NEWS ANALYSIS: The former Soviet bloc nation is a fragmented society still recovering from a harsh dictatorship that decimated trust between people.
BUCHAREST, Romania — Pope Francis’ three-day trip to Romania Friday through Sunday is proving to be a pastoral marathon and a logistical nightmare in a country wracked by political infighting.
Coming within a month of travel to Bulgaria and North Macedonia, the Holy See appears to be concerned about this volatile region.
“Ambitious” is simply too tame a word to describe an itinerary that includes multiple helicopter jaunts across alpine peaks; worship with three distinct faith communities (Orthodox, Latin Catholic and Greek Catholic); six separate stops; and the constant pressure to engage in countless nuances of geography, ethnicity, language and history in the region.
By comparison, Pope St. John Paul II’s three-day visit to Bucharest 20 years ago this month, his first to a predominantly Orthodox country, was a relative vacation for the Pontiff.
However, perhaps to provide momentary succor to Francis for the breakneck pace of his visit, robust public enthusiasm is assured wherever he appears, as the Holy Father is tremendously popular among priests and believers, including Orthodox Christians.
Whether the country can manage the level of coordination normally required for such a visit is (like Pope Francis during a good portion of his jet-and-copter visit) up in the air. Romania is a fragmented society still recovering from a harsh dictatorship that decimated trust between people.
The entire government has been fixated on the May 26 European elections — which further complicated a complex picture — so organizers for the visit have been behind schedule in synchronizing with papal planning, according to worried Catholic leaders, who said they are, frankly, relying on the Holy Spirit to pull this visit off.
Day One: Affirming Christian Unity
Father Wilhelm Dancă, the dean of the Roman Catholic Theological School at the University of Bucharest and the spokesman for the Holy Father’s intensive pastoral voyage, spoke with the Register.
He said Friday, the first day of Francis’ visit, will seek to affirm the legendary closeness achieved between Catholics and Orthodox during John Paul II’s memorable visit when crowds spontaneously chanted, “U-ni-ta-te! U-ni-ta-te!” (unity) at a joint public prayer with the Romanian Orthodox patriarch.
“The cry for unity heard 20 years ago constructed a common patrimony of friendship. Francis’ visit is tied to that patrimony, to that cry for unity,” explained Father Dancă.
The Pope will meet for a half-hour with Orthodox Patriarch Daniel in private, and then he will address the whole Orthodox synod in the same hall where St. John Paul II met with them.
Many of the people expected to attend Francis’ meetings and liturgies will be Orthodox believers, said Church organizers.
The country’s ancient ties to Rome are vital to relations between the Church and Romania. Between A.D. 106-275, the Roman Empire controlled Dacia, a large chunk of what is Romania today; as a result, Romanian is a Latin language. These bonds give the people a special fondness for the Holy Father, as a short film made by local Catholics explains.
Father Dancă said Pope Francis is more popular “than any other leader, religious or political.”
“I think his inclination toward the needy, toward disfavored people, moves everyone,” Father Dancă explained. “Francis is a man with a pastor’s heart, the mind of a Jesuit, the soul of a Franciscan, and he feels people going through difficult moments in their lives.”
“His human and Christian solidarity is the reason for his popularity,” in Romania and elsewhere, added the priest, who is also a member of the prestigious Romanian Academy of scholars.
Day Two: Latin Catholics in the Mountains & at the Borders
Approximately 1.5 million Catholics live in Romania. Some 800,000 are Latin Catholics, and the majority are ethnic Hungarians, centered in Transylvania, a verdant region separated from the capital city by the Carpathian Mountains. For most of its history, this area was part of the Kingdom of Hungary.
Pope Francis will fly across the Transcarpathian Alps Saturday to offer Mass outdoors at Romania’s only major Marian shrine, located in the village of Şumuleu Ciuc/Csíksomlyó, in a county that is 85% Hungarian.
