The Vatican added a new papal trip to an already packed 2019 calendar last week. It confirmed that Pope Francis will visit Romania from May 31 to June 2.
Why did the Pope pick this destination, rather than a historically Catholic country such as France or Spain? According to Romania’s 2011 census, it has just 870,774 Latin Rite Catholics and 150,593 Greek Catholics, who together account for roughly five per cent of the population.
Yet it is no secret that Francis has a strong preference for countries on the “peripheries”. Romania has struggled to overcome the brutal legacy of communism and is known today for its poverty and high abortion rate. Its population – currently 20 million – is expected to plummet thanks to emigration and a sub-replacement fertility rate.
But Francis is not simply visiting Romania because it is on the margins of Europe. His trip will mark the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s journey to the Orthodox majority country. The Polish pontiff’s trip was regarded as an ecumenical breakthrough. As Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest recently recalled, “when John Paul II came to Romania, the splendid relation between the pope and Patriarch Teoctist made all the difference. Orthodox, including Patriarch Teoctist, took part in the Catholic Mass, and Catholics, including John Paul II, took part in the Orthodox prayer.”
Yet Catholic-Orthodox relations seem to have deteriorated since then. “I cannot see all of this being possible today,” Archbishop Robu told the Catholic News Agency. “Patriarch Daniel, who took the helm of the Romanian Orthodox Church in 2008, has not encouraged the celebration of joint prayers, [either] with Catholics [or] with any other religious denominations. There is not even any more a joint prayer during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
“Sometimes, in the case of mixed marriages between Catholics and Orthodox, the Orthodox ask for a second Orthodox baptism to celebrate the wedding. Sometimes, when a Catholic is best man in an Orthodox wedding, the priest asks him to convert to Orthodoxy and sign the conversion in that very moment.”
The change in Orthodox leadership is not the only factor. There is also significant tension between the Orthodox and Greek Catholics over property. When communists seized power in 1948, they banned the Greek Catholic Church and transferred around 2,500 of its buildings and other assets to the Orthodox Church. After the revolution in 1989, Greek Catholics were allowed to worship freely again, but not all their property was returned.
So Pope Francis will have to tread carefully when he touches down in Bucharest in May. Local media report that he will, in fact, pray alongside Patriarch Daniel in the capital’s People’s Salvation Cathedral (which will be the tallest Orthodox church in the world when completed in 2024). As a young man, Daniel studied at the Catholic theology faculty of the University of Freiburg, so he may be more open to ecumenism than some assume.
During his meeting with the Patriarch, Pope Francis may choose to send a message to the wider Orthodox world: that Catholics are still committed to seeking full, visible unity with Eastern Christians. This would be an ideal opportunity to do so, as there is currently a fierce battle within Orthodoxy. One of the dividing lines is ecumenism. On one side are those who regard the Catholic Church with suspicion, if not outright contempt, and even reject other Orthodox traditions as illegitimate. On the other are those (seemingly a minority) who believe that Christians must strive for unity if they are to meet the harsh challenges of the 21st century. In Romania, the Pope has a chance to bolster the latter group.
The Orthodox world is in turmoil over the creation of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, under the aegis of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Russian Orthodox Church, which for centuries held sway in Ukraine, has reacted furiously. The Vatican is determined to remain neutral, but Orthodox Churches across Europe are being drawn into the fray.
In Romania, Pope Francis may appeal to the Orthodox to overcome factionalism and focus on our essential task: bringing the Gospel to the wounded and disoriented people of our secular age. That goal cannot be reached by emphasising our divisions.
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