Pope Francis Heads to a Fractured North Macedonia, Seeking Mother Teresa’s Help
NEWS ANALYSIS: The Balkan nation is troubled by deep political divisions and by tensions with its neighbors.
When Pope Francis treks to Skopje, North Macedonia, from Sofia, Bulgaria Tuesday, his message will draw on the only local luminary the divided society can agree is exemplary: St. Teresa of Calcutta, born in Skopje in 1910.
During his 10-hour pilgrimage to this country of 2 million people — renamed North Macedonia from Macedonia just three months ago in a controversial process — Pope Francis will meet in succession with rivals President Gjorge Ivanov and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev at the Presidential Palace and then with government officials and diplomats.
He will visit Mother Teresa’s Memorial House, nearby, with religious leaders.
The Holy Father will celebrate an open-air Mass at Macedonia Square and then hold an ecumenical and interreligious meeting with young people.
He will finish the day speaking to priests, religious men and women, and their families at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Both the cathedral and the saint’s memorial house were rebuilt since a 1968 earthquake destroyed 80% of the city.
From Skopje, Pope Francis will fly home to Rome.
Message of Love
“Mother mentioned how the diversity of her hometown influenced her worldview,” Father John Worthley told the Register. He’s a New York-born priest who served as the saint’s emissary to China, trying to establish the Missionaries of Charity there.
Father Worthley recalled “Mother” (as her former associates call her) made two visits to Skopje, in 1976 and 1980, when it was part of Yugoslavia: “She loved it.” But she returned too late to see her own mother again.
Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu when Skopje was part of the Ottoman Empire (for more than 500 years), her parents were ethnic Albanians and devout Catholics.
Her father, who died when she was a child, started a home for the poor at a monastery in Letnica (in Kosovo today), where Agnes heard the call to be a missionary nun at age 17 while on a pilgrimage for the Solemnity of the Assumption. A year later, she joined the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland, who sent her to teach in Calcutta, India.
In his homily at her canonization, Pope Francis reminded Christians that the task Jesus gives us is to practice charity as a vocation, as the saint did, “so to grow each day in love.”
Support for New, Independent Countries
Some 20,000 souls comprise North Macedonia’s tiny Catholic community, three-fourths Byzantine Rite and one-fourth Latin Rite. According to Italian media, the Catholics are united and, like in Bulgaria, are known for that humanitarian commitment.
Although small, the community is ancient, founded in 350 A.D.
Bishop Kiro Stojanov, 60, is a “bi-ritual” prelate, leading pastoral and administration functions for both liturgical communities. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him the bishop of Skopje and apostolic exarch of Macedonia. (It was Pope St. John Paul II who created the exarchate in 2001, in order to make the jurisdiction independent of Croatia.) He is the first ethnic Macedonian bishop in more than 100 years.
Last year, Pope France elevated the status of the exarch to an eparchy, immediately subject to the Holy See, and named Bishop Stojanov to head the Blessed Virgin of the Assumption district in Strumica-Skopje. (Strumica is a small southeastern city.)
What makes the country far more important to the Holy See than its size alone would suggest is the Holy See’s concern about political stability and development in the region.
During the violent breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, St. John Paul II played a meaningful diplomatic role. The Church was an early supporter of independence for the two Catholic-majority countries of the six republics that comprised Yugoslavia: Croatia and Slovenia, which established diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1992.
Rome also supported the aspirations of other former Yugoslav republics, such as Macedonia. The two established diplomatic relations in 1994.
Rome Is on the Alert
Having encouraged Macedonia’s launch, the Holy See wants to see it prosper.
What makes this an elusive goal is constant foreign engagement in the country’s affairs, said Chris Deliso, co-author of The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans: Bolstering the Catholic Church in 2015 and Beyond.
Deliso explained to the Register that the Vatican has several objectives in the Balkans, including bolstering the local Catholic Church, preserving Catholic sites, keeping tabs on geo-political trends and finding ways to calm regional tensions.
He sees evidence of Rome’s seriousness in the high caliber of papal diplomats deployed to the region, including Archbishop Anselmo Guido Pecorari, the apostolic nuncio to Bulgaria and Macedonia. Archbishop Pecorari has been a diplomat for almost 40 years. He served in conflict zones such as Liberia and Rwanda.
What would require the skills of an ace diplomat moving between Bulgaria and Macedonia?
For one thing, Deliso explains, Bulgaria does not recognize the Macedonian language, considering the local tongue a Bulgarian dialect. It doesn’t recognize a Macedonian ethnicity either.
Historically, from the 10th century onward, Macedonia was intermittently part of the Bulgarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, then partitioned between Greece/Bulgaria/Serbia, and incorporated into Yugoslavia.
So little trust exists between neighboring countries. Yet Bulgaria was the first country to recognize Macedonia’s independence in 1991.
There is also rivalry between the influential, neighboring Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), which considers the Orthodox in Macedonia to be properly part of SOC’s structure. When the leaders of the Macedonian Church said it wanted to be independent, the SOC declared it “schismatic.”
With issues to the east (Bulgaria), to the west (Albania), to the north (Serbia and Kosovo), and to the south (Greece), Macedonians say their independence has been under siege for the last several years.
According to Catholics active in the pro-life movement, they now fear being quoted, because they believe it is a dangerous time for those in the country holding views regarded as politically conservative. With over 100 officials from the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party charged with various crimes, several now living in exile, and the former prime minister who helped establish Mother Teresa’s Memorial House granted political asylum in Hungary, their fears are understandable.
Journalist and political analyst Cvetin Chilimanov explained to the Register that under VMRO leadership, between 2006 and 2017, the country was one of the most fiscally responsible and socially conservative in the region, advancing pro-growth, low-tax, pro-family policies.
For example, it was the only European country where restrictions on abortion were increased. In 2013, an anti-abortion law was approved, creating a waiting period and personal counseling when a woman seeks abortion. The government ran a multimedia public service campaign, “Choose Life!”
What’s in a Name?
But VMRO opposed changing Macedonia’s name, something that the government of Greece wanted. Greece vetoed the possibility of NATO membership for its neighbor in 2008 and blocked European Union accession as long as Macedonia insisted it was Macedonia. (Athens claims the name is already a region in northern Greece and that Skopje has inappropriately assumed Greek history.)
“This name change dispute turned the country upside down when the U.S. government, under the Obama administration, with leftist support from [George] Soros interests, started plotting to put the socialists in power, to change our name,” said Chilimanov. “The U.S. led the drive with backing from the EU.”
Why does the U.S. care so much? According to many observers, it’s all about isolating Serbia, Russia’s main ally in the region, which borders Macedonia on the north.
The Social Democratic Union (SDSM) led by Zaev gained power in May 2017, in alliance with three ethnic Albanian political parties. About 25% of North Macedonia is Muslim, including most of the Albanian population.
When a name-change referendum failed last September because not enough voters participated, Zaev simply ignored the public, brought the vote to the Parliament, and “incentivized” some members to support the initiative, Chilimanov explained.
Macedonia’s legislature approved the new name in January. Although President Ivanov announced he would not sign the law, it passed with enough votes to avoid the president’s desk. President Trump submitted North Macedonia’s accession protocol to the U.S. Senate last month.
Chilimanov summarized, “Bottom line: We were pressured into this name change, and most Macedonians are very unhappy about it. It was external manipulation.”
Although Catholics do not vote in a block and Bishop Stojanov made no public statement on the issue, Deliso said most Catholics are politically conservative and many live outside the city centers that dominate the socialist base.
Regarding Pope Francis’ visit Tuesday, Chilimanov said, “I have not sensed much anticipation or excitement. We’ve had so many people, like Chancellor Angela Merkel or Gen. Jim Matthas, come here to tell us what to do. Macedonians are weary of shiny, important people coming and giving us assurances.”
The journalist did have one suggestion for Pope Francis: “The Pope could insist on releasing political prisoners, over 100 of them — conservatives charged and jailed just to get them out of the way. An amnesty would be a good step toward reconciliation.”
He is not optimistic about the near future, though. When news came Sunday night that the socialist candidate, Stevo Pendarovski, won national presidential elections, he tweeted, “Recipe for disaster, conflict, partition.”
With this roiling political atmosphere as a backdrop, it seems clear that in addition to being a pastoral visit to encourage local Catholics, Pope Francis and his diplomatic team — Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin visited Macedonia in 2016 — intends to develop personal relationships with North Macedonia’s leadership as part of an intelligent diplomatic strategy and to pursue the Holy Father’s commitment to dialogue.
Overall, the Holy See does not consider NATO membership, which seems to be the underlying motive for geo-political arm-twisting in North Macedonia, to be the ultimate key to regional stability. Among other things, relying on military defense does not engage real human beings and involves no conversion of hearts.
Mother Teresa taught salvation requires love. She often said, “Works of love are works of peace.”
Calling forth the intercession of St. Teresa, who is revered by all, for her homeland might be the Holy Father’s most powerful mission Tuesday.
Register senior correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning international