Pope Francis has completed a gruelling three-day trip to Romania where he battled rain and mud to become the first Roman pontiff to venture out of the country’s capital city.
During his visit Francis beatified seven bishop-martyrs killed under the country’s communist regime, was driven to a Marian shrine in Transylvania, met with the Orthodox patriarch and apologised for the mistreatment of Roma people.
This was the second visit by a Roman pontiff to the Eastern European country, with Francis’ trip coming 20 years after John Paul II’s trip to Bucharest. When John Paul went to Romania in 1999 he was only able to visit the capital city.
After spending the first day in Bucharest meeting the country’s political leaders, the 82-year-old Jesuit Pope was forced to change his travel plans and take a three-hour rain-soaked drive through the mountains of Transylvania in order to reach the Sumuleu Ciuc Marian shrine. Francis had been due to make the journey by helicopter but the weather made it impossible.
Holding on to his aides, the Pope made his way through a muddy path to an altar to say Mass for between 80,000 and 100,000 pilgrims. In a homily he called on the country to put aside past divisions: 1.2 million Hungarians live in Romania, and there have been tensions between the Hungarian Catholic community and the Romanian-speaking Greek-Catholic communities. Both make up the 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.
After the Mass, and with the weather improving, he took a helicopter to the city of Iasi, in the northeast of the country, where he met with young Romanians and their families. While there his popemobile passed by a grandmother holding up her grandchild to the Pope.
“She smiled, it was a knowing smile, as if she was saying to me: ‘Look, now I can dream!’ I was very moved in that moment and I didn’t have the courage to go and bring her up here,” he told the crowd. “That’s why I am telling you. Grandparents dream when their grandchildren go forward, and grandchildren have courage when they take their roots from their grandparents”.
On Sunday bad weather meant the Pope had to forego his helicopter and travel by car to Blaj, to beatify seven bishop martyrs in the heartland of the country’s Greek-Catholic church.
This was the first time he had presided over an eastern-rite liturgy as Pope, where he described how the new martyrs had faced down “fierce opposition” from the communist regime and “accepted harsh imprisonment and every kind of mistreatment, in order not to deny their fidelity to their beloved church.”
They had, he explained, “handed down to the Romanian people a precious legacy that we can sum up in two words: freedom and mercy.” One of the beatified bishops, Alexandru Rusu, who died in prison in 1963, had been made a cardinal by Paul VI but at his request this elevation was only revealed after his death.
Afterwards, Francis met with a group of Roma people, where he apologised to them for “all those times in history when we have discriminated, mistreated or looked askance at you.”
The Roma have faced persecution in Europe for centuries, while Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has threatened to expel thousands of them from Italy.
Francis said: “History tells us that Christians too, including Catholics, are not strangers to such evil … I would like to ask your forgiveness for this. I ask forgiveness — in the name of the church and of the Lord.”
The Pope’s visit also included a meeting with Patriarch Daniel in Bucharest, the second time that a Roman pontiff has met with Romania’s Orthodox leader.
After their private meeting, Francis and the Patriarch met with and spoke to members of the synod before going to the new Orthodox cathedral. The synod did not want them to pray together in the Cathedral but separately, Francis in Latin, and the patriarch in Romanian. The Pope told journalists later that he prayed the Our Father in Italian and that he saw many in the cathedral praying.
“The people go beyond us leaders. We leaders must make diplomatic balances to ensure that we go together,” he said. “But the people pray together, even us when we are alone, we pray together.”