BUCHAREST, Romania — When Pope John Paul II made history in Romania 20 years ago by becoming the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to visit a predominantly Orthodox nation since the schism of 1054, he was welcomed as the global figure who helped bring down Communism.
Still, wary Romanian Orthodox officials limited his travel to Bucharest, the capital, and kept him from going to the Transylvania region, where many of the country’s Catholics lived.
Now, Pope Francis has returned to a more vibrant and internationally connected Romania, with permission to roam northeast from Bucharest to Iasi, on the border with Moldova, and then northwest to Blaj, in Transylvania. In Miercurea Ciuc on Saturday, he celebrated an open-air Mass at an important Catholic pilgrimage site, where large crowds, many from Romania’s Hungarian-speaking minority, gathered in the mud and rain to hear the pope deliver a homily.
At the Marian shrine, he told the crowd, estimated at more than 80,000, that Mary had asked that “we not let ourselves be robbed of our fraternal love by those voices and hurts that provoke division and fragmentation.” He described going on pilgrimage as being “part of a caravan” that could increase cooperation, integration and solidarity.
The pope reached the pilgrimage site on Saturday after something of a pilgrimage of his own. Bad weather forced his plane to be rerouted to Targu Mures, from where he drove for more than two hours across the Carpathian Mountains on winding roads.
A major goal of Francis’ three-day trip here is to help mend an open wound between the two churches that ultimately goes back to centuries-old theological and political clashes. Improving relations with the Orthodox, as well as the Muslim, world — where so many Christians live in peril — has been a hallmark of Francis’ papacy and a driver of much of his recent travel, from Egypt to Morocco, Bulgaria and Romania, where in his three-day trip he has warned of the dangers of populism.
But for all Francis’ free movement and speech around Romania, tensions still linger between Romania’s majority Orthodox Church and its Catholic communities, which represent about 5 percent of the country’s population. The Great Schism, caused by differences in liturgy and theology, eventually led to a split and mutual excommunications between the western church, loyal to the pope, and the eastern church, loyal to a patriarch. After centuries of division, and then decades of Communist rule that imprisoned, killed and otherwise persecuted Catholics, hard feelings remain.
“They are still a few people who are afraid of the pope’s visit, who try to manipulate,” said the Rev. Francisc Dobos, a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Bucharest. “Generally, there is a good relationship, but I’d like to have a much more closer relationship.”
But others cited less spiritual and more concrete motivations for tension between the two churches.
“The tensions between these two churches are related to the patrimony: the buildings, churches,” said the Rev. Wilhelm Danca, a professor at the Roman Catholic Faculty of Theology at the University of Bucharest.
During Communist rule, the government confiscated properties belonging to the Greek Catholic Church and gave them to the Orthodox Church. Many have yet to be returned.
“John Paul II was stopped from going around the country exactly due to this fear, to not give too much courage to the Greek Catholic Church to obtain their former palaces, churches, cathedrals and so forth,” Father Danca said.
Deacon Ionut Mavrichi, a Romanian Orthodox Church spokesman, acknowledged that “the restitution process has been a long one, and the Orthodox Church is only a part of that dialogue.”
The Vatican’s spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, said before the trip that the issue would not be publicly discussed in Romania, but he did not rule out its being addressed in private.
On Friday, in several meetings with the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Daniel, to whom some Catholics attribute chillier relations, Francis spoke at length about the need to move on from old grievances. The two spiritual leaders, wearing matching white robes, seemed to hit it off as they exchanged speeches of brotherhood in the patriarch’s office.
They took turns reciting the Lord’s Prayer and listening to haunting chants before a packed crowd of officials and the faithful in a gilded Orthodox Cathedral that was, in small part, funded by a $200,000 donation by John Paul II when he visited in 1999. When it is completed, the building will be the tallest Orthodox church in the world.
For Francis, the relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches were also a work in progress. In his first trip to Bulgaria in May, he was allowed to pray in the Orthodox cathedral in Sofia, but alone. This time, Francis and the Patriarch Daniel prayed in the same space, seated a few feet apart in the Orthodox cathedral, taking turns in their own languages.
“The bonds of faith that unite us go back to the Apostles,” Francis said at the Palace of the Patriarch in Bucharest on Friday, noting that many of the Romanian diaspora throughout Western Europe “cooperate fruitfully with the many Catholic dioceses.”
He said John Paul II’s earlier visit, which charmed Romania and evoked cries of “Unity, unity” from the crowds, had “opened the way” that he now traveled.
“I don’t perceive it to be very hard to be a Catholic in Romania,” said Mihaela Ionescu, a 49-year-old convert from the Orthodox Church, who works for an international logistics company in Bucharest. “I was raised in Bucovina, in the north of Romania, where the Catholic Church was present and people didn’t hate each other because of differences of faith,” she said, standing in the crowds Friday evening.
However, she added: “People who were raised in predominantly Orthodox regions don’t know that there are few differences between the services. They see a threat and want to preserve the Orthodox way.”
Some of the faithful said Romania’s Catholics still had hurdles to overcome.
“It’s not so easy being a Catholic here, as we are in the minority,” said George Busuioc, a 26-year-old architect who on Friday watched the pope delivering evening Mass on a large screen outside the city’s red brick Catholic St. Joseph Cathedral. Still, he said, it was far better than in the days of his grandmother, when as a young woman she had to attend secret services in private homes. “In most of Romania, Greek Catholics were persecuted,” he recalled.
In a homily during a Friday evening Mass inside the cathedral, Francis urged his flock to look beyond their own communities. “When the most important thing is not one’s own affiliation, group or ethnicity, but the people that together praises God,” he said, “then great things take place.”
Later on Saturday, he was to visit the Our Lady Queen of Iasi Cathedral and attend a Marian gathering with young people and families outside the city’s Palace of Culture.
On Sunday, Francis is set to beatify seven Greek Catholic bishops who died in prison under Romania’s Communist regime. At the time, members of the Greek Catholic Church were required to join the Orthodox Church. This year, the Greek Catholic bishops were declared martyrs, putting them on the path to sainthood.
But for Francis, who has made attention to the Catholic peripheries a hallmark of his papacy, much of the trip remained focused on improving the relations between the church leaderships, to benefit his flock on the ground.