Pope’s visit to Albania to commemorate martyrs and be a laboratory for dialogue

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The martyrs of the Communist regime and dialogue – including political dialogue – between faiths. These two topics will be the focus of Pope Francis’ visit to Albania on Sunday. He will only be in Albania for one day, 10 hours to be precise, and will deliver six speeches, spending most of his time in the capital Tirana. This will be the Pope’s fourth international visit after Brazil, the Holy Land and South Korea. After this he will visit Strasbourg and Turkey in November. Albania will mark his first trip to a European country.

Pope Francis explained the meaning of the trip to journalists on the return flight from South Korea: “Some say it’s in the Pope’s style to make the peripheries his starting point for everything. “But no, Why am I going to Albania?” he said during the papal flight. “For two important reasons. First, because they have managed to form a government – we think of the Balkans! – a government of national unity between Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, with an interreligious Council which is very helpful and balanced. And this is working well, it’s harmonious. The Pope’s presence is a way of saying to everyone: “We can all work together!” I felt it would be a real help to that noble people. And another thing: If we think of the history of Albania, it was, in terms of religion, the one communist country whose Constitution enshrined practical atheism. If you went to Mass, it was a violation of the Constitution. One of the ministers told me that at the time – here I want to be precise in the figures – 1,820 churches were torn down. Torn down! Orthodox churches, Catholic churches… And other churches were turned into cinemas, theaters, dance halls… I felt I should go: It is close by, it can be done in a day…”

During a briefing in the Vatican to present the papal visit to Albania, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi focused especially on the martyrs killed during the Communist regime. He shared a personal memory he had of that period, when he was head of the Jesuit Province that includes both Italy and Albania: when the Communist era was over we found three Jesuits who were still alive. We hadn’t heard much news about any deceased priests. Then we met two 80-year old priests and an elderly brother. One of the priests, Anton Luli, had been present at the 50th anniversary of John Paul II’s priestly ordination.” In 2002 Scutari cathedral began the diocesan process for the beatification of 40 martyrs, including priests, men religious, bishops, a woman and three Jesuits, Fr. Gjon Pantalia, Fr. Daniel Dajani and Fr. Giovanni Fausti, the uncle of Biblicist Silvano Fausti.

Francis will only be staying in Albania for one day, though naturally, Albanians would have liked him to stay longer,” Fr. Lombardi said. “We know that Pope Francis is fond of short trips,” but this one is going to be “very intense”. Since Francis is only going for one day, the focus of the papal visit will be Tirana and not Scutari, the heart of Albanian Catholicism. The decision to stay in the capital underlines the meaning of the life of the Catholic Church in the country.”

The visit will commemorate Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (who was Albanian) and John Paul II who visited the country in 1993. Francis will leave Rome’s Fiumicino airport at 7:30 am, arriving at Tirana international airport at around 9, where he will be greeted by the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. Half an hour later, the President of the Republic, Bujar Nishami will receive him in the presidential palace for the official welcome ceremony. After this, the Pope will meet with the authorities. The recitation of the Angelus will take place in Mother Teresa Square at 11. At 1:30 pm the Pope will lunch with Albania’s seven bishops. At 4 Francis will meet with religious leaders (Muslims, mostly Sunnis, Bektashis, an Islamic confraternity that is linked to Sufism and Shi'ism, Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals and Jews). At 5, Bergoglio will preside the Vespers in the new cathedral. The meeting will be introduced by a priest and an over-80-year-old nun, who were witnesses during the persecution period. The last event will take place at 6:30: Francis will meet a group of children in Betania charity centre. Francis’ departure is expected at 7:45 and he will land in Rome’s Ciampino airport at 9:30.

The Pope’s entourage will include the Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and the Substitute Secretary of State, Mgr. Angelo Becciu and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, papal delegate for the Congregation for the Children of the Immaculate Conception which the local Catholic university depends on and the Holy See’s “foreign affairs minister”, Mgr. Dominique Mamberti will be making a special appearance since his office deals with the Vatican’s relations with Albania. A member of Vatican staff will also be travelling with the Pope, as part of a prize.

“The Pope faces no specific threats or risks that would require him to change his behaviour or changes to the way the trip has been organized,” Lombardi said answering a question regarding the Pope’s safety and the proclamations of the jihadists of the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State. “Everyone is concerned because of ISIS’s history and because of what is going on in the Middle East; the situation is is a cause for concern in today’s world but if the question is about whether specific threats have been made or whether there are any specific concerns that have led to certain measures to be taken as a precaution, then the answer is “no”.”

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By Iacopo Scaramuzzi