In 1567, a Protestant ruler, John II Sigismund Zápolya, tried to force Catholics to convert. They fought against his troops, crediting the Blessed Virgin Mary with their victory.
Although the annual Pentecost Eve pilgrimage held to mark the battle (June 8 this year) was banned under communism, the devotion surged in popularity over the last few decades.
Colorful costumes, banners and songs create a rich tapestry of local tradition at Şumuleu Ciuc/Csíksomlyó. It is the kind of popular devotion extolled by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium: “Popular piety enables us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on.”
“In the 1990s, many Hungarians had very strong hope for a better life for the Hungarian minority of this region. We hoped to get back the confiscated, nationalized Catholic heritage,” Father Zoltan Olah, the spokesman for this leg of the visit, told the Register.
“The annual pilgrimage became a moment for strengthening our faith. We can resist and live peacefully. We have these problems in Romania — for example, a very important library in Alba Iulia was nationalized by the communist regime, and, still, we did not get it back — but we can practice our religion. And we are also in the European Union. So, at Csíksomlyó, we gather for prayer and hope,” explained Father Olah, who is also a professor of biblical studies at the Theological Institute in Alba Iulia/ Gyulafehérvár and Cluj Napoca/Kolozsvár.
Depending on the weather, some 200,000 pilgrims are expected to participate, including Catholics from Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine. Hungarian President János Áder, a Catholic, participates every year and is expected at the Mass.
National Flags & Hungarian Unity
Szlot Szilagyi, a Catholic with three children who lives in Oradea, Romania, is an official at the European Parliament. He said the Csíksomlyó Pilgrimage “became a symbol of Hungarian national unity.”
Attila Denko, a specialist regarding national identity and a Hungarian Catholic, travels often to Transylvania for research. He points out that the Pope is arriving in the midst of an extensive re-examination of World War I and the subsequent Treaty of Trianon (1920), which gave Transylvania to Romania after the war. He thinks organizers should expect demonstrations of Hungarian pride at the papal Mass.
The Hungarian government helped finance the event: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán contributed approximately $250,000. (Overall, the Romanian government is spending $2.1 million for the visit).
In early April, Hungarian Catholic Archbishop György Jakubinyi of Alba Iulia, Romania’s largest archdiocese, met in Budapest with the prime minister to discuss Francis’ visit.
Native-language learning and instruction is a right that ethnic minorities can claim under Romanian law. Hungarians are the largest minority, followed by the Roma community. Issues around minority-education rights continue to cause political conflict.
Education Minister Ecaterina Andronescu, a practicing Orthodox Christian and member of Parliament for 23 years, told the Register she is happy that education is a strategic theme for Pope Francis.
The Pope recently inaugurated by videoconference a new center for the Foundation “Scholas Occurents,” a special papal project, at the University of Bucharest’s National School of Political Science and Public Administration; it is the first partnership in Eastern Europe. It began as a project started by then-Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio in Buenos Aires and involves using technology, art and play to promote cross-cultural encounters for students around the world.
Given the special interest that Pope Francis has been taking in this troubled region, Andronescu thinks a message of reconciliation is crucial for the country.
“I would like to see relations of mutual respect. What I mean is that the majority, Romanians, must respect the language, the culture, the identity of the Hungarian minority,” said the minister. “But, equally, in the areas where Romanians are a minority, the Hungarian majority should also respect the Romanian minority.”
“I think the Pope will carry this message,” she added.
Catholics on Eastern Border
Latin Rite Romanians are most numerous in Moldova, the country’s eastern region — which is also the name of its neighbor, the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, where the majority of citizens speak Romanian. For this reason, the Pope’s visit to this region of the country will be particularly important.
“The Holy Father’s visit will have an enormous impact on us and on everybody else, too,” Bishop Petru Gherghel of Iasi told the Register. “The encounter with a pope who is near to everyone’s heart, who is so much appreciated, is monumental.”
