VATICAN CITY — Peace and reconciliation will be the central focus of Pope Francis’ intense 11-hour trip on Saturday to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In a video message to the people of the city released Tuesday, the Holy Father said he was preparing to visit the central-European country as a “fellow messenger of peace.”
“With the help of God, I come among you to confirm the faith of Catholics, to support ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and especially to encourage peaceful coexistence in your country,” he said.
The country is still recovering from a devastating three-year war in the 1990s that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Sandwiched between Croatia and Serbia, the nation has a population of 4 million people, with a rich ethnic and interreligious heritage, roughly evenly split between Christians and Muslims. Ethnically, most of the population is made up of Muslim Bosniaks, followed by Serbs, who make up 37% of the populace and are mostly Orthodox, and 14% who are Croats and are largely Catholics. Protestants and Bosnian Jews round out the rest of the country’s makeup.
During the 1992-1995 war, Bosnian Serbs began a policy of “ethnic cleansing” in large areas of the country inhabited by non-Serbs, Muslims and Croats, as well as Serbs who opposed their army. Around 2 million people fled their homes during the war.
After the Dayton Peace Accords were signed in 1995, a Bosniak-Croat Federation and a separate Bosnian Serb Republic were established, under a central government with a rotating presidency. NATO forces, followed by a European Union-led peacekeeping force, helped to preserve the agreement.
‘Peace Be With You’
The motto of the Pope’s visit is “Peace Be With you” — the words of the risen Lord when he greeted his disciples in the Upper Room. “It is he, the Lord, our strength and our hope, who gives us his peace, that we might welcome it into our hearts and spread it with joy and with love,” the Pope said in his video message.
The Pope said he will come not only as a messenger of peace, but also to express his “respect and friendship” to the people Sarajevo and convey to every citizen “the mercy, tenderness and love of God.” He also encouraged Catholics to be “witnesses to their fellow citizens of the faith and love of God, working for a society that makes ways towards peace in brotherhood and in mutual cooperation.”
Last year, Cardinal Vinko Puljić of the Vrhbosna Diocese in Sarajevo said Catholics act as “catalysts” for easing tensions between the country’s Christian and Muslim populations. “We want to create tranquility” and “a climate of dialogue,” he told CNA. This is in the face of Catholics being in a “grave position,” as they suffer from inequality.
Pope Francis will be welcomed at 9am local time on Saturday by Bosnian-Croat President Dragan Čović, one of the country’s three presidents, each representing Bosnia’s ethnic groups.
Čović will accompany Francis to the presidential palace for a private meeting, after which the Holy Father will deliver an address to the civil authorities and diplomatic corps before travelling to the city’s Olympic stadium to celebrate Mass.
Mass in a Snowstorm in 1997
More than 50,000 faithful from Bosnia-Herzegovina and surrounding countries have so far registered to attend the Mass. The venue, Kosevo Stadium, is reported to be able to accommodate up to 70,000 people. Pope St. John Paul II famously celebrated Mass in a snowstorm there during a visit to the war-ravaged city in April 1997. The venue was also the site of the 1984 Olympic Games.
After a private lunch with the six bishops of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Pope will meet with local priests, religious and seminarians at the local cathedral. The Holy Father is expected to spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and listen to three vocation testimonies from a priest, a religious sister and a friar. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters last week that he expects the testimonies to be “very powerful, intense and dramatic.”
Francis will then be driven to a nearby Franciscan student center for an ecumenical and interfaith encounter with leaders of the local Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox communities.
Before leaving for Rome, the Holy Father will visit a youth center dedicated to Pope St. John Paul II, where he will listen to the many challenges facing young people in a country suffering from one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe. The papal plane is scheduled to leave Sarajevo at 8pm and arrive back in Rome at around 9:20 on Saturday evening.
Marian Shrine Not on Itinerary
Although Medjugorje is just a 15-minute helicopter flight away, a short excursion to the pilgrimage site is not on the itinerary, nor is it likely to be even mentioned. Cardinal Puljic told reporters last month that the Pope’s visit has nothing to do with the Marian shrine.
The results of a commission of investigation into Medjugorje are currently being studied by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will then be forwarded to the Pope.
Father Lombardi said last week that he didn’t expect the Pope to make any references to Medjugorje, but added that Francis is “free to talk about what he wants.”
Instead, the papal spokesman said interreligious dialogue “will be a central aspect of the visit.”
Two Curial cardinals will be accompanying the Pope: French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Father Lombardi said the Pope will probably give a short airborne press conference on the way back to Rome, but as it’s a short flight, the conversation “will be brief.”
Security is also expected to be tight for the visit, although Cardinal Puljic downplayed concerns, saying there is “no reason to be afraid.”
In his video message, the Pope asked for prayers for the visit, so it “may produce the desired fruits for the Christian community and the entire society.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.