Pope Francis once again waded into the thorny politics of Europe’s emerging nationalism and continued his ecumenical outreach to Orthodox Christians during his recent trip to Romania. His trip followed the recent elections which witnessed an increase in the nationalist far right parties across Europe. His message to the emerging conservative and nationalist right was to remind Europeans of their common values and to appeal to the hearts of Christian Europeans to open their hearts to emigrants and ethnic minorities, such as the Romani (colloquially known as Gypsies or Roma).
Recent elections across Europe have seen an increase in the populist political movements, most notably in France and even Italy. In fact, Europe is seeing a growing balkanization between parties classified as ecological liberals — predominantly among the young and older national populists. The liberals want to further the cause of ecology and address climate change and the more conservative populist parties are not in favor (in different degrees) to the European Union. The anti-Brussels nationalist parties saw the rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy. These parties of the right are known as “euroskeptics” and they now have increased to 25 percent of the European Parliament’s seats.
Pope Francis appealed while in Romania for European unity and warned against the growing dangers of populism. He appealed to the leaders of Romania, saying, “to move forward together, as a way of shaping the future, requires a noble willingness to sacrifice something of one’s own vision or best interest for the sake of a greater project.” He continued by saying their joint cooperation “makes it possible to advance securely toward shared goals.”
After meeting with the secular leaders of Romania, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph and turned his focus toward separated Christians. In a meeting with Patriarch Daniel, the leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Pope Francis appealed to the healing of memories and asked his “brother” never to forget their common “roots,” which he described as “sound and sure” in spite of the fact that “their growth has undergone the twists and turns of time.” Romania is overwhelmingly Orthodox. In 1948, before the communist took Romania over, there were some 1.5 million Romanian Catholics. They were forced by the communists to join the Orthodox Church or disband. Following the end of the communist rule in Romania the Eastern Rite Catholic Church in Romania has shrunk to around 200,000 in a country of 20 million, where nine out of 10 people are Orthodox Christians.
During his visit, Pope Francis beatified seven Eastern Rite Catholic bishops who were arrested in 1948 and accused of “high treason” after they refused to convert to Orthodoxy. They were jailed, tortured and endured ignominious deaths. They were buried in unmarked graves in work camps. At a liturgy in the city of Blaj, in Transylvania, attended by some 60,000 worshippers, Pope Francis preached, “The new blessed ones suffered and sacrificed their lives, opposing a system of totalitarian and coercive ideology. These shepherds, martyrs of faith, garnered for and left the Romanian people a precious heritage which we can sum up in two words: freedom and mercy.”
The bars of the cell that once imprisoned the bishops were symbolically incorporated into the presiding chair used by the pope at the beatification Mass.
At the end of his visit he took time to meet with the Roma people, who are often disparagingly referred to as “gypsies.” He took this opportunity on behalf of the entire Roman Catholic Church to apologize for the suffering that they have endured over the centuries throughout Europe and sometimes by members of the church. Roma make up approximately 8 percent of Romania’s population. They have endured much suffering through prejudice, culminating in the Nazi attempt to exterminate them in the Holocaust, killing over 500,000.
The pope spoke his apology in a newly consecrated church in the poor section of Blaj, where a Roma priest welcomed him “to the periphery of the peripheries.”
Pope Francis said, “History tells us that Christians too, including Catholics, are not strangers to such evil! I would like to ask your forgiveness for this. I ask forgiveness — in the name of the church and of the Lord and I ask forgiveness of you, for all those times in history when we have discriminated, mistreated or looked askance at you.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.