ROME — Pope Francis’ ten-hour day trip to Albania packed a solid news punch, beginning with his strong condemnation of ISIS terrorism, insisting that “to kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege” and that “to discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.”
Delivered in a country with a strong Muslim majority where some ISIS sympathizers have gone to Iraq to fight in defense of its self-declared caliphate, it was a message with obvious political relevance.
Francis also came to Albania to express support for Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics who suffered mightily under Marxist dictator Enver Hoxha, whose regime murdered thousands of believers and tore down 1,800 churches across Albania until it finally fell in 1992.
So strong is the memory of those victims that the main street in Tirana, the national capital, is named after them: the Avenue of the Martyrs of the Nation.
The pope’s emotion broke through most clearly at the end of the day, when he was moved to tears when two survivors of Communist-era religious oppression told their stories.
In improvised remarks, Francis began by conceding that nothing he had to say could compare to the testimony, “spoken through the lives” of a priest and a nun. The nun’s uncle was among the 40 martyrs Francis had honored during a mass held in Mother Theresa Square in downtown Tirana, the Albanian capital.
He said he had been taken aback by the country’s suffering, and thanked Albanians for keeping alive the memory of the martyrs.
After 40 years of communism, the local Catholic Church had to be rebuilt from the ashes, with no bishops and barely any priests left.
Elena Dejti is one of the 300,000 faithful that attended the mass in Tirana’s Mother Theresa square Sunday morning. She told Crux that she hopes the papal visit “reminds the local church that faith is not only preserved by political coexistence.”
In her opinion, the local Catholic church, and Muslim and Orthodox Christian leaders, have done a great job guaranteeing religious freedom, but they sometimes “forgot that their main goal is to lead us on our spiritual life.”
As he stated many times during the day, Albania represents for Pope Francis an ideal of interreligious harmony. On the plane going back to Rome, the pontiff stated that he hopes the world learns to see Albania as “a door to coexistence and cooperation in other nations with diverse ethnical roots.”
Albania is also a good venue for Francis’ message of concern for the poor. With just three million inhabitant, the nation has an economy in which 50 percent of the people generates only 10 percent of the country’s income, while an elite five percent controls half of the country’s wealth.
At least for a weekend, Albania went from being Europe’s most obscure country to earning the label of the first nation on the continent visited by Pope Francis.
Many Albanians, including the government, wanted the pope to condemn what they believe to be Europe’s constant neglect.
As President Bujar Nishani noted while welcoming Pope Francis early on Sunday, Albania is a nation that, though in the border between the West and the East, has its eyes in the Old Continent and “dreams of a future as part of the European Union.”
While Francis didn’t serve up an explicit rhetoric along those lines, his very presence seemed to make the point.
Francis also highlighted the country’s ability to form a government of interreligious nature, proving that a peaceful coexistence is not only “desirable, but possible and realistic.”
Yet at the same time, Francis also urged Catholic priests, nuns and seminarians to cling to their faith, telling them “not to seek consolation away from the Lord.”
“I do not want to chastise you today, I do not want to become the bad guy here,” the pope said.
“But know well: If you are looking for consolation somewhere other than God, you will not be happy! What’s more, you cannot console anyone, because your heart is not open to the consolation of the Lord.”
The day trip to Albania was a full one for the 78-year-old pontiff. In a span of a 10 hours, he delivered six speeches, celebrated a Mass for 300,000 people, and made all the usual stops of a papal trip, meeting local authorities, both religious and civil, ordinary Catholic faithful, and the poor.
On the way back to Rome, Francis stated that his decision to come to Albania instead of visiting one of Europe’s usual power countries was a message he wanted to give to the continent, to not to forget this Balkan country where the Apostle St. Peter himself preached 2000 years ago.
“Albania isn’t [just] a Muslim country, it’s a European one,” he said.
This was the second papal visit in the country’s history, the previous having been John Paul II, who also took a daytrip there in 1993.