Pope Francis Praises Albania’s ‘Precious Gift’
Interreligious Peace Replaces Atheistic Humanism
A powerful example of peaceful coexistence between followers of different faiths, heavy sacrifices made to secure freedom from communist dictatorship and a rebuke of the “grave sacrilege” of killing in the name of God were key points of Pope Francis’ one-day visit to Albania on Sunday, Sept. 21.
The Holy Father chose to visit Albania for two main reasons: to draw attention to a country on the periphery of Europe, away from the major powers of the European Union, and to note its interreligious harmony, which was achieved through a great deal of suffering.
The Eastern-European country has a Muslim-majority population (59%). Christians are estimated to make up 27%, of whom roughly 15% are Orthodox, and 10% are Catholic.
In 1967, communist authorities conducted a violent campaign to extinguish religious practice in the country, claiming that religion had divided the Albanian nation and kept it mired in backwardness.
Today, Albania remains a constitutionally secular country, and religious observance and practice is reported to be generally lax.
After arriving in the country’s capital, Tirana, at 9am, the Pope was driven to a welcome ceremony at the presidential palace, where he praised Albania for its “precious gift” of peaceful coexistence and collaboration between followers of different religions.
He stressed that respect is an “essential word” for the Albanian people and that religious freedom, freedom of expression and the dignity of the human person are vital for a country’s “social and economic development” and “to further the common good.”
‘Perverted’ Religious Spirit
Francis then contrasted this with “these times,” where an “authentic religious spirit is being perverted” and religious differences distorted.
“Let no one consider himself to be the ‘armor’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression,” the Pope exhorted. “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.”
Albania, he added, shows how peaceful coexistence between different religions is “possible and realistic” and that dialogue and cooperation is a “gift which we need to implore from God in prayer.” He underlined the role of Albanian martyrs, Blessed Mother Teresa — an Albanian native — and men and women of goodwill who have contributed to “the flourishing of civil society and the Church in Albania.”
The Holy Father further underlined the need for a “globalization of solidarity” and said that “every effort” must be made to ensure growth and development are sustainable and at the service of all.
‘Never Forget the Eagle’
During his homily at Mass in Mother Teresa Square, attended by some 250,000 people, the Pope reflected on the day’s Gospel reading that told of Jesus sending out 72 disciples. This is reflected in the Church’s missionary experience, said the Pope, who called Albania a “land of martyrs” during decades of “atrocious suffering and harsh persecutions” against Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims in its years of communist oppression.
He said the Lord raised Albanians up on “eagle’s wings,” as he did for the people of Israel, and noted that the eagle in the country’s flag “calls to mind hope” and to “always place your trust in God.”
“Never forget the eagle,” the Pope said. “The eagle does not forget its nest, but flies into the heights. All of you, fly into the heights! Go high!” And he urged Albanians not to forget their long history, but also not to be vengeful.
The Holy Father again took up the theme of violence in God’s name, stressing to interreligious leaders at the Catholic University of Tirana that “authentic religion is a source of peace and not of violence,” that to “kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege” and that to “discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.”
Religious freedom, he added, cannot be guaranteed by legislation alone, but requires respect and cooperation in the service of the common good. When a person is secure in his or her own beliefs, he said, there is no need to impose or put pressure on others.
Father Troshani’s Witness
After hearing the testimonies of persecution under communism from Father Ernesto Troshani, an 84-year-old diocesan priest, the Pope wept and held the priest in a long embrace. Father Troshani was imprisoned in a labor camp for 18 years and, as well as his own experiences, recounted the courageous witness of many Albanian martyrs from that time.
Speaking afterwards at vespers with clergy, religious and laity in the Tirana cathedral, Francis returned to the legacy and example of Albanian martyrs, expressing his gratitude to those who “paid a great price for their fidelity to Christ and for their decision to remain united to the Successor of Peter.”
He said he appreciated efforts to oppose new “insidious” forms of “dictatorship” that threaten to enslave, such as “individualism, rivalry and heated conflicts.” These are “world mentalities,” he said, “that can contaminate even the Christian community.” But he said they shouldn’t discourage us, as the Lord is always at our side.
Evangelization, he continued, is more effective when carried out as a team, and he stressed the importance of placing the love of Christ above our needs, moving “outside of ourselves, of our personal or communal pettiness” and towards Jesus.
“The more our mission calls us to go out into the peripheries of life, the more our hearts feel the intimate need to be united to the heart of Christ, which is full of mercy and love,” he said.
Children’s Care Center
The Pope’s last stop was to visit “Bethany” children’s care home in Bubq Fushe-Kruje, about 20 miles from Tirana. The center shows how it is possible to live together peacefully and fraternally, regardless of difference, he said.
“Here, differences do not prevent harmony, joy and peace, but, rather, become occasions for greater mutual awareness and understanding,” the Pope said. “The variety of religious experiences reveals a true and reverential love of neighbor.”
He added, “Goodness is its own reward and draws us closer to God. [It] offers infinitely more than money, which only deludes, because we have been created to receive the love of God and to offer it, not measuring everything in terms of money or power.”
The Pope stressed that the secret to a good life is found in loving and giving oneself for love’s sake. “From here comes the strength to ‘sacrifice oneself joyfully,’ and thus the most demanding work is transformed into a source of a greater joy,” he said. “In this way, there is no longer any fear of making important choices in life, but they are seen for what they are: namely, as the way to personal fulfillment in freedom.”
Telegram to Albania’s President
Upon leaving Tirana at 8pm, Francis sent a telegram to Albanian President Bujar Nishani, expressing his “deep gratitude” to him and the “beloved Albanian people” for their “generous hospitality.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters many Muslims were present at the Mass in Tirana, as they wanted to be with the Pope and receive his blessing. He also said that, prior to the visit, Muslims gathered to pray for the success of the visit in a central mosque.
The Vatican spokesman also made clear no Jewish leaders were present at the meeting with interreligious groups only because there are so few Jews in Albania, and organizers were unable to put together a representative group.
Asked whether there were heightened security concerns due to reports of possible threats against the Pope’s life, Father Lombardi said, “Absolutely not.” He explained the Pope did not stop to chat with people as he does at the Vatican because he had a tight schedule and had to keep on time.
- Oct. 5-18, 2014