During his one-day visit to Sarajevo Pope Francis highlighted the positive developments in Bosnia-Herzegovina since the end of the war, and encouraged them in “the good process of reconciliation” that is under way and on “the journey of peaceful coexistence between the different populations.”
He chose not to focus on the many tensions and problems that still exist, which could undermine or derail that process. While acknowledging that the journey is indeed “laborious and difficult”, he insisted that “it is possible.” He expressed his appreciation for “the commitment of collaboration and solidarity” between the members of the different faith communities: Christian (both Orthodox and Catholic), Muslim, Jewish, and other minority religious communities and said this spurs everyone to move forward with “the work of the spiritual and moral reconstruction of society.”
In Sarajevo, he sought to encourage the leaders and representatives of these different faith communities when he met 300 of them in the late afternoon, June 6, at the Franciscan International Study Centre that had been destroyed during the war but was since rebuilt. “Your work in this region is immensely important, particularly in Sarajevo which stands at the crossroads of peoples and cultures”, he told them. He described inter-religious dialogue as “a conversation about human existence” and said that through it “we learn to live together, respecting each other’s differences freely; we know and accept one another’s identity.” But this dialogue cannot be limited to a few, he stated; “it must also extend as far as possible to all believers, engaging the different sectors of civil society.”
He expressed “sincere appreciation” for all they “have managed to accomplish up to this point” and said, “I encourage each of you in your efforts for the cause of peace of which you, as religious leaders, are the first guardians here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” This was an important point, as many people distrust the politicians, especially those with a strongly nationalist vision.
“We are all aware that there is a long way to go”, Francis stated. But he urged them “to not be discouraged by the difficulties, but rather continue with perseverance along the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.” And as they recall the past “with honesty”, he counselled them “to avoid lamentation and recrimination” and allow themselves “to be purified by God who gives us the present and the future.”
Earlier, in the cathedral he had listened attentively to three deeply moving testimonies – given by a sister from the Congregation of the Daughters of Divine Charity, a diocesan priest and a Franciscan priest, who had endured terrible cruelty during the 1992-95 war but forgave their persecutors The nun recalled how one of the foreign militia men who had kidnapped her, at one stage, showed surprising kindness by giving her a pear when she was very hungry. The Franciscan told how a Muslim woman overcame the religious barrier and gave him food when he was held prisoner by Serbs for four months in a concentration camp. The other priest spoke of the brutality he suffered at the hands of soldiers for refusing to denounce the Catholic Church, and how later he had to receive six liters of blood in hospital to keep him alive
Francis was so profoundly moved by their personal testimonies that after embracing each of them, he put aside his written text and spoke from the heart (cf. link below). He recognized in these heroic followers of Jesus Crucified, great contemporary witnesses to the faith, living martyrs and inspiring members of the Church in Bosnia-Hercegovina: he also saw them as the kind of people that can morally renew the land, because they know how to forgive.
During his visit, the Jesuit pope chose not to highlight the difficulties, but before he arrived at the cathedral to meet 300 priests, women and men religious, and seminarians,a Franciscan priest, Fr. Pero Karajica, with whom I spoke did just that. He serves as pastor to a community of 700 Catholics in a parish near the airport. He talked about the difficulties experienced by the Catholic community in Sarajevo today, where they count for a mere 2 percent of the city’s population. He said their number decreased by more than 50 percent during the war, and continues to do so even today as many young people – Catholics and Muslims alike – emigrate because there are no jobs for them here.
On a more general level, the Franciscan has little time for the politicians, “everything is in their hands.” He recalled that the Catholic Church has only been able to build two churches in the city in the past 77 years, because it was not given permission to do so for “administrative reasons.” Muslims, on the other hand have no difficulty in getting permits to build mosques, and these are springing up like mushrooms in Sarajevo and across the country, thanks to funding from countries in the Middle East. Fr. Pero has managed to build two churches, with the aid of the US Catholic Church and thanks to Cardinal McCarrick who came here twice. Life is difficult - he repeated - "but we must continue with our Gospel mission.” There are very many poor people in the city today because there are no jobs and “we must try to do something to change this situation”, he added. His parish is doing what it can; it runs a soup kitchen and 94 percent of the 250 people who are fed there every day are Muslim.
This Franciscan priest, who was born near Banja Luka, admires Pope Francis very much because “he’s concerned about the poor.” He was at mass in the stadium that morning, and really liked the Pope's homily. He said he was happy that the Argentine pope had come to visit them, but he’s doubtful that the situation will change much as a result of his visit “because nothing changed after John Paul II’s visits in 1997 and 2003.”
Francis, for his part, kept pushing a positive message throughout his visit. In the morning, addressing the political leadership, he suggested what “responsible politicians” should be doing to move the country forward. Afterwards, at mass, he called on believers to “be peacemakers” in their daily lives. And in the afternoon, he told the leaders and representatives of the different faith communities that they are “the first guardians” of peace in Bosnia Herzegovina.
Then, before taking the plane back to Rome, he urged the country’s young people to “build bridges not walls”, and to recognize that each and every person is “a child of God”, whatever ethnic group or faith community they may belong to. He met 800 of them at the John Paul II center, where Christian and Muslim young people come together, play together and get to know each other. The young had come from all over the country to be with him, and welcomed him with a performance of song and dance and concluded by asking him questions. He answered them all off the cuff, casting aside his prepared remarks. His message was simple: “We are all children of God, whether we are Muslim, Orthodox or Catholic. Do not make enemies of each other, but go forward together.” He urged them to work for peace, and to do so honestly, not like the powerful ones of the earth who speak of peace but, under the table, sell arms that foment wars.
Commenting on the fact that these young people are “the first post-war generation”, Francis compared them to “the flowers of springtime in this land” and told them: “You have a great vocation: Build bridges, never build walls.”
That meeting with the young was the last public event of Pope Francis’ highly successful and inspiring visit. During his eleven hours here, he urged the inhabitants of this city and land to consolidate the peace by working for harmonious relations between the different ethnic and religious communities, by cooperating together to ensure that everyone has equal rights under the law, and that religious freedom is fully respected. He assured the leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina that the Catholic Church and Holy See would support them in all this. He reminded the international community that Bosnia-Herzegovina is an integral part of Europe, not just in the history books but also in the future. Above all else he succeeded in communicating a message of hope, by confirming that the people of Sarajevo are on the right road to becoming once again “the Jerusalem of the West”, and by assuring them that if they continue to travel down that road they will once again become a sign to the whole world that conflict can give way to a just and lasting peace between people of different ethnic and religious communities. Last but not least, he comforted, inspired and strongly encouraged the Catholic Church in this land to embrace the culture of encounter and reach out to everyone, and especially to the poor.
Full transcript of the Pope’s off-the cuff remarks in Sarajevo cathedral: