How a Romanian prisoner turned to Christ

Viterbo, Lazio Region, Italy, January 3, 2023

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The Romanian Orthodox Diocese of Italy held several events dedicated to helping prisoners around the feast of the Nativity.

In this context, the diocese published the story of a hardened Romanian prisoner in Italy who, thanks to the love and patience of a priest, eventually turned to God and became a fervent Orthodox believer:

It was the year 2009 when after many attempts, I managed to enter the Viterbo penitentiary as a volunteer. Among the many tormented souls deprived of freedom and burdened by conscience, I met Nelu, who, when I saw him, made me feel disarmed, like a lion in a cage, tearing apart anyone who approached him, an irreparable, rebellious spirit, doing nothing but creating disorder around him.

What a difficult start: the discouragement of the prison officers who scolded me, asking why I come to visit bad people who don’t deserve mercy, now seemed credible. How would I come out clean from this war of inmates against officers and all against me, who in a way, represented the society that condemned them to coexist deprived of freedom and rights for a long time?

We start to pray. I encourage them to read together Psalm 3, then Psalm 5, Psalm 8, Psalm 37, 62, 87, 102, 142. With rough and threatening voices, slowly but surely, grace descends. We put aside fear and stubbornness, and decide to meet next week.

Years pass in which we meet every week—distrust slowly disappears, we acquire the spirit of meekness, we pray with all our souls. Often, Nelu arrives earlier than the others, seeking clarifications, how to pray, how to make prostrations, how to fast? He had many questions regarding the prayer books he always carried with him, wanting to do everything as well as possible. He was a perfectionist.

He became a kind of leader, encouraging others to come to prayer, to fast, helping them with what was necessary. He was happy for every soul that approached God. He helped me enormously, because he had a great influence on the others, which he used for good.

The time came when, four years before his release, we managed to get permission to bring him to church every Sunday. And today, after a long time, the parishioners still remember how Nelu read the psalms of the Matins service. You couldn't help but pay attention. Every word was pronounced fully, roundly, and decisively—it was as if it was the first and last service he attended, and so it was at every Divine Liturgy, without ever losing enthusiasm.

He came by bicycle. No matter the weather outside, the 7.5 miles meant nothing to him. One winter it snowed and, before the people showed up for the service, he cleared all the snow in front of the church, with a smile on his face.

I remember his confessions, sincere and straightforward. He would say: “Father, I want to learn.” There was a thirst for God and, at the same time, a sincere will to move away from the past and the people who tempted him to return to his previous life.

In December 2019, his release came, which of course did not at all mean the resolution of problems. On the contrary, I was anxious. Would he manage to stay away from trouble? Would the faith and conviction he showed remain?

For a while, I didn't hear anything. I prayed for him, as for those who were still imprisoned. After a few months we hear from each other—he’s on a pilgrimage to the monasteries of Moldova. He has the same sincere joy when he tells me what he saw as when he came to the church in prison. He tells me about the Hieromonk Arsenie (Boca) and Cleopa (Ilie), in front of whom nothing material matters, neither power nor money.

Since then, not a Sunday goes by that he doesn’t send me a message, very early in the morning, with good wishes. He’s in Germany with his family, working honestly, and also has a few employees with him.

Today, December 27, 2023, knowing that I was going to the prison together with His Grace Vicar Bishop Atanasie of Bogdania and the volunteers from the parish to bring the joy and hope of the Nativity of the Lord, Nelu came to meet us.

This time in freedom...

Fr. Bobița Vasile Ștefan
Parish of the Holy Hierarch Calinic of Cernica in Viterbo

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