Pope Francis is going to Albania on Sunday, Sept. 21. It is his first visit to a European country and he has chosen to go to the only majority Muslim country on the periphery of the old continent, where Christians and Muslims who suffered under communism now live together in harmony and have formed a national unity government.
More than 60 percent of Albania’s 3.2 million citizens are Muslim (mostly Sunni with a Bektashi Shia minority), 16 percent are Catholic and roughly the same number are Orthodox Christians. There are also Protestants/Evangelicals and a small Jewish community in this land that was once declared to be the first atheist state in the world.
On June 14, Francis made the surprise announcement that he would visit Albania, a country whose Christian roots date back to the first century when St. Paul preached here and where Christianity flourished for many centuries. The Ottoman Empire ruled the country from the 15th century until 1912 when Albania regained its independence and became a state that respected all religions. But in 1946, after the Second World War, the communists took control of the country and from 1967 transformed it into an atheist state, and harshly persecuted Christians (Catholics and Orthodox) as well as Muslims.
On the plane back from Korea on Aug. 18, Francis explained to reporters that he was going to Albania for “two important reasons.”
First, “because they have been able to form a government of national unity with Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics” and with the assistance of “an interreligious council that helps a lot and is balanced.”
He hailed this unity government as a “good and harmonious” factor in the Balkans, a place that has seen so much conflict in recent decades, and said that by his presence “The pope wishes to say to all the peoples [of the world)] that it’s possible to work together.”
He is keen to support and encourage the Albanian people who are now well on the way to a new life after four decades of a harsh communist regime that increasingly isolated them from the world between 1946 and the early 1990s. The country is now a candidate to join the European Union.
Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, is delighted that the pope is backing the unity government and expressed his conviction that Francis’ presence will “promote the values of co-existence in peace among faiths and ethnicities."
The Argentine pope’s second reason for visiting this people is to encourage the Catholic community here which suffered so much, including martyrdom, after the communist government led by Enver Hoxha (which had ruled the country in a Stalinist manner since 1946) allied itself to China and approved a constitution in 1967 that outlawed religion, closed places of worship and persecuted very many believers.
“If we think about the history of Albania, in terms of religion this was the only country in the communist world to have in its constitution practical atheism. So if you went to Mass it was against the constitution,” Francis said on the plane.
He revealed that one of the ministers of the present Albanian government told him that under the Communist regime “1,820 churches were destroyed, both Orthodox and Catholic, while other churches were transformed into theatres, cinemas, dance-halls and so on.”
Francis told reporters that for these two reasons “I just felt that I had to go. It’s close, just one day.”
He is visiting this country 21 years after John Paul II. The Polish pope came here for one day also, on April 25, 1993, together with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the most famous Albanian woman, amid scenes of great jubilation as people lined the streets. He restored the hierarchy and consecrated four bishops (three had spent many years in prison, one had been condemned to death) in the Catholic cathedral in Scutari in the north of the country (which had been transformed into a sports stadium under the communists). "Your experience of death and resurrection belongs to all the church, and to the entire world," John Paul II told those at the Mass.
Speaking later in the main square in Tirana, the state capital, the Polish pope recalled that “What happened in Albania has never happened before in history” because here “the state tried to destroy all religious expression in the name of radical atheism.” He reminded the people that were now experiencing their new found freedom that “True religious freedom avoids the temptations of intolerance and sectarianism” and he urged them, "Do not let the sense of nation that you feel strongly at this moment degenerate into the kind of intolerant and aggressive nationalism that claims its victims still today and fuels ferocious hatreds in several parts of the world, some not far from here."
At the same time, John Paul II praised the Albanians because their three great religious communities—Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics—“entertain relations of reciprocal esteem and cordial collaboration.” That was in 1993, and those good relations continue to this day.
When Pope John Paul II came the nation was rising like a phoenix from the ashes of a period of great repression and poverty, Christians were emerging from the catacombs, the majority of the people worked on the land and they were very poor. In those years—both before and after his visit—more than 1 million people left the country to seek a better life in nearby lands, almost half a million went to Italy.
Pope Francis is visiting a much different country. It is a youthful, developing country that is going through a cultural and economic renaissance, even though the birthrate is low, one that is looking with hope to a better future in the European Union. Islam here is tolerant, as it has been through most of its history in this Balkan republic. Albania’s Muslim leaders have rejected various recent attempts to transform it into a more radical, less tolerant expression of religion.
Today 54 percent of the population lives in cities and towns, a third of the country’s inhabitants live in Tirana, where the pope will spend most of his time. There he will meet the state authorities, drive around in an open jeep and celebrate Mass in Mother Teresa’s Square, for the country’s 517,000 Catholics and have lunch with its eight Catholic bishops in the nunciature.
On Sunday afternoon, Pope Francis will meet the leaders of the other religions and of the Christian denominations in the Catholic University of “Our Lady of Good Counsel,” and will deliver an important talk. Later he will celebrate vespers and speak to 147 priests, 478 women, 68 seminarians and hundreds of lay leaders in St Paul’s. Before taking the flight back to Rome, he will travel outside the city to the Bethany Centre where he will meet children, many of them orphans, some with various ailments, and he will greet many of the country’s charity workers.
The motto chosen for the pope’s visit in this young democracy is striking: “Together with God, towards the hope that does not disappoint.” The logo that goes with it represents the Christian people that rise up from the blood of the martyrs and continue to walk with the Cross as their standard. It reflects a church on the move, the one that Pope Francis best expresses.