VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said he hopes his visit to Romania will strengthen the bonds of faith that unite Orthodox and Catholics in the country.
The ties between the two churches date back to the apostles Peter and Andrew, who were “blood brothers and shed their blood for the Lord,” like the seven bishop-martyrs of the Eastern-rite Romanian Catholic Church, who died during a fierce anti-religious campaign waged under the communist regime in Romania.
“What they have suffered for, even to the point of offering their lives, is too precious a legacy to be forgotten,” the pope said in a May 28 video message to the people of Romania. “And it is a common inheritance, which calls us not to distance ourselves from the brother or sister who shares it.”
The pope was to visit Romania May 31-June 2 and beatify the martyred bishops.
Almost 82 percent of the country’s 20 million inhabitants say they belong to the Orthodox Church while over 4 percent identify as Catholic, belonging either to the Romanian Catholic Church — an Eastern rite — or the Latin rite.
Pope Francis said he would visit the country “as a pilgrim and as a brother” and that he looked “forward to meeting the patriarch and the Permanent Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church, as well as the pastors and Catholic faithful.”
“I come among you to walk together,” the pope said. “We walk together when we learn to keep our roots and our family, when we take care of the future of our children and the brother or sister next to us, when we go beyond fears and suspicions, when we let go of the barriers that separate us from others.”
The trip is Pope Francis’ 30th international trip. He is likely to receive a different, more reserved welcome than St. John Paul II did 20 years ago, said an expert in Catholic-Orthodox relations.
“I’m delighted that Pope Francis is able to follow in (St. John Paul II’s) footsteps and make a similar visit. It remains to be seen how well he will be received. It’s hard to predict, but we have good reason to believe that it will be a very important meeting,” Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, told Catholic News Service May 10.
St. John Paul’s visit to Romania in 1999 was the first by a reigning pontiff to a predominantly Orthodox country since the Great Schism of 1054 and marked a turning point in Catholic-Orthodox relations.
One of the most poignant moments of the aging pontiff’s visit came while he was celebrating an outdoor Mass on the final day of his visit to Bucharest.
“I remember the people’s cry at the eucharistic celebration in Podul Izvor Park: ‘Unity, unity!’ This is the spiritual yearning of a people asking for unity and willing to work to obtain it,” St. John Paul told Romanian bishops visiting the Vatican in 2001.
Father Roberson told CNS that St. John Paul’s visit “was very well received” and a “very encouraging” moment of dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Father Roberson, who studied in Romania for several years, said when Pope Francis visits the country May 31-June 2, he will see a Romania that has improved remarkably since the time of St. John Paul’s visit only 10 years after the fall of the country’s harsh communist regime.
“I was in Romania a couple of summers working on Romanian language courses in the days of communism and it was such an oppressive society; it was really palpable,” the Paulist said. But “I was there about a year ago for a meeting and I was able to see Bucharest and some of the other cities and it’s been a huge improvement in their situation.”
Relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches today, however, face new, challenging hurdles since the days St. John Paul heard those cries for unity 20 years ago.
One of the first issues that came up after the Romanian Revolution of 1989 regarded the restitution of property taken from the Eastern-rite Catholic Church after its members were forced underground following the church’s dissolution by the communist government in 1948.
With communism in the country gone for decades, he added, Pope Francis’ visit and his meeting with Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Daniel, scheduled for May 31, could improve relations “in a spirit of freedom.”
“I think they have to take into account their own constituencies and their peoples and their own needs, and so on,” Father Roberson said. “Hopefully, we can make some very positive steps forward.”