On his visit to Romania last weekend, Pope Francis further extended the healing hand of the Catholic Church to the Eastern Orthodox Christians separated for centuries from Rome and long suspicious of the papacy.
The three-day visit by Francis included meetings, prayers and expressions of brotherhood with Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Daniel and an outdoor Mass before more than 80,000 people at the Marian Shrine of Sumuleu Ciuc in a Catholic region of northern Romania.
The pope also beatified seven Greek Catholic bishops who died in prison for refusing the demand of Romania’s former Communist regime that they join the Orthodox Church.
In visiting Romania, Pope Francis was following in the pioneering footsteps of Pope John Paul II some 20 years ago, who made history by becoming the first pope to visit a predominantly Orthodox country since the schism of 1054 that split the Christian world.
The differences 1,000 years ago were both theological and political, with a major point of contention the Eastern churches’ objection to placing universal authority with the Bishop of Rome.
Today, with secularism on the rise throughout Europe as it is in North America, and with political divisions everywhere growing deeper, it is critically important for Christian leaders to put aside their differences and work together toward the vision of peace, unity and love that Jesus taught.
Indeed, Francis chose “Journeying Together” as the theme for his trip.
Pope Francis, like his predecessor, has made the Christian ideal of brotherhood a hallmark of his teaching. Just last month, Francis visited Bulgaria, another bastion of Orthodox Christianity in Europe. His reception there was chilly, but he pressed forward and later went ahead with the trip to Romania and a warmer welcome.
To be sure, there are still tensions for the Catholic Church in Romania. Many are rooted not in the teachings of the Gospel but in property rights and patrimony. Specifically, during the Communist rule in Romania the government confiscated the Greek Catholic churches in the country and gave them to the Orthodox Church. (Greek Catholics follow the eastern rites in their liturgical practice but are in union with the pope; they make up much of the Catholic population in Romania.)
Those properties have not all been returned, and disagreements over that and other issues will continue.
We are encouraged, however, by the outreach on the part of Pope Francis and the reception he received in a country where only five percent of the people are Catholic. We’re encouraged in our hope that divisions in the Christian brotherhood can be healed enough to allow us to think of ourselves as united in Christ, even if we’re not yet united in our religious identities.
Pope Francis, in an address to the Permanent Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church with Patriarch Daniel at his side, said both churches must not hold onto the memories of “wrongs endured and inflicted, of judgments and prejudices that enclose us in a vicious circle and bring only barrenness.”
Instead, the pope said, Catholics and Orthodox must remember that despite their differences, they share a common heritage founded on the first martyrs and confessors of the faith whose holiness was “lived out and witnessed to by so many simple persons who share the same heaven.”
That is indeed the way it was in the beginning. We pray it becomes the way forward.