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It does not happen often that a papal trip makes the destination country as well as its neighboring one both happy. This, however, is the case with Pope Francis’ trip to Romania from May 31-June 2. In addition to Bucharest, Iaşi and Blaj, he will also visit the ancient and famous Csíksomlyó Shrine, as it is called in Hungarian (Şumuleu Ciuc in Romanian), in order to celebrate a Mass there.
“This is the biggest Roman Catholic Hungarian pilgrimage site in the Carpathian Basin,” Father Zoltan Olah explained. He is a Hungarian parish priest and press officer of the Alba Iulia archdiocese, where the shrine is located. “And yet I believe,” he adds, “that the ideal of Christian fraternity is not only an ideal, but a goal that all of us are really thriving for.”
This is a truly fundamental goal, in a large Orthodox-majority country such as Romania, where there is a large Hungarian ethnic minority concentrated in Transylvania. In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Father Olah expressed how, for the Hungarian minority, belonging to the Catholic Church is an important factor of spiritual unity with the Hungarian mother country:
Our Sunday Visitor: How did you react to the announcement of Pope Francis visiting Csíksomlyó?
Father Zoltan Olah: It was great news. It made us all ecstatic! Csíksomlyó is a holy place for us, where pilgrims have been praying even during communism, when every access to the shrine on the vigil of Pentecost was prohibited. Nevertheless, even then tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered on that day, and their number increased sharply after 1990, reaching over 200,000 participants.
OSV: How exactly was this place chosen among only four places to be visited by Francis?
Father Olah: I can only repeat what the papal nuncio to Romania, Archbishop [Miguel Maury] Buendía, replied to the same question: “Pope Francis’ travel to Romania will be a sign of unity, as shown by the motto — ‘Let’s walk together,’ which in Hungarian is ‘Menjünk együtt!’, and in Romanian, ‘Să mergem împreună‘ — and by the logo, under the mantle of Most Holy Mary, Mother of God and our Mother. The choice of an old shrine as Csíksomlyó is the evidence of it.”
OSV: When does the historical bond between Transylvania, where Csíksomlyó is located, and Hungary date back to?
Father Olah: For centuries, Transylvania was an independent principality. It was also part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire for a long time. Its inhabitants and the leading class were Hungarians. Transylvania constituted a big part of Hungarian culture and history, before becoming part of Romania in 1918, after World War I.
OSV: And when did the history of the shrine begin?
Father Olah: Csíksomlyó received the status of a pilgrimage place from Pope Eugene IV in 1444 in order to help the local Franciscans to build a new church. The Pentecost Saturday pilgrimage has taken place since 1567, when Szekler Catholics from Csík/Ciuc and Gyergyó/Gheorgheni won over the troops of John Sigismund, prince of Transylvania, who converted to Protestantism and wanted to convert also the population. As Archbishop Buendia told me, “Csíksomlyó is a symbol of secular loyalty to the Catholic faith on behalf of the inhabitants of those lands, who have kept alive the vow made by their ancestors in 1567 to come here every year, on the Pentecost vigil, to thank Our Lady for having preserved the faith of their fathers.”
OSV: How many people are expected to be in Csíksomlyó on June 1 to welcome the pope?
Father Olah: A very large crowd is expected, given also what I said before. Pope Francis will arrive just one week before that pilgrimage, when thousands of people come each year, even Protestants and nonbelievers, too, touched by the spiritual aura of the site.
OSV: Where do they come from, usually?
Father Olah: From all over Transylvania, Romania, the traditionally Hungarian-speaking Romanian dioceses of Alba Iulia, Timișoara, Oradea Mare, Satu Mare, as well as Hungary, Moldova, the eastern region of Romania, where some Hungarian-speaking communities, called “Csángó,” have preserved a very old folk tradition and an ancient Hungarian dialect, as well as the Catholic faith among the mainly Orthodox Romanians. People from the closest places come on foot, lined up under church flags and led by their parish priests, walking usually a couple of days and resting in the homes of villagers on their way. But also, representatives of other ethnic communities come and are welcomed among the Hungarian-speaking pilgrims.
OSV: Pope Francis often speaks against governments that raise walls. Hungary has adopted very restrictive policies regarding migrants. Do you think the pope will refer to these questions in Csíksomlyó?
Father Olah: The pope is the living and teaching Peter among the Catholics, the Vicar of Christ, thus he teaches differently than a political leader, as he represents a spiritual leadership. In Csíksomlyó, we expect he will speak from this spiritual background and address political issues from the perspective of Christ, not daily politics.
OSV: Today the Hungarian ethnic minority in Romania is not small. How is its relationship with the Romanian population?
Father Olah: We have lived among the Romanian majority in Romania for 100 years now. When ordinary people are left alone to live their daily lives in peace, there are no major problems. Whenever the issues of minorities are used in favor of one or another’s political agenda, huge difficulties can rise.
OSV: Do you think that a part of the public is against the pope’s visit to Csíksomlyó?
Father Olah: The choice of Csíksomlyó not only as a site to visit, but as a place to celebrate a Mass, is actually irritating to some. I do not think the whole Romanian public is irritated, though, apart from voices and groups that hope to get votes if they create any agitation (the European Parliament’s election day is quite close to the papal travel). And yet I believe that the ideal of Christian fraternity is not only an ideal, but it is a goal that all of us are really striving for.
OSV: As a member of the Hungarian minority, what do you expect from the pope’s visit to Romania?
Father Olah: I expect we will be better known by the majority. I hope also that those people and groups who are afraid or have negative preconceptions, will realize that the Hungarian community is a peaceful and faithful one that wants to have its own linguistic and community rights and to contribute, as good citizens, to the common good of Romania.
After the visit of Pope John Paul II, we actually felt an improvement in the relationship between Romanians and Hungarians, Orthodox and Catholics. Now I expect the same after Pope Francis’ visit, too!
Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.
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