Obituaries: Archimandrite Cleopa

Click to follow
CLEOPA WAS a charismatic Romanian monk persecuted by Communists and admired by pilgrims, who came in their thousands to his remote monastery to listen to his teaching. His monas-tery at Sihastria in northern Romania became a centre of pilgrimage for those seeking guidance and absolution, both during and after the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. "The spiritual father is the soul of the monastery and of the village. He should be the light of the world by his life and sermons," Cleopa said.

In more recent years - as persecution of the Romanian Orthodox Church ended - his ministry became more open. He was invited to preach at universities, his sermons were published in book form under the title Talks with Father Cleopa and - in a sign of how far technology has reached the Romanian Orthodox Church - were posted on a website.

Born into a family of peasants in a village in Botosani district in northern Romania, the young Constantin Ilie-Tirlea entered the 14th-century Sihastria monastery when he was still a child, together with two of his brothers. After joining the monastery he worked as a shepherd for 12 years, gaining a good knowledge of the countryside which would help him when he was later forced to take refuge in the forest.

Although not well educated, Constantin gained respect within the religious community for his remarkable memory, being able to recite long passages from scripture and from the church fathers by heart. He became a monk in 1937 when he was 25, taking the religious name Cleopa. He was elected deputy abbot of Sihastria in 1942, becoming abbot in 1945.

After 1948, when the Communists consolidated their control over Romania, his growing ministry brought Cleopa to the critical attention of state authorities, police and even some fellow churchmen. He was told to instruct pilgrims to stop coming, but felt he could not do that. In 1949 he was transferred with 30 of the monks to Slatina, but they were allowed to return to Sihastria in 1956 after the changes in Romania set in motion in the wake of Stalin's death.

In 1958 a harsh crackdown was unleashed on the Orthodox Church, and about 1,500 priests, monks and lay people were imprisoned. Even the Patriarch was put under police surveillance. More than half the monasteries - which play a key role in Romanian Orthodox life - were closed down by the state.

Cleopa was under threat because of his popular appeal and for refusing to tell pilgrims to stop coming to see him. Although he escaped arrest, he was forced to retreat as a hermit to a remote region of the Carpathian Mountains. There he built himself an underground den. Every month, a woodcutter brought him a sack of potatoes. Cleopa ate one potato a day to survive.

When the persecution of the Church eased in 1964, the monasteries gradually reopened. Cleopa was able to return to Sihastria, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Following the fall of the Ceausescu regime in December 1989, the Romanian Orthodox Church was once more allowed to act freely. Amid a chaotic political system and harsh living conditions, Romanians continued to feel the need for spiritual advice and many thousands flocked to hear Cleopa preach. The monastery at Sihastria had to build a small amphitheatre to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. Until recently Cleopa continued to come out to speak to the crowds, supported by younger monks when he became too frail.

"I am Uncle Mouldy," he told pilgrims, "with one foot in the grave and the other on earth. Life is a fight against the body, the world, the devil and death."

The Orthodox believe that all saints and holy men know by revelation when they are about to die. A month before his death, Cleopa came out of his little house and, from its porch, told the dozen pilgrims who had come to hear him: "This is the last time I will preach to you. I have to prepare myself for death." For the faithful in Romania, this was further proof of Cleopa's holy life.

Constantin Ilie-Tirlea, monk: born Sulita, Romania 10 April 1912; professed a monk 1937 as Brother Cleopa; ordained priest 1945; died Sihastria, Romania 2 December 1998.