Bishop Eleuterio F. Fortino, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was one of Pope John Paul II's key planners for the papal visit to Romania and ongoing dialogue with the Orthodox. In a recent interview with the ZENIT news service, Bishop Fortino expressed the Pope's desire to encourage dialogue between churches and support formation of a sovereign democratic state.

ZENIT: How important is the Orthodox Church in Romania?

Bishop Fortino: After the Patriarchy of Moscow, the Orthodox Church in Romania is the most numerous of the 15 independent and autonomous churches that make up the Orthodox Church. The Romanian Church is the only one of Latin origin and neo-Latin language. This fact is what determined its historical relations with the West. It is composed of 19 dioceses and 19.8 million faithful, extending its jurisdiction over the Romanian faithful in Moldavia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Western Europe, the United States and Canada.

In spite of the restrictions imposed by the communist regime, it was able to continue celebrating its liturgical service without interruption. It has been able to maintain a clergy that is theologically well-formed, in a number of seminaries and in two theological institutes. Following the repression [1958-1964], it reorganized monastic life, which is widespread, both for women as well as men.

Relations between the Holy See and Romania were adversely affected after the fall of communism because of controversies over the Greek Catholics. What is the origin of these differences?

The problem exploded in 1990. After the fall of the communist regime, the new government abrogated the 1948 communist government decree which declared the Catholic Church of the Byzantine rite [Greek Catholic] as nonexistent. The Greek Catholic bishops and many priests were jailed for not wanting to become Orthodox. This unjust and violent measure provoked divisions not only in the government, but also between Orthodox and Catholics. In fact, the Romanian Church was one of the few Orthodox Churches which sent observers to Vatican Council II. The decision of the post-communist government to pass the measure started litigation, especially over the use and ownership of places of worship, which previously belonged to the Greek Catholic Church.

But, how was the problem solved?

From the theological point of view, the question was overcome by the document published in 1993 by the international theological commission on the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, entitled: “Uniatism — Past Method of Union and Present Search for Full Unity.” In addition to offering theological principles, the text proposed lines of practical conduct for relations between the Greek Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

But, a question of such complex connotations due to sociological and psychological reasons, exasperated by history, could not be easily resolved. Last year a commission of Greek Catholics and Orthodox was established in Romania. The dialogue at the local level became a premise for an agreed solution to the open questions. At present, the question has not been resolved, but this has not created an obstacle to the Pope's trip to Bucharest.

How will the Pope's visit improve relations between the Orthodox and the Catholics?

The visit promotes a dialogue, especially at this time when violence is gaining ground as an instrument for the solution of claims. To leave his own See to go visit brothers in their home implies, without a doubt, a message of reconciliation and fraternal love. After a long period of Romanian dictatorship, the Pope's visit will promote not only relations with the Orthodox Church, but will prove a support to this country which is in a phase of democratic reorganization. The presence of reporters from all over the world will help further this process.

In January 1989, His Beatitude Teoctist, the Patriarch of Romania, with a personal gesture of good will, visited the Pope in Rome. … Now the Holy Father returns the visit, demonstrating that ecumenism is also reciprocal love and service. By visiting an important Orthodox Church, the Pope renders honor, at the same time, to all the Orthodox Churches with which he will have to intensify the dialogue of ecclesial and theological fraternity, in spite of present difficulties, such as the Kosovo war.

Finally, it is important to remember that the climate of prayer will predominate during this visit. The Pope will attend the eucharistic celebration presided [over] by the Orthodox Patriarch, and the Orthodox Patriarch will attend the celebration presided [over] by the Pope. Independent of the rest of the initiatives — contacts, dialogue, cooperation — prayer is the guarantee of success of the ecumenical cause.