BRIGHT sunshine and 15,000 excited pilgrims greeted Pope Francis in Blaj, Romania, on Sunday, as he presided over the final liturgy of his papal visit. The three-day tour of Romania underscored a core theme of his pontificate: attention to those at the geographical and social margins.
At the ceremony, held in the grounds of the city’s Greek Catholic Theological Seminary, the Pope beatified seven Romanian Eastern-rite Catholic martyr-bishops who died while incarcerated by Communist authorities after their arrest in 1948. One, Alexandru Rusa (who died in 1963), was made a cardinal in secret by Pope Paul VI — fact revealed posthumously.
The service offered the rare sight of a pope presiding at a eucharist according to the Church’s Eastern rite. In his declaration of beatification, the first step to sainthood, Pope Francis observed that, “in the face of fierce opposition from the regime”, the martyrs “demonstrated an exemplary faith and love”. They had, he said, “handed down a precious legacy”.
Romania’s Greek-Catholics suffered extensive persecution during the Cold War for their loyalty to Rome and resistance to a state-mandated merger with the majority Orthodox Church. Speaking after the Pope, the community’s 88-year-old Primate, Cardinal Lucian Mure?an, struggled to contain his emotion. He told the crowd: “Peter is here, to confirm us in the faith.”
Other minorities were also brought to the fore during the tour. On arrival, the Pope met his official host, President Klaus Iohannis, whose formal invitation enabled the visit. A Lutheran, Mr Iohannis is a member of Romania’s tiny ethnic German minority. His election, in 2014, was highly unusual in a country where being Romanian and being Orthodox can appear identical.
Besides celebrating the life of Romania’s Greek Catholics, Pope Francis engaged with the country’s large (1.2-million-strong) ethnic Hungarian community, celebrating a mass for them at the significant Marian pilgrimage site of Sumuleu Ciuc (Csíksomlyó), Transylvania.
Mindful of ethnic tension in Transylvania, which has traded hands between Romania and Hungary within living memory, the Pope urged that “sorrow-filled situations from the past must not be forgotten . . . yet neither must they be an obstacle in the way of our desire to live together as brothers and sisters.”
It was a reconciling message that the Pope modelled in interaction with the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Daniel during their meeting in Bucharest last Friday. Gerard O’Connell, Vatican correspondent for the US Jesuit magazine America, characterised their conversation as manifesting “real warmth [as] . . . they spoke together, even joked and laughed”.
The Pope left Romania on a penitent note. At a meeting with members of the impoverished Roma community on the last day of his visit, in Blaj, he asked forgiveness for “all those times in history when we [the church hierarchy] have discriminated, mistreated, or looked askance at you”.