TIRANA, Albania — If one were to ask Pope Francis to tick off his top social concerns, he might well say peace, inter-faith harmony, contemporary Christian martyrs, and serving the poor.
If that’s the list, then the pontiff’s quick 10-hour trip to Albania Sunday serves as a perfect symbolic expression of his agenda.
Francis came to the small Balkan state to praise its unique model of partnership among Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Catholics, to recall its 20th century martyrs, and to praise the memory of Mother Teresa, the great apostle of the poor in India who was herself an ethnic Albanian.
“The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims is a precious gift to the country,” Francis said, addressing the local authorities and some of Albania’s religious leaders.
In times when “the authentic religious spirit is being perverted and religious differences are being distorted and exploited,” he said, then religious differences “lead to conflict and violence, rather than being an occasion for open and respectful dialogue.”
This is the first trip to a European state for the pontiff.
With just 3 million inhabitants, Albania offers a compelling example of religious coexistence. After four decades of a constitutionally imposed atheism, the country was able to form a national unity government bringing together Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Catholics.
In August during his return from South Korea, Francis said this “ability to build from religious differences” was one of the reasons he wanted to visit the country, and he repeated the point upon arrival on Sunday.
Addressing the Albanian president and his cabinet, Francis underlined that Albania is the proof that a peaceful coexistence is not only “desirable, but possible and realistic.”
Francis called this interaction “an inestimable benefit to peace and to harmonious human advancement.”
Albania has a large majority of Muslims, close to 57 percent, with Roman Catholics as the biggest minority, at 10 percent, and Orthodox Christians at just under 7 percent.
Francis told Albanians that he knew they had to make many sacrifices, even after their “winter of isolation and persecution” during the Communist era formally ended in 1991, but said that the contribution of all has “improved the life of the nation in general.”
The pope also paid special tribute to Mother Teresa.
“Mother Teresa, together with the martyrs who witnessed to their faith, most certainly are rejoicing in heaven because of the work of men and women of good will who contribute to the flourishing of civil society and the church in Albania,” he said.
Francis sounded many of his familiar notes in Albania, including his call for greater global solidarity with the poor.
“Alongside the globalization of the markets, there must also be a corresponding globalization of solidarity,” he said. “Together with economic growth, there must be a greater respect for creation.”
Looking ahead to a major summit of bishops next month in Rome to debate issues related to family life, Pope Francis also issued a call for defending the family.
“Alongside the rights of individuals, there must be the guaranteed rights to those who are a bridge between the individual and the state, the family being the first and foremost of such institutions,” he said.
The pontiff also urged Albanian youth to say no to “the idolatry of money, the false freedom of individualism and to addiction and violence.”
In Tirana’s Mother Teresa Square, the pontiff celebrated a Mass to honor 40 Albanian martyrs, including Luigj Paliq, a Franciscan priest, killed in 1913, and the Rev. Gjon Gazulli, who died in 1927. The other 38 were murdered under the atheistic communist dictatorship led by the Stalinist Enver Hoxha.
During a short ride on the pope-mobile, the pontiff was greeted by thousands of Albanians, many of whom spent the night on the streets hoping for a glimpse of the pope.
Later today, Francis will meet with leaders of other religions and other Christian denominations, religious men and women and seminarians, and children who will be waiting for him in a local center for abandoned minors.