Pope visits Romania


Bucharest, June 1, 2019: Pope Francis on June 1 braved a rain-soaked, twisting drive through the mountains of Transylvania to visit Romania’s most famous shrine, urging Romanian and ethnic Hungarian faithful to work together for their future.

Pope Francis arrived in Romania on May 31 for a three-day, cross-country pilgrimage.

The visit took place 20 years after St. John Paul II made the first-ever papal visit to a majority Orthodox country, which is on the Catholic and European periphery. The pontiff used occasion to appeal for unity and assert himself as the global conscience on the dangers of populism.

On the second day of the visit, storms forced the Pope to change his travel plans and add in a three-hour car ride through the Carpathian mountains that he had planned to traverse via helicopter. The steady rains doused the estimated 80,000-100,000 people who gathered for the Mass at the Sumuleu Ciuc shrine, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The showers let up as Pope Francis arrived and he made a quick run through the poncho-clad crowds in his popemobile. But the 82-year-old seemed unsteady after the long trip and held onto the arms of aides as he negotiated a mud-slicked path to get to the altar for Mass.

In his homily, the Pope praised the multicultural and multilingual tapestry that makes up Romania and urged its people to put aside past divisions for the sake of “journeying together.”

The rights of around 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians who live in Romania have been at the center of political disputes between the two countries for decades. Hungary lost Transylvania in the peace treaties after World War I yet the region remains heavily Hungarian in both culture and language.

Those tensions are often reflected in the uneasy relationship between the predominantly Hungarian Roman Catholic community and the Romanian-speaking Greek-Catholic communities. The two rites make up Romania’s Catholic minority in the overwhelmingly Orthodox country.

“Complicated and sorrow-filled situations from the past must not be forgotten or denied, yet neither must they be an obstacle or an excuse standing in the way of our desire to live together as brothers and sisters,” Pope Francis said.

The pope delivered the homily in Italian, and it was translated into Romanian and Hungarian.

After Mass, with the weather improved, the Pope was able to fly by helicopter back to the airport for a flight to another corner of Romania, the university city of Iasi in the northeast. There he had an appointment with young Romanians.

Pope Francis was travelling across Romania to visit its far-flung Catholic communities to make up for the fact that St. John Paul II was only allowed to visit the capital, Bucharest, in 1999 in the first papal visit to a majority Orthodox country.

On the first day, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis met Pope Francis at the airport and the two huddled for a private meeting before the pontiff opened a series of meetings with Romania’s political and religious leadership.

The Pope is scheduled to beatify seven Greek-Catholic bishops who were martyred during communist rule, when Catholics were brutally persecuted.

The program on May 1 included a meeting with Prime Minister Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, whose Social Democratic Party, or PSD, was soundly defeated during the European Parliament elections.

While Pope Francis’ trip is pastoral, “I imagine that there might be speeches by the Holy Father on this European dimension,” said Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti.

Later in the day, the Pope and Patriarch Daniel, leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church, recited the Our Father prayer in the Orthodox Cathedral, a towering new construction that was funded in part by a US$200,000 donation by Pope John Paul when he visited in 1999.

John Paul’s 1999 visit to Romania, just 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was the first by a Pope to a majority Orthodox country since the Great Schism divided Christianity in 1054.

It was marked by an extraordinary welcome for a Polish Pope who helped bring down communism. During his Mass, shouts of “unity, unity” rose up from the crowd.

John Paul agreed to Orthodox demands that he visit only Bucharest and not Transylvania, where most of the country’s Catholics live. In many ways then, Pope Francis is fulfilling the itinerary John Paul would have completed.

Marching bands greeted the pope at Cotroceni Palace.

While congratulating Romania on the enormous strides it had made since its liberation 30 years ago, the Pope encouraged its leaders to strengthen its institutions to “respond to the legitimate aspirations of the citizenry.”

After addressing the political leaders, Pope Francis, who ended the day celebrating Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, shifted his focus to church politics.

In a room at the patriarchal palace, lined on opposite sides with Catholic and Orthodox clerics, Pope Francis and the Patriarch Daniel, sat in matching white robes.

Pope Francis urged his “brother” not to dwell on the church’s past conflicts, urging him to instead have a “memory of roots” that he called “sound and sure” even if “their growth has undergone the twists and turns of time.”

He said the two Churches needed to “help one another” beat back the tide of secularism and “a growing sense of fear that, often skilfully stoked, leads to attitudes of rejection and hate.

The two leaders then took turns saying the Lord’s Prayer in their own languages in a new Romanian Orthodox cathedral.

Some Romanian Catholics, who compose around 5 percent of the population, have noticed a colder shoulder in the dozen or so years since Patriarch Daniel was chosen to lead the Church.

“The distance between the two Churches has grown since 2008,’’ said Mihai Fratila, the Greek Catholic bishop of Bucharest. “It’s a shame because there are mixed families that have no problem sharing” their Christian faiths.

In his homily, Francis praised the multicultural and multilingual tapestry that makes up Romania and urged its people to put aside past divisions for the sake of “journeying together.”

The rights of around 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians who live in Romania have been at the center of political disputes between the two countries for decades. Hungary lost Transylvania in the peace treaties after World War I yet the region remains heavily Hungarian in both culture and language.

Those tensions are often reflected in the uneasy relationship between the predominantly Hungarian Roman Catholic community and the Romanian-speaking Greek-Catholic communities. The two rites make up Romania’s Catholic minority in the overwhelmingly Orthodox country.

“Complicated and sorrow-filled situations from the past must not be forgotten or denied, yet neither must they be an obstacle or an excuse standing in the way of our desire to live together as brothers and sisters,” Francis said.

The pope delivered the homily in Italian, and it was translated into Romanian and Hungarian.

After Mass, with the weather improved, Francis was able to fly by helicopter back to the airport for a flight to another corner of Romania, the university city of Iasi in the northeast. There he had an appointment with young Romanians.

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