Pope Francis in Albania: Four Lessons
by Stephen Schwartz
On September 21, Pope Francis made a one-day visit to Albania, a short air trip across the Adriatic Sea from Rome but a land neglected typically by global leaders. The excursion was the first by the Pope to a European country since his elevation, according to the Catholic News Service (CNS). He has gone to Brazil in 2013, the Holy Land in May 2014, and South Korea in August 2014.
Four lessons deserve to be gleaned from the Pope's Albanian visit.
First, while there were widespread warnings that the so-called "Islamic State" occupying territory in Syria and Iraq might attempt to kill the pontiff while he was in Albania, no such risks were anticipated or encountered by the Vatican, CNS reported. Albania is about 56.7 percent Muslim and 10 percent Catholic, as recorded in The CIA World Factbook.
Thus, the first lesson of the Pope's travel to Albania is that not all Muslim-majority countries are teeming with unrestrained Islamic extremists. Indeed, Pope Francis himself said he was moved to go to Albania by his recognition that it is "a unique country where 'peaceful coexistence and collaboration' exist among Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and people of no faith at all." In Albania, Pope Francis met with Albanian Sunni Muslim, Bektashi (Shia Muslim), Catholic and Orthodox Christian representatives. In a public event, he urged Albanian youth to say "Yes' to a culture of encounter and of solidarity."
And that is the second lesson of the Papal appearance in Tirana, the Albanian capital: that Muslims and Christians can live in harmony and mutual respect.
The third and most dramatic lesson visible in the Papal sojourn to Albania involved another aspect of the Balkan republic's history. Under Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled over the land from 1944 until his death in 1985, Albania was declared, in 1967, the sole officially-atheist state in the world. Religion was suppressed ruthlessly, whether Islamic or Christian.
As described by CNS, Pope Francis was "moved to tears" by stories of the torments inflicted on Catholic clergy by the Communist system, which he heard in the Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul in Tirana.
Father Ernest Simoni, now 84 and a member of the Franciscan order from whose founder, St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope's titular name was taken, emphasized that Albanian believers held to their faiths in secret, knowing that death sentences and other punishments awaited them if they were detected. Fr. Simoni said his clerical superiors were executed and that while he was ordained as a priest in 1956, he was arrested on Christmas Eve 1963, jailed, tortured, and consigned to 18 years' hard labor in a mine followed by 10 years' working in sewage systems. Still, Fr. Simoni celebrated clandestine masses in Latin and carried out other religious duties for Catholics.
After the Communist regime fell in 1991, Fr. Simoni went to distant mountain communities to eradicate blood feuds, which are a serious problem in Albania.
A Catholic teacher, sister Marije Kaleta of the Stigmatine apostolate, now aged 85, said she had baptized numerous children privately - "everyone who came to my door" - but that she was concerned that people demanding baptism might be Communist agents.
Sr. Kaleta said she was walking down a road once when a mother carrying an infant asked her for the child's baptism. Sr. Kaleta refused at first, since the woman's husband was a Communist and Sr. Kaleta lacked the proper apparatus for baptism.
But she was persuaded by the mother to take water from a ditch for the ceremony, using the sister's own plastic shoe to pour water over the child's head.
Pope Francis said his brief stay in Albania was motivated partly by learning of the martyrdom of Catholics at the hands of the Hoxha regime. A "cause" for canonization of the martyrs is under consideration.
A year after Communism ended in Albania, Henry Kamm of The New York Times wrote on March 27, 1992 that Albanian clerics of all religions were leading a revival of belief. But those he interviewed each had terrible things to reveal. Haxhi Hafiz Sabri Koci (1921-2004), appointed Sunni Muslim grand mufti of Albania in the aftermath of the totalitarian dictatorship, recalled his "Twenty-one years at hard labor... In the copper mines. I was a welder, a plumber. I did every kind of work, just like the other prisoners. They were mainly political."
Kamm noted that Albania had 300 Catholic priests when Communism began, and only 30 left when it ended. Under Hoxha, an estimated 95 percent of mosques and churches were destroyed, vandalized, or converted to secular use.
And that is the fourth lesson of the experience of Pope Francis in Albania. That is, Albanian believers have stories of constancy and resistance that remain to be told to the world. Let us hope the Papal visit will stimulate wider study of Albania's years of religious persecution. As Muslims and Christians lived and live together in Albania, so they also suffered together - and their misfortune should never be forgotten.