Pope Francis has praised the "sacrifices" of Romanian emigrants on the first day of his trip to the country where he arrived on May 31 amid political tensions caused by accusations that the leftist government hampered voting for expats abroad during recent European parliament elections.
Millions of Romanians have left the country over the past two decades amid rampant unemployment, poverty, and ongoing corruption scandals.
Francis, on his first visit to the Eastern European EU and NATO member, said the exodus had led to the "depopulation of many villages" in Romania, which still faces major social and political problems despite joining the bloc in 2007.
"I pay homage to the sacrifices endured by so many sons and daughters of Romania who... have enriched those countries where 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 at the presidential palace broadcast on national television.
Francis was welcomed at the Bucharest airport earlier on May 31 by pro-European President Klaus Iohannis and cheering crowds waving Romanian flags at the airport and along his route to the capital Bucharest.
The pontiff and the head of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Daniel held a private meeting before praying alongside each other in the National Cathedral. Thousands of people gathered inside and outside the cathedral.
When Francis was in neighboring Bulgaria, the local patriarch did not pray with him.
Orthodox-Catholic relations have improved in recent decades, but tensions still remain. Christianity split between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054, an event known as the Great Schism.
Romania is the third European Orthodox-majority country Francis has visited over the past month, after Bulgaria and North Macedonia on May 4-7.
The pontiff’s visit comes amid political turmoil in the country, after the ruling Social Democrats, widely perceived as corrupt, suffered a severe defeat in the European parliamentary elections on May 26.
The vote was marred by accusations that the PSD-led coalition had intentionally hampered the voting process abroad to prevent tens of thousands of expats from casting their ballot.
Footage of long lines of Romanians being held outside many embassies across Europe has triggered widespread calls for the resignation of the government led by Prime Minister Viorca Dancila, a protégé of PSD's controversial leader Liviu Dragnea.
On May 27, Dragnea himself went to prison after losing an appeal against a corruption conviction.
In his speech, Francis praised Romania’s achievements in the 30 years since the fall of communism but said problems of social stability and governance remained.
"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," he said.
Later on May 31, Francis officiated mass at the Catholic Saint Joseph's Cathedral in downtown Bucharest, where thousands of people gathered.
On June 1, Francis will lead Mass at Sumuleu Ciuc, a Virgin Mary shrine in the predominantly ethnic-Hungarian eastern part of Romania’s Transylvania region.
A Vatican spokesman said hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are expected to attend the service, including Hungarian President Janos Ader.
On June 2, Francis is due to fly to Blaj, also in Transylvania, for the beatification of seven Romanian Greek Catholic bishops who were tortured and died in prison under communism.
Relations between the Orthodox Church and Romania's 150,000 Greek Catholics have been strained ever since the latter had property confiscated while their religious leaders were jailed.
The pontiff is also due to meet members of the Roma community, who are often victims of discrimination in Romania and elsewhere.
Francis's visit follows 20 years after Pope John Paul II received a warm welcome for his perceived role in the fall of communism.
Pope Highlights 'Sacrifices' Of Romanian Emigrants