Sumuleu Ciuc, Jun 01 (AFP):
Thousands of people turned up for the pontiff at the Virgin Mary sanctuary, considered one of the most important Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites in south-eastern Europe.
The majority of devotees who expected to attend are Hungarian-speaking Romanians.
Tens of thousands gathered on Saturday for a mass by Pope Francis on his second day in Romania with the ceremony in a predominantly ethnic-Hungarian part of the Transylvania region set to be the highlight of his trip.
The mass has been keenly awaited for reasons of both faith and national identity in majority Orthodox Romania where believers suffered under the post-war decades of Communist rule.
For Catholics in the “Szeklerland” area, where some 600,000 ethnic-Hungarians comprise a majority of the population, the pope’s visit — a first for that region — is seen as welcome recognition of their identity.
In pouring rain, a sea of colourful umbrellas and rain coats formed around the hillside Sumuleu Ciuc shrine early Saturday.
In all, an estimated 200,000 people were expected to attend the ceremony, which will see the Argentinian pontiff present a golden rose at the large wooden replica of the Madonna — a tradition for popes visiting major Marian shrines.
Most pilgrims are Romania-based ethnic-Hungarians, but organisers expect some 25,000 will also travel from Hungary itself, as well as from Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine, all countries with sizeable Hungarian communities.
Having come by train, car and bicycle, thousands of people already started to gather late Friday with churches in the nearby small town of Miercurea Ciuc, 215 kilometres (133 miles) north of Bucharest, staying open all night to accomodate pilgrims.
Between religious chants in Hungarian, they expressed their hopes for the 82-year-old’s visit.
“If I meet the pope, I will tell him that Transylvania must be autonomous,” Zoltan, 60, who came from western Hungary and makes an annual pilgrimage to Sumuleu Ciuc every year since 2006, told AFP.
Hungary’s nationalist premier Viktor Orban, who is not going to Saturday’s mass, has been building ties with the diaspora since he returned to power in 2010 as part of a so-called “national policy” that is seen warily in Romania as an effort to extend Budapest’s reach.
Over the weekend, the pope will continue to travel across the country to meet people of diverse faiths and languages, which include 18 officially recognised minorities.
On Friday, the pope met Patriarch Daniel, the head of the Orthodox Church. In a sign of unity, the two leaders recited the Our Father prayer in the Orthodox Cathedral.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti stressed that, while they physically prayed in the same place, they didn’t pray together, an important distinction for many Orthodox.
Francis warned that all 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.
Pope John Paul II’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.
Sumuleu Ciuc, Jun 01 (AFP):