SUMULEU-CIUC, Romania – Wet and covered in mud, having scaled a steep hill leading up to a Marian shrine in Eastern Transylvania under the pouring rain, Romania’s dogged Catholic minority showed up in great numbers to see the pope on Saturday.

After all, they’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.

“Twenty years ago, Saint John Paul II visited the country for the first time, but he only came to the capital, Bucharest. He was very saddened about not being able to visit Transylvania, where the majority of his faithful lives, but he promised that if he were to return he would have visited us,” Archbishop György-Miklós Jakubínyi of Alba Iulia, the largest Catholic diocese in Romania, told the crowd.

“After twenty years, you, Holy Father, have fulfilled those promises,” he added.

In reality, the Catholics in this region – most of them of Hungarian descent – have been longing for a papal visit for a thousand years. In 1999, John Paul II became the first pope to visit the Orthodox majority country after the schism of 1054 dividing Catholics and Orthodox.

Since then, most Catholics in the country have lived a double minority status, for their faith and for their Hungarian heritage and language. They experienced persecution under Nazi and Communist regimes and witnessed their presence in Romania diminish following a diaspora of many of their youth seeking a better life in other European countries.

The Marian shrine of Sumuleu Ciuc, located near the field of a historic battle where the region’s Catholics fought the Ottomans to protect their faith, today represents a place of religious and cultural unity, where believers gather from surrounding countries on the Saturday before Pentecost.

Storms forced Pope Francis to change his transport plans Saturday and added in a three-hour car ride through the twisting Carpazi mountains that he had planned to traverse via helicopter. The steady rains doused the faithful gathered for Mass at the shrine.

Just as Romania is often overlooked amid richer and more influential European countries, Catholics in Romania, who represent only four percent of the population, are often left without a voice. Francis encouraged this often-forgotten group to weave the threads of their future.

A pilgrimage, the pope said, “is to commit ourselves to ensuring that the stragglers of yesterday can become the protagonists of tomorrow, and that today’s protagonists do not become tomorrow’s stragglers.”

“This requires a certain skill, the art of weaving the threads of the future,” he added.

To do this, Francis said on the second day of his papal visit to Romania May 31 to June 2, faithful must be willing to put political and religious divisions and tensions of the past behind.

“To go on pilgrimage is to realize that we are in a way returning home as a people, a people whose wealth is seen in myriad faces, cultures, languages and traditions,” he said.

“Complicated and sorrow-filled situations from the past must not be forgotten or denied, yet neither must they be an obstacle or an excuse standing in the way of our desire to live together as brothers and sisters,” he added.

Drawing on the motto of the papal visit, “journeying together,” the pope asked God to “change past and present resentments and mistrust into new opportunities for fellowship.”

“Such is the mystery of God’s election,” he said, “he looks to the lowly and confounds the powerful; he encourages and inspires us to say ‘yes’, like Mary, and to set out on the paths of reconciliation.”

Follow Claire Giangravè on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave

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