Witness and fraternity are the two key words to understanding the meaning of Francis’ journey to Albania, as brief — less than 12 hours — as it was important and exemplary. Important for the country, which has received strong support from the Pontiff, and exemplary because of the sign that the Pope has wished to launch to Europe and to the whole international community.
In the warm welcome address, President Bujar Nishani, in his affectionate and composed welcome to the Pontiff, introduced his people as the People of Mother Teresa and drew on the last words exclaimed by the Catholic martyrs, victims of Communism — ‘Long live Albania! Long live the Pope!’. He recalled with gratitude that in the “great season of loneliness” the Holy See’s support for the country was important.
Today, in the footsteps of John Paul II, on his visit after the end of the atheist regime, the Bishop of Rome’s support for Albania is once again manifest. With a world-wide scope and with obvious affection for the Albanian people, with “respect and admiration for their witness and their fraternity in carrying the country forward”, Francis had written in his own hand at the outset of the visit.
The Pope spent two months preparing for this, his first visit in Europe. He was dismayed at the “level of cruelty” unleashed, which he defined as terrible, not only on Catholics but also on Orthodox and Muslims. “All three religious components have borne witness to God and now bear witness to fraternity”, Francis summarized to journalists during the return flight to Rome.
The witness of fraternity borne by the people of Albania and from its heroic history of resistance to evil is precious “in these times where an authentic religious spirit is being perverted and where religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalized by extremist groups. This creates dangerous circumstances which lead to conflict and violence”, the Pope stated clearly.From this land of martyrs, the Bishop of Rome once again gave voice to these powerful words: “Let no one consider themselves to be the ‘armour’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression!”, he urged in his discourse to the Albanian authorities and the Diplomatic Corps. “Authentic religion is a source of peace and not of violence!”, he said at the meeting with representatives of other religious communities in the country and repeated: “To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege!”.
And beside the unequivocal words expressed during the journey in Albania will remain the strong emotion and the tears of the Pontiff on hearing the simple and touching story of two survivors of the atrocious Communist persecution: an 84-year-old priest, Fr Ernest Simoni, and an 85-year-old Stigmatine nun, Sr Marije Kaleta, who escaped death, decades of imprisonment and forced labour. Today “we have touched martyrs”, the Pope said, deeply moved, adding that, consoled by God during the persecution, they were the ones to console us.
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