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Romania: After Pope's Visit, Vatican Looks To Moscow

  • Robert McMahon

Bucharest, 11 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After three days of warm public displays involving Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders in Romania, the Vatican is now looking for further ground-breaking contact with other Orthodox churches.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters on Sunday that Pope John Paul's trip to Romania this weekend had opened the doors for better relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. He said the trip was also being watched closely by the patriarchates in Athens and Istanbul.

There is already a papal trip planned to Armenia in early July which would continue the pope's ecumenical mission with Eastern rite churches. The majority of Armenians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, which has an Orthodox liturgy and belongs to the Oriental family of Eastern Christian Churches.

And Navarro-Valls said Sunday there are plans for a second papal trip to Romania, which would include the region of Transylvania, where many of the country's Roman Catholics live. But even if further ecumenical trips by the pope to the Orthodox Christian world are soon realized, the three-day trip to Romania will stand out for its history-making gestures and pageantry.

The striking images are many: It began with John Paul and Romanian Patriarch Teoctist, both resplendent in white, sharing a ride in the pope-mobile into Bucharest along a route lined with cheering residents.

On Saturday, the pope presided over a Greek Catholic Mass in St. Joseph's Roman Catholic church. Seated next to him in a wheelchair, at times overcome with emotion, was 86-year-old Alexandru Todea, the country's only surviving Greek Catholic cardinal who was imprisoned for 16 years by the communists. There were legions of Orthodox clergy, clad all in black, many with long elegant beards, and golden icons around their breasts, turning out to listen and applaud the pope and their patriarch during a Saturday night gathering of all Christian leaders.

And on Sunday, about 100,000 people, mostly Orthodox, filled the city's huge Union Square for an Orthodox Mass attended by the pope.

Later an estimated 200,000 people turned out in a park for a Roman Catholic Mass celebrated by the pope and attended by Patriarch Teoctist, most coming to Bucharest from the Roman Catholic areas in northern Transylvania.

As the pope said after addressing Saturday's gathering of religious leaders: "This has been an unforgettable trip."

Navarro-Valls affirmed on Sunday that the pope was pleased with the trip, saying: "You have only to see the faces of the Holy Father and patriarch. They are very happy."

Romania is the only Orthodox Christian country with a Latin culture. This fact was noted repeatedly as a contributing reason why Romania was perhaps ready for a papal visit before other Orthodox churches. A Roman Catholic clergyman who took part in the Romania visit, Monsignor Albert Rauch, told our correspondent it was certainly the Latin culture that helped make this trip easier than to other orthodox countries.

Rauch said the Romanian Orthodox church was distinguished by its unity, adding: "No bishop spoke out against this visit, nor were the people against it."

Far from being controversial, the visit clearly provided a huge lift to Romanians during tough times. Romania continues to suffer from high unemployment, chronic problems in paying wages and is now taking a heavy economic hit from the Kosovo crisis.

Commentators ranging from politicians to clergy to journalists all looked on the visit as a strong signal to Europe that, by showing its openness to the Catholic pope, Romania is committed to democracy and reform. Among the issues discussed during the pope's visit was the restoration of properties taken away from the Greek Catholic church by the communist regime. A Catholic-Orthodox joint commission is due to meet next month to continue negotiation on this issue.

Property restitution remains a sore topic throughout Eastern Europe and is looked at by human-rights groups and Western governments as a key step in the reform process.

In nearly every one of his speeches and sermons during the visit, John Paul cited Romania's rich culture, its suffering during this century and the reserves of spiritual strength it has displayed throughout. It was a message widely embraced in a country long accustomed to bad news.