BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Pope Francis began a three-day pilgrimage to Romania on Friday that in many ways is completing the 1999 trip by St. John Paul II that marked the first-ever papal visit to a majority Orthodox country.
Francis referred to that historic trip during his opening speech before Romanian government authorities, praising the progress the once-communist country has achieved since it was "liberated from a regime that oppressed civil and religious liberty."
But he warned that Romanians must come together even more now to confront today's challenges, noting the huge numbers of people who leave the country each year in search of jobs, depopulating entire villages and weakening the roots of Romanian culture.
"Only to the extent that a society is concerned for its most disadvantaged members, can it be considered truly civil," he said.
Key moments during Francis' trip are his Mass for the largely Hungarian-speaking Roman Catholic faithful at the country's most famous Marian shrine, Sumuleu Ciuc, in eastern Transylvania. He will also beatify seven Greek-Catholic bishops who were martyred during communist rule, when Catholics were brutally persecuted.
Francis was also meeting Friday with the leadership of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the latest of his foreign trips to poor countries where Catholics are a minority. In Romania, they are a divided minority between two Catholic rites, Roman Catholic and Greek-Catholic.
"I'm coming to you to walk together," Francis said in a video released on the eve of his trip.
Francis and Patriarch Daniel, leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church, are to each recite the Our Father prayer in the Orthodox Cathedral, a towering new construction funded in part by a $200,000 donation by John Paul when he visited in 1999.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti stressed that while the two religious leaders would physically be praying in the same place, they would not pray together, an important distinction for many Orthodox. Ordinary faithful were expected, in sharp contrast to Francis' recent visit to Bulgaria, when he was allowed to pray in the Orthodox cathedral in Sofia, but alone.
John Paul's 1999 visit to Romania, just 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was the first by a pope to a majority Orthodox country since the Great Schism divided Christianity in 1054.
It was marked by an extraordinary welcome for a Polish pope who helped bring down communism.
John Paul agreed to Orthodox demands that he visit only Bucharest and not Transylvania, where most of the country's Catholics live. In many ways then, Francis is fulfilling the itinerary that John Paul would have liked to complete.
As then, the issue of confiscated property of the Catholic Church that was given to the Orthodox during communist rule remains a sore spot in relations. Gisotti said there were no plans for any public discussion of the dispute but didn't rule out private talks.
"We live times of peace and understanding, but we wish these relations (between churches) to become better," said Francisc Dobos, spokesman for the Bucharest archbishopric. "We should not be afraid of one another, we should trust one another. This visit should make us become better Catholics and better Orthodox and in the end, better citizens."
By TRISHA THOMAS and NICOLE WINFIELD Associated Press
Winfield reported from Rome.