Pope Francis made his first major trip as pope to a European country outside of Italy Sept. 21 with a one-day journey to Albania.
A tiny country in the Balkans that claims barely 3 million citizens, Albania is still struggling to emerge from half a century of oppression by one of the darkest communist regimes anywhere. Under the late dictator Enver Hoxha, the communists declared Albania the world’s first officially atheist country in 1967 and committed unimaginable atrocities on Catholics and other religious groups. Only in 1990 was the right to practice religion formally re-established.
The Church continues to evangelize a culture grappling with healing and reconciliation, spiritual recovery, economic development, organized crime and isolation from the rest of a continent that has greeted its desire for membership in the European Union with suspicion and even disdain.
Catholics comprise 16 percent of the population, while the majority is Muslim, with a strong Orthodox community and a small but growing Evangelical presence. Pope Francis was only the second pope to visit, after Pope St. John Paul II’s one-day trip on April 25, 1993, not long after the fall of communism.
The birthplace of Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata, Albania is an ideal starting point for Pope Francis’ message to a wider Europe of faith, mercy, reconciliation and reaching out to the peripheries. In the aftermath of the collapse of the communist regime, the Church had few resources to start a new life and to begin evangelizing among a population that was largely uneducated in faith.
As he did during his visit to Korea in August, Pope Francis called upon the Albanians, mostly to the young, to look to the martyrs as role models in belief, fortitude, joy and forgiveness. In his homily in Mother Teresa Square, in Tirana, he declared, “Do not forget the wounds, but also do not be vengeful. Go forward to work with hope for a great future. So many of the sons and daughters of Albania have suffered, even to the point of sacrificing their lives. May their witness sustain your steps today and tomorrow as you journey along the way of love, of freedom, of justice and, above all, of peace.”
The most intense moment of the visit was at Tirana’s St. Paul Cathedral, when two victims of the communist regime brought Pope Francis to tears as they spoke of their horrifying experiences. Franciscan Father Ernest Troshani Simoni, 84, labored for 18 years in a mine and then 10 more in the sewers, all for being a Catholic priest. Stigmatine Sister Marije Kaleta, 85, described her experience of baptizing a child away from the eyes of the ever-vigilant secret police by using water from a canal ditch poured out of her shoe.
Overcoming the pain of the past must also extend to dialogue, and Pope Francis used Albania — with its coexisting groups of Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims — to denounce the dangers of radicalized religion.
“Let no one consider themselves to be the ‘armor’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression” he said. “May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman, above all, the right to life and the right of everyone to religious freedom!”
And just as he extolled the martyrs as role models, he went on to describe Albania’s religious cooperation as an example for the rest of the globe.
“What the experience in Albania shows,” he said, “is that a peaceful and fruitful coexistence between persons and communities of believers of different religions is not only desirable, but possible and realistic. The peaceful coexistence of different religious communities is, in fact, an inestimable benefit to peace and to harmonious human advancement.”
Look for these themes to be reiterated in upcoming papal trips.
Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.