Francis will spend two hours Saturday afternoon in Iasi — zipping in by helicopter and leaving by plane. He will tour a cathedral built under Bishop Gherghel’s leadership and will meet families and youth in one of the city’s squares.
The bishop anticipates pilgrims from neighboring Moldova (two hours away by car) and Ukraine (three hours away) to cross the border in order to see the Holy Father. He expects Romanians working abroad to come home for the meeting. Some 3.5 million have left the country, mainly to find jobs. There will also be Orthodox friends returning with their families.
“We had about 250,000 faithful in Iasi 20 years ago, but [since that time] some 50,000 emigrated to work, mainly in Western Europe,” explained Gherghel. “We are sad they left, but we are hopeful they will come back, not only with material gains, but also cultural and spiritual gains accumulated abroad.”
The bishop said some 90 priests offer Mass in Romanian to communities in Austria, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy and Spain. The largest Romanian diaspora community is in Italy.
Despite this exodus, the bishop has cultivated steady growth in the Iasi Diocese since his ordination in May 1990, by then-Archbishop Angelo Sodano, as the representative of Pope John Paul II. The diocese has created or revived 157 parishes; 10 are run by the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor Conventual, who were resuscitated in the region after the fall of communism.
“Francis’ motto is ‘Let’s Walk Together!’ This is why he is coming: to find us and go together under Mary’s protective mantle — go towards Jesus, our Christian ideal,” said the bishop.
Day 3: Heroes of the Nation, Martyrs of the Faith
The Romanian Greek Catholic Church (RGCC, known as “Greek Catholic” after the Byzantine Rite), is one of the Church’s 23 Eastern Catholic Churches. Greek Catholics live primarily in Transylvania, although the Church’s six eparchies cover the whole country.
Founded in 1698 and united with Rome while preserving Orthodox-style liturgy, the RGCC gained important support from Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa in the 18th century.
Pope Francis will celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the medieval town of Blaj, the RGCC’s center, renowned for having helped forge a sense of national identity essential for unifying the nation 100 years ago, according to Greek Catholic Bishop Florentin Crihalmeanu of Cluj.
Bishop Crihalmeanu told the Register that only the Holy Spirit can explain the revival of his Church since late 1989, when communism collapsed. The RGCC was persecuted and banned under communism — in part because the dictators feared the sense of national pride and independence advanced by Greek Catholic leaders.
The bishop sees Francis’ visit as another gift from God, contributing to the Church’s continued strength and renewal. He said, “The founders of modern Romania were martyred by the atheistic state within a generation, including the Greek Catholic bishops.”
Pope Francis will celebrate with Romania’s only cardinal, Major Archbishop Lucian Mureșan, 89, and beatify seven martyred bishops, who were killed by the communists “in hatred of the faith” between 1950 and 1970.
Father Dancă observed, “It is so significant that Peter’s successor comes to celebrate the liturgy of beatification for seven bishops who died for unity with Peter, with Rome. One doesn’t have to be a religious person to feel the magnitude of this celebration. It is very deep as mystery and as symbol!”
Representatives from Eastern Catholic Churches from the Middle East (including Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite Patriarch from Lebanon), Slovakia and Ukraine will also attend the Sunday liturgy, as will members of the Ordinariate for Catholics of the Armenian Rite in Romania.
While in Blaj, Francis also will meet representatives of the Roma community, commonly, and pejoratively, called Gypsies. More than 600,000 Roma live in Romania, according to the 2011 census. The Holy Father invited several hundred Roma to meet with him at the Vatican earlier this month.
In a message to the Romanian people released this week, Pope Francis echoed the visit’s motto, Sa Mergem Impreuna (“Let’s Walk Together”):
“I come among you to walk together. We walk together when we learn to protect the roots and the family, when we take care of the future of the children and the brother that is next to us, when we go beyond fears and suspicions, when we let the barriers fall that separates us from others.”