ROME – Pope Francis will visit Romania in 2019, according to Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest, president of the Romanian bishops’ conference.

Robu met the pope Nov. 9, together with the bishops of Romania gathered in Rome for their ad limina visit.

“The meeting with the pope was long because each of us had the opportunity to talk,” Robu told CNA.

Although details of the meeting cannot be disclosed because they are part of a personal exchange between the pope and the bishops, Robu said that he could announce that Pope Francis will go to Romania next year.

“The date and program have not been set yet, the Holy See and Romanian administration will get to details in a further discussion. Also the Orthodox Church of Romania will be involved in the talks, as the majority religion in Romania. The pope, however, confirmed to us he will come in 2019,” Robu said.

As of 2011, there are 870,774 Catholics in Romania; 4.3 percent of the population. The Catholic Church is the second largest Romanian denomination after the Romanian Orthodox Church.

The Romanian bishops’ conference is composed of 17 bishops, including both bishops of Roman Catholic dioceses and Greek Catholic dioceses, that is, dioceses of the Byzantine rite.

Robu said that relations between the Catholic Church and the Romanian Orthodox Church vary according to the rite.

“There are no tensions,” he said, “between Orthodox and Catholics of the Latin rite, while the relations between Greek Catholics and Orthodox are living a sort of winter.”

He added that the “winter” in their relationship is mostly generated by the discussion about the return of churches to the Greek Catholic Church.

In 1948, when the Communist party took over the country, the Greek Catholic Church was declared illegal and the property rights of as many as 2,500 Greek Catholic church buildings and other assets were transferred to the Romanian Orthodox Church.

In 1989, in the wake of the Romanian revolution, the bill that declared the Greek Catholic Church outlawed was repealed, and the Romanian Greek Catholic Church could be restored.

Ever since, the Greek Catholic Church struggled to have its properties returned, and much of the original property has remained in Romanian Orthodox or government hands.

Robu mentioned “the case of the Greek Catholic cathedral of Baia Mara, which is the only cathedral not returned to the Greek Catholic Church.” He also said that “there are many churches that were not returned to their legitimate owner.”

Relations with the Romanian Orthodox Church is crucial.

St. John Paul II visited Romania in 1999, and so an eventual visit by Francis in 2019 will mark the 20th anniversary of the first visit of a pope in the country. John Paul had a wonderful relationship with Patriarch Teoctist, then head of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Robu recounted that “when John Paul II came to Romania, the splendid relation between the pope and Patriarch Teoctist made all the difference: Orthodox, including Patriarch Teoctist, took part in the Catholic Mass, and Catholics, including John Paul II, took part in the Orthodox prayer.”

Times have changed, the archbishop added, and “I cannot see all of this being possible today. Patriarch Daniel, who took the helm of the Romanian Orthodox Church in 2008, has not encouraged the celebration of joint prayers, nor with Catholics nor with any other religious denominations. There is not even anymore a joint prayer during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”

Robu also said that “sometimes, in the case of mixed marriages between Catholics and Orthodox, the Orthodox ask for a second Orthodox baptism to celebrate the wedding. Sometimes, when a Catholic is best man in an Orthodox wedding, the priest ask him to convert to Orthodoxy and sign the conversion in that very moment.”

It is still soon to preview how Francis will eventually handle these issues, but it is almost certain that there will be a meeting with Patriarch Daniel.

Pope Francis will be welcomed by a flourishing Catholic Church in Romania.

Robu underscored that “the Romanian Church gave 44 fidei donum priests, spread in many European dioceses, and there are a lot of vocations, though they are decreasing.”