Ecumenical outreach by Pope Francis in Romania

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The contemporary ecumenical movement has its roots in the 1910 World Mission Conference which was held in Edinburgh, Scotland. More than a century later, we have travelled a remarkable distance together on the path to Christian unity, but our scandalous state of division still prevents those who name Christ as Lord from effectively giving witness to the world in the way intended by the savior in the prayer the night before he was assassinated: that his followers may be one as he and the Father are one (Jn 17:21-23). As long as Protestants, Catholic, Orthodox and others who recognize the triune God continue to prioritize our tribal belongings over our shared heritage, we remain separate and thus obscure, while never extinguishing, the radiant light of the Gospel to the whole human race.

Pope Francis meets with members of the Roma community, sometimes called gypsies, in Blaj, Romania, June 2, 2019. —-CNS photo/Vatican Media

The pope’s recent trip to Romania placed these realities at the forefront of the Christian world, at least for a few days.

The country has long been home to contentious conflict and distrust between Eastern rite Catholics, who make up about 5 percent of Romania’s 20 million people, and the much more nationally influential autocephalous Romanian Orthodox Church.

Pope Francis made a point of visiting both Orthodox Patriarch Daniel and the church’s permanent synod to encourage unity and to move toward a “new Pentecost.” It was striking that something as simple as the language of the Our Father was a disputed topic, as many in Romania, given the historical and political conflicts between the Christians there that date in large part to the Great Schism in 1054 A.D., preferred that Pope Francis pray it separately in Latin, and not in Romanian with the Patriarch.

He obliged, but also highlighted solidarity across barriers by reflecting that Jesus made it impossible for any follower of his to claim God as “my” Father, but obliged us to recognize the communal dimension and our fraternal connections by collectively addressing instead “our” Father. It is also a consistent theme for him that Christians of all stripes receive the “shared inheritance” of suffering for the name of Jesus, with many in every generation obviously shedding blood for him. The ancient thinker Tertullian once asserted that the blood of these witnesses (“martyrs”) is in fact the seedbed of our faith. Both tragically and gloriously, this continues apace into our own day all across the world.

In this light, the pope also took the opportunity to beatify seven Greek Catholic bishops of the country who were killed by the Soviets between 1950 and 1970. Their first names: Valeriu, Vasile, Ioan (twice), Tito, Alexandru and Iuliu highlight the Christian culture of the nation as they reflect biblical, apostolic or patristic sources in the local tongue (Saints Valerius, Basil, John, Titus, Alexander, Julius).

He followed this ceremony with a meeting with the Roma people, who have been persecuted in Europe for centuries, including during the Holocaust. These people colloquially and somewhat pejoratively known as “gypsies” often encounter difficulty finding housing or labor, and often live in poverty and wrestle with addiction. The pope apologized to those in Romania for “all those times in history when we have discriminated, mistreated or looked askance at you.” Many Roma people are in fact Christian, especially Pentecostal in increasing numbers, and so this was in some ways another arm of his ecumenical outreach.

As we move forward into the 21st century of belief in the redemptive mission of Christ, all those who profess his name continue to travel along the path toward communion and unity with the Lord and one another. The pope’s recent efforts in Romania are simply one small but important step in this ongoing journey.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.