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Diary: Transylvania awaits the Pope – and one million pilgrims

Interior of Csíksomlyó church (Wikimedia)

I’m back in Transylvania. At Csíksomlyó they are replanting the gardens and extending the car parks ready for Pope Francis’s visit on June 1. The Jakab Antal hostel is already advertising a special pilgrim’s menu – green pea soup and paprika pork for 18 lei (£3.25, $4.20).

The village’s Neo-Baroque church is home to a 7ft-high wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, known as the Weeping Mary, the source of many legends. The statue is venerated by Catholics from the Székelyland, the part of Transylvania that is ethnically Hungarian but has been part of Romania since 1920. Every year several hundred thousand of the faithful, many wearing colourful national dress, climb the hill behind the church for an open-air service. This year a million are expected. Some will arrive on a specially chartered steam train, but locals are fearful of chaotic scenes on the country roads that lead to the pilgrimage site.

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As we drive south for an hour to Esztelnek, snow covers the peaks of the Carpathian Mountains. The village is first mentioned in papal records in 1332; its Franciscan monastery became a major centre for education in the region. In 1921, fire destroyed three of its four wings, and the attached church. Twenty-five years later the arrival of communism rendered the remainder of the building redundant. We arrive to find workmen restoring the surviving wing. One man is clearly in charge, and it turns out he is the sole remaining Franciscan, Fr Szilveszter.

Fr Szilveszter explains that, though religious orders were banned by the communists, they didn’t disappear altogether. “We Franciscans were very good at pouring the pálinka for the comrades,” he says, referring to the fiery, often home-brewed local spirit. “And so we were allowed to carry on teaching village children.” A new schoolhouse was built, with the tables cleared away for weekly Mass. After the fall of the Ceaușescu regime, in the early 1990s the building was turned into a full-time church, complete with new tower.

Four years ago Fr Szilveszter applied to the European Union for funds to rebuild the crumbling monastery building. It took two years before the grant was approved, by which time the cost of workers’ pay and materials had soared. Unforeseen problems encountered during reconstruction have added further to the budget. But Fr Szilveszter has lost none of his passion. He is determined that the money will somehow be found and Esztelnek’s monastery will rise again, this time serving as a spiritual retreat for clergy and laity. He asks for our prayers as we leave. “We will get there,” he says. “Our work here feels almost as if we are creating a miracle.”

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We leave Fr Szilveszter poring over his architectural plans and drive on to Gelencze. Its 13th-century walled church is dedicated to St Emeric, son of St Stephen, the first king of Hungary.

A septuagenarian warden clad in multiple layers of clothing lets us in, digging into her capacious pockets to find a small laser, which she uses to point out the highlights of the building.

One wall is covered in frescoes, whitewashed over in the 1600s and only rediscovered in the late 1920s. There is an extraordinary freshness to the images; a painting of the Last Supper features a table setting so vivid that the bowls and water vessels seem to gleam brightly. Ribbons in the colours of the Hungarian flag dress the richly painted organ loft, with a miniature baroque instrument, recently restored. Modern purple altar cloths clash with the church’s delicate beauty.

But this was not always such a calm place. Above the door and in the outer walls there are slit windows where arrows would be fired at raiding parties coming from across the Carpathians in the 15th century. Today this village is an enclave of Catholicism in a mainly Protestant area. “There are 5,000 people in this village. All but 73 of them Catholic,” the retainer proudly informs us.

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The places we visited have official Romanian names as well as Hungarian ones. Some boast German monikers too. We finish our journey in Sibiu, once better known as Hermannstadt when it was the capital of Saxon Transylvania.

Nowadays just 2,000 ethnic Germans remain, though one of them, Klaus Iohannis, is the current Romanian president. He will be on hand next week to welcome visitors attending the EU summit being staged in his elegant city. Its celebrated National Theatre will welcome politicians with Romanian language performances of Faust and Waiting for Godot. It has even gone to the trouble of arranging simultaneous English translation.

Alas, there is unlikely to be much of a British delegation in the audience; Theresa May appears to have ruled out attending what has widely been described as a celebratory gathering of EU leaders.

Petroc Trelawny presents Breakfast on BBC Radio 3