ROME — Ahead of a visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina in June, Pope Francis welcomed the nation’s bishops on Monday and gave them a preview of the challenges he’s bound to address: Emigration, healing the wounds of war, and seeking unity in a country scarred by ethnic differences.
Francis told the bishops that “emigration is one of the social realities close to my heart,” and called for them not to hold back any energy in helping the weak and poor and those who want to stay in their country despite the hardships.
The pontiff ticked off several factors fueling out-migration: The difficulty of returning home after a violent conflict, lack of job opportunities (with 27 percent of young people unemployed), family instability, the emotional and social laceration of the community, and the wounds of a war still present in the nation’s memory.
Francis is scheduled for a one-day trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital city, on June 6. Talking about the visit, the pontiff told the bishops that he’s “eager” to go and to “enjoy with your people the beauty” of living together.
Bosnia’s four bishops were in Rome for their ad limina visit, a trip to Rome that bishops are required to make once every five years to report on the status of their local dioceses.
Pope Francis praised their pastoral, ecumenical, and interreligious efforts, but warned them that their call to respect others does not exempt them from “giving an open and honest testimony of belonging to Christ.”
When he announced the trip last February during his weekly Angelus, Francis said he hoped it would help consolidate fraternity and peace, inter-religious dialogue, and friendship.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has a current population of almost 4 million people, of whom 40 percent are Muslim, 37 percent Orthodox, and 14 percent Catholic, the majority of whom are of Croatian descent.
Sarajevo, once known as the “Jerusalem of Europe” for its religious diversity, was also the scene of fierce urban combat as part of the 1990s-era Bosnian War.
More than 100,000 people were killed in a span of three years, and thousands of Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats were taken to concentration camps as part of the Serb efforts to drive out non-Serbs.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Military Bishop Tomo Vukšić had an informal meeting with Rome-based journalists on March 14. Talking about the safety preparation for the looming papal visit, he said that there’s no concern about the pope’s safety, but the issue is being dealt “prudently.”
Describing the situation of Catholics in the country, Vukšić said that the three main difficulties are the poor economy, which is driving people to seek jobs in neighboring nations; a low birth rate, which leads to the loss of an average of 1,000 faithful a year, and helping war refugees to go back to their homes.
The Bosnian war came to an end in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords. Vukšić described them as “really important because they meant peace and an end to the bloodshed.” Nevertheless, he said, it’s an unfair peace that doesn’t guarantee human rights such as a safe return home for the displaced.
During the war, 60 percent of the country’s Catholics had to leave their homes and became either national or international refugees. Before the war, 800,000 Catholics lived in the region, with only half of those living there now.
“We still feel the consequences of the war, if not, we wouldn’t be human,” Vukšić said. “Everyone lost someone … a husband, a brother, a son, a home.”
Talking about interreligious dialogue, Vukšić said that just as during the war there were signs of friendship, today there are some tense situations. He said that the relations are mostly good when it comes to “earthly” issues, such as the protection of workers or institutions, but when it comes to theological discussions, they face the same difficulties than “everybody else.”
Sarajevo will be Francis’ third one-day foray outside of Italy, after his visit to Albania in August and the French city of Strasburg last November to address the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. It will be his eighth international trip.
Over the summer, the pope will take a Latin American tour, visiting Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay; in September, he’s scheduled to travel to Philadelphia, New York, and Washington DC for his first-ever trip to the United States.
During the plane ride back from the Philippines in January, the pontiff said he also plans to visit two African countries before the end of the year, mentioning Uganda and the Central African Republic as possibilities.