BUCHAREST, May 31 — Pope Francis today praised the “sacrifices” of Romanian emigrants on the first day of his trip to the country, where rampant unemployment and poverty have pushed millions of youngsters to seek better lives abroad.
Francis said the exodus had led to the “depopulation of many villages” in Romania, which still faces major socio-political problems despite joining the EU in 2007.
“I pay homage to the sacrifices endured by so many sons and daughters of Romania who... have enriched those countries to which they have emigrated, and by the fruit of their hard work have helped their families who have remained at home,” he said in a speech broadcast on national television.
Francis arrived in Bucharest earlier today with a message of integration for faith communities and a post-election European Union following nationalist gains.
Thousands of people had gathered along the capital’s main boulevards to wave to Francis on his way to the presidential palace, with many TV channels broadcasting his every step and large screens set up across the city.
During the three-day visit to the mainly Orthodox country, sat at the crossroads of western and eastern Europe, Francis is expected to raise issues fuelling nationalism, such as poverty, as well as inter-religious relations.
Later today, Francis will take a turn in his popemobile through the streets of Bucharest to Saint Joseph’s Cathedral where 30,000 people are expected to gather for a mass.
He will have a private meeting with Patriarch Daniel, but while they will pray alongside each other — one in Latin and the other in Romanian — the pair will not appear together in public, a sign of their frosty relations.
The pontiff set off from Rome’s Fiumicino airport early today after meeting a group of 15 homeless Romanians who live in Rome.
In Bucharest, he was welcomed at the airport by pro-European President Klaus Iohannis and some 200 cheering children, dressed mostly in white and waving flags.
After talks with Iohannis, Francis met Romania’s first female Prime Minister, Viorica Dancila before his speech.
The address was attended by top officials, civil society members and religious leaders including Orthodox Patriarch Daniel.
“It is necessary to move forward together with conviction in following the highest calling to which every state must aspire: that of responsibility for the common good of its people,” the 82-year-old said.
Unemployment and poverty are among the factors that have driven some 16 per cent of Romania’s 20 million people, mostly youngsters, to emigrate to other EU countries.
The pope’s visit follows 20 years after John Paul II received a hearty welcome for his perceived role in the fall of Communism.
Relations between the Orthodox Church and Romania’s Greek Catholics — who number just 150,000 — have been strained ever since the country was under post-war Communist rule.
The tiny community had its property confiscated while its religious leaders were jailed.
But the Greek Catholics resisted, holding secret masses until the dictatorship fell in 1989.
The pontiff will beatify seven bishops who were tortured and died in prison, setting them on the path to sainthood.
He will also travel across the country to meet people of diverse faiths and languages, which include 18 officially recognised minorities.
The highlight of the trip is set to be Saturday’s mass at the Sumuleu Ciuc shrine in a predominantly ethnic-Hungarian part of the picturesque Transylvania region.
Tens of thousands are expected to attend the ceremony, which will see Francis present a golden rose at the large wooden replica of the Madonna — a tradition for popes visiting major Marian shrines.
‘Hearts and minds open’
Francis’ trip will be an opportunity “to send a message to the many Catholic Hungarians there to keep their hearts, minds and gates open to others,” religious expert Claire Giangrave wrote in the religious news website Cruxnow.
“The challenge for the pope is to stress to the Orthodox community that the Church of Rome does not want to ‘Latinise’ it,” said Bishop Pascal Gollnisch, director of the Oeuvre d’Orient French charity, which supports Eastern Churches.
“The unity sought is not institutional: the aim is not to bring all Christians together under the Catholic label, but to have everyone recognise each other as Christians,” he told AFP. — AFP