer to join the National Guard, to guard at Cotroceni. Refused. Instead, he went with the “white sharks” on a mission to Iraq. “I saw a lot then, I was in Kuwait. There are places out there that are mentioned in the Old Testament. ”

In 2010, Ionuţ Iftimia retired from the army. He met a girl, Alexandra, with dark blue eyes, from Bulgarian ancestors, and bald hair, from Lipovan ancestors, and he got married.

Alexandra’s brothers worked and lived in Italy, so the newlyweds also moved there. “I worked in a furniture factory, I made metal frames for sofas, beds, armchairs. Physical labour. I went to work at the Romanian church. They took me to their choir. They needed singers. At a celebration, the Romanian bishop came from Italy and heard me singing. He praised me and asked me questions. He scolded the others for keeping me hidden. He told me to submit my file for ordination, that he would give me a parish “. A few weeks later, Ionut Iftimia was ordained a priest in Rome.

Parish Priest in Malta

At the Romanian Orthodox parish in Malta, the priests do not last long. One year, at most two. “Because you are isolated, surrounded by water and strangers. You can’t ask for help from anywhere, you have to do it on your own. I lasted six years and something. When I got there, the church had broken windows and birds were nesting in the altar. It was full of chicken manure on the icons. ” When he left, the priest left behind a renovated place, in which, with the exception of the Holy Spirit, nothing flew through the nave.

It was, in fact, a centuries-old former Catholic church. And around her, on the narrow streets lined with stone buildings, the resurrection services were getting a special resonance. The answer “He is risen indeed!” it sounded like thunder.

In order to support himself, Father Iftimia was employed at the Catholic seminary as a canteen administrator. He already had two children, Alexander and Mary. The money was not enough.

“When we were left with nothing, there would be someone who would pay us for a memorial service and we would be able to survive.” When it was no longer possible, his wife and children returned to Dobrogea. Due to their longing, the priest Iftimia asked his superiors to return home and so he was given the parish of Sălcioara.

The interior of the church in Sălcioara

God said to me, “Stay here!”

“In fact, I had to get to Zebil, which is about 40 kilometers away. But God said to me, “Stay here on March 6!” March 6, 1945 is the date when the first communist government was installed in Romania.

After 1989, the villages and neighborhoods of August 23, March 6, Gheorghiu-Dej and so on in Romania recovered their post-war identities. But their atheist names still linger in parentheses, like traces of sickle and hammer on factory walls. And sometimes, out of inertia, out of habit, even God, behold, calls them by this unnatural name.

Before being named March 6, the village was baptized, also profane and temporary, Vintilă Brătianu. And when it was founded by the Turks around 1600, it was called Karamankioi, the “Village of Heroes.” After the Turks, came the Bulgarians, then the veterans of the War of Independence. In the waters of Goloviţa, the part of Razim from the village, the helicopters of the tourists are now mirrored, for which time means too much money to lose it by huddling in the car.

Ionuţ Iftimia therefore stayed in Sălcioara, where about 1,000 people still live. In Italy, he learned Italian and obtained a certificate proving his command of the language. In Malta, he learned English and also obtained a certificate of knowledge of English. In Jurilovca commune, in addition to Romanian, Russian is also spoken by Lipovans. About 40 percent of the 4,000 inhabitants are Lipovan Russians, old-fashioned Orthodox. There is also a strong Adventist community.

Around 1,000 people live in Sălcioara

Young people don’t do much at work “

Father Ionuţ teaches religion at all schools in the commune and takes care of the increasingly sparse community of Orthodox in Sălcioara. Decreased by both biology and poverty. “There are a few of us who come to work on Sundays and there we are. The children don’t come, I say: mother, you go! ”, Says an old woman, resting in the pew. In her turn, when she was young, “I didn’t have much time for church, the children had to be raised.”

Only a few villagers come to work on Sunday

The teacher also observes that “young people don’t go to work much and we don’t know how to get them to come”. Somehow, going to church has become an occupation for the elderly, who have nothing else to do and are closer, chronologically, so more pressingly interested in the eternal than in the passing.

Neighboring indifference to brutality is the redoubt that the priest Iftimia must bring down in order to revive the spirit of the community. Across the church road is a bar, a few chairs and tables where the villagers gather. “From there, they looked at me and the teacher as we struggled to crack wood and carry it to church, to heat the church for service. One did not stand up to shrug. ”

The young people in the village don’t go to work much

There is no reason for Father Ionut to give up. The needs are great, and the resources are meager. But from Heaven one hears from time to time a “mother” and the young priest knows that he is not alone and that, although he has gone around so much, he has not gone the wrong way.

At work in the garden of the Lord

In Sălcioara, there are many lonely and sick old people, many families with poor children. Small pensions, of 500-600 lei, jobs, almost not at all. “It simply came to our notice then. We get supplies, food, clothes and shoes. “We work a lot with children. My wife is a speech therapist and she’s involved. We do activities with the students, we paint, we build paper models, we sing. And the children respond very well, they are delighted with everything we do. We would need a space dedicated to these activities, I hope to get it in time “.

Father Iftimia and his wife work a lot with the children from Sălcioara

What does Father Iftimia hope for: to finish renovating St. Dumitru’s Church. It’s a brick church built in 1900. The plaster is half fallen. The holy archangels, in their uniforms of angelic generals, shine blue and silver at the entrance.

“There is always work in the Lord’s garden, there is always something to do. We need to work more spiritually with man, even though it is very difficult. ” It is almost impossible to break the man, after a day of toil, from the respite in which he forgets everything, including himself, at the bar in the village. It is easier to split the sea than to make it cross the road and enter the churchyard. Because all the schisms, the crusades, all the saints and all the dead fit on that path. Because it’s not a road, it’s a precipice.

St. Dumitru’s Church

At the edge of the lake, in the small boat harbor Jurilovca, Father Iftimia takes courage. Has it reached the end of the earth? “Yes and no. It is a blessed area, like the whole of Dobrogea. This is where the Holy Apostle Andrew was, and this is where Christianity spread throughout the country. ”

Father Iftimia, in the small boat harbor Jurilovca

Almost two millennia have passed since then, and much has happened to Christianity, and to the Romanians, and to their connection. You talk about the soul to the people of Sălcioara, but they always have their thoughts on the daily bread. And, when the world is dearer to you, the elders get rid of a sigh with “It was better in the time of the CAP”. Although at that time the village was called, like a walnut on the wall, March 6 and going to church was closely monitored by the authorities.

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Source From: Libertatea

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