Francis at Rome-Fiumicino airport © Gregorio Borgia
Less than four weeks after his visit to the Balkans, Francis travels to the land of the Carpathians. Here, too, he will take a look at Europe from the sidelines, promote ecumenism and celebrate liturgy in a different way, as he did when he was an altar boy.
Pope Francis departed Friday morning for a three-day trip to Romania. Before departure, he greeted 15 homeless people of Romanian origin who live in the vicinity of the Vatican and receive social assistance from church institutions, according to Vatican sources.
The trip will focus on meetings with the Catholic minority and various social groups, as well as meetings with the leaders of the state and the Romanian Orthodox Church. It is the fourth trip of the head of the church to the Balkan region.
Great opportunity for ecumenism
This time, Francis should not have to pray alone and silently – as he did on the 5. May in Sofia. When the Pope on 31. May enters the newly built Orthodox cathedral in Bucharest, there is planned a common prayer of the Lord's Prayer. Whether Patriarch Daniel Ciobotea will participate and how it will take place is also an indicator of the state of ecumenism in Romania.
Four weeks ago in Sofia, the head of the Catholic Church was only allowed to stand silently in front of an image of the Slavic apostles Cyril and Methodius in the Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
20 years ago, John Paul II. becoming the first and so far only pope to visit the Carpathian country. Now Francis follows with his 30. Foreign trip to take him once again to Europe's fringes. Unlike Bulgaria, the Orthodox Church in Romania is more ecumenically open.
Since the end of the Ceausescu regime, the church, to which some 85 percent of the country's people belong, has experienced a revival. There are 15 theological faculties and over 500 monasteries.
The "Cathedral for the Redemption of the Nation" in the capital, which was only completed in November 2018, is an expression of such optimism and self-confidence. At 120 meters long, it surpasses Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral, but doesn't quite reach Cologne's cathedral.
So in terms of church politics, the pope's trip to Romania is unlikely to be a delicate one – it is intended to "strengthen friendly ties," says Cardinal Kurt Koch, who is responsible for ecumenism at the Vatican.
Politically explosive encounters
Things could get more explosive right at the beginning, at the reception first by President Klaus Iohannis and then by Prime Minister Viorica Dancila. This is also because Romania's actual political ruler can probably only appear at the third stop of the visit, which is strictly regulated by protocol: Shadow head of government Liviu Dragnea.
The party leader of the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) could not become prime minister after their landslide victory in late 2016 because he has been sentenced to two years' probation for electoral fraud.
Since then, Dragnea and his PSD have been at loggerheads with President Iohannis, especially over his efforts to curb corruption in the country. The EU Commission has repeatedly called for this and a thorough reform of the judiciary.
It is therefore necessary to listen more carefully when Francis addresses the assembled political and social elite of Romania in a speech. Whether his speechwriters will include references to it four days after the European elections is uncertain.
Francis' standard plea for the poor and marginalized is unlikely to be missed.
It would also be conceivable to say a few words about the many Romanians who have left their homeland for the West in search of work and a better life. Many of them went to Italy. Women in particular earn their living there as private caregivers for the elderly.
Personally, they often do not fare well far from home, even if Romanians – also because of their language, which is relatively similar to Italian – have fewer integration problems.
To the monastery and the Roma
On Saturday, the second day of his trip, Francis visited the shrine of Sumuleu Ciuc in the northeast of the country.
Every year on the Saturday before Pentecost, the monastery church there is a heavily visited pilgrimage destination for Roman Catholics from Szekler, Romania. Their language is a Hungarian dialect; Hungarians are the largest official minority with 6 percent of the population.
Unlike in Bulgaria, the Pope will not visit a refugee center in Romania. For this, a good 50-minute meeting with Roma is planned for the afternoon of the third day. Their people are estimated to make up nearly 10 percent of the population. Officially, only 3 percent; in surveys, many Roma do not like to state their ethnicity.
Memories of time as an altar boy
In the morning, Francis will beatify seven martyrs of the Greek Catholic Church in Blaj, Transylvania – at a Mass celebration in the Byzantine, Eastern Church rite. The pope from Argentina will not be entirely unfamiliar with this ecumenically significant celebration.
As a twelve-year-old in Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio was an altar boy for a priest from the Ukraine. The pope once revealed that he learned the "beauty of the Byzantine liturgy" from the latter.