Pope Francis on Sunday beatified seven Greco-Catholic bishops jailed and tortured during the Communist era on the final day of his visit to Romania.
“The new blessed ones suffered and sacrificed their lives, opposing a system of totalitarian and coercive ideology,” the pontiff told some 60,000 worshippers attending mass on a “Field of Liberty” in the small central town of Blaj.
“These shepherds, martyrs of faith, garnered for and left the Romanian people a precious heritage which we can sum up in two words: freedom and mercy,” added Francis, while praising the “diversity of religious expression” in mainly Orthodox Romania.
Regime officials detained the beatified bishops overnight on October 28, 1948, accusing them of “high treason” after they refused to convert to Orthodoxy.
The Greek-Catholic Church was outlawed under 1948-89 Communist rule.
Buried in secret
The bishops died of maltreatment, some still in jail, others in confinement in an Orthodox monastery. They were then buried in secret — to this day the whereabouts of four of their graves is unknown.
The bars of the cells where they were held were symbolically incorporated into the throne built specially for the papal visit.
The bishops followed the Eastern Rite Catholic Church which emerged from an Orthodox schism at the end of the 17th century when the central region of Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
While retaining Orthodox practices they recognised Roman Catholic papal authority — unacceptable for the Communist regime which took power following World War II. Under a 1948 decree formally abolishing the Eastern Catholic churches, Greco-Catholics were forcibly obliged to return to the Orthodox fold.
“This anti-faith hatred came from (Soviet leader) Joseph Stalin, who had in the same way liquidated the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic church,” researcher Emanuel Cosmovici told AFP.
Complicit in 1948, Romania’s Orthodox Church would itself face repression under the Communists — albeit some senior prelates did collaborate with the party.
Under such stark political repression, most Romanian Catholics — who numbered more than 1.5 million in 1948, abandoned their faith and their community has shrunk to around 200,000 today in a country of 20 million, almost nine in 10 of whom profess Orthodoxy.
The politics which has seeped through Romania’s modern religious history has poisoned inter-faith relations — even if the papal visit has softened feelings to a degree.
Beyond religious discrimination, Romania has also known the racial variant, with the country’s Roma, making up as much as 10 percent of the population, not hesitating to mention the fact during Francis’ visit.
“He will definitely speak about discrimination because we have no rights at all,” said Ion, a pensioner from central Romania, ahead of Sunday’s mass.
“No matter where we go, to the town hall, to the police or to school, doors get closed,” the former construction site worker told AFP ahead of Francis’s arrival in Blaj, where several thousand Roma live.
Roma, originating from northern India, suffered around five centuries of slavery before the practice was formally abolished in 1856.
But they remain a mainly poor and marginalised community — even if recent years have seen roads paved and homes getting running water and electricity.
Francis’s arrival in Blaj to wind up his visit was part of his attempt at inclusiveness on his three-day visit to one of what remains Europe’s poorest states.
Although Romania has developed apace since obtaining EU membership in 2007 there remain some “urban or rural ghettos where nothing has changed,” according to sociologist Gelu Duminica, who heads the anti-discrimination Impreuna (Together) association.
Duminica and others in Blaj saw it as no coincidence that Francis, often seen as a defender of the rights of the most marginalised, chose the Barbu Lautaru district of Blaj, whose inhabitants are mainly Roma, to launch his appeal for tolerance and social inclusion.
“The pope’s visit is a message for those who are marginalised, disregarded or not accepted by others,” said Mihai Gherghel, an eastern Catholic priest, who supervised the construction of the Blaj church where Francis celebrated Sunday mass.