Tirana (AsiaNews) - "Let no one consider themselves to be the 'armour' of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression!" said Pope Francis in Albania, the first European country he visited since becoming pontiff.
For more than 30 years, Enver Hoxha's dictatorship enforced a policy of state atheism, persecuting, jailing and killing members of every religion. In the capital, the pictures of 40 Catholic priests killed during those years are on exhibit.
Francis described Albania as a "land of the martyrs," during mass. In this land, the peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians - Catholic and Orthodox - never stopped. Here, President Bujar Nishani said in his greeting to the Pope, "there is no intolerance."
For Francis, this "rather beautiful characteristic of Albania", namely "the peaceful coexistence and collaboration that exists among followers of different religions," has created a "climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims." This "is a precious gift to the country. This is especially the case in these times where an authentic religious spirit is being perverted and where religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalised. This creates dangerous circumstances which lead to conflict and violence, rather than being an occasion for open and respectful dialogue, and for a collective reflection on what it means to believe in God and to follow his laws."
The peaceful coexistence between religions in Albania is a "good signal for the world," Pope Francis told reporters on the flight that took him to the Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza just before 9 am.
An ethnic Albanian, Mother Teresa is also honoured in the Albanian capital's main square where the pontiff held Mass after meeting with Albanian authorities and the diplomatic corps.
Despite some rain, thousands of people came. A festive crowd lined the route taken by Francis' open car. During the drive, the pontiff found time to stop and kiss some babies, belying security concerns.
The two main topics the pope addressed in the first part of this short, one-day trip are freedom, above all religious freedom, and Christians "missionary mandate".
Francis stressed the value of freedom at the presidential palace. "Almost a quarter of a century has passed since Albania re-embarked upon the arduous but rewarding path of freedom. This experience has allowed Albanian society to take up the process of material and spiritual reconstruction, to foster an increase of enthusiasm and initiatives, and to create a spirit of cooperation and exchange with countries of the Balkans, the Mediterranean, Europe and indeed with the rest of the world. This rediscovered freedom has helped you look to the future with trust and hope, establishing new projects and renewing friendly relations with countries both near and far.
"Respect for human rights, among which religious freedom and freedom of expression stand out," said the Holy Father, "is the preliminary condition for a country's social and economic development. When the dignity of the human person is respected and his or her rights recognized and guaranteed, creativity and interdependence thrive, and the potential of the human personality is unleashed through actions that further the common good.
In view of the positive example of peaceful coexistence between religions in the country, Francis said, "Let no one consider themselves to be the "armour" of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression! May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman, above all, the right to life and the right of everyone to religious freedom!"
"What the experience in Albania shows, rather, is that a peaceful and fruitful coexistence between persons and communities of believers of different religions is not only desirable, but possible and realistic. The peaceful coexistence of different religious communities is, in fact, an inestimable benefit to peace and to harmonious human advancement. This is something of value which needs to be protected and nourished each day, by providing an education which respects differences and particular identities, so that dialogue and cooperation for the good of all may be promoted and strengthened by mutual understanding and esteem. It is a gift which we need to implore from God in prayer. May Albania always continue to walk this path, offering to other countries an inspiring example."
The pontiff noted that "after a winter of isolation and persecution, the springtime of freedom has finally come." Hence, ""The Catholic Church, for its part, has resumed a normal existence, re-establishing its hierarchy and taking up once more the line of a long tradition. Places of worship have been built or rebuilt. Among these, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Counsel at Scutari holds a special place. Similarly, schools and centres of education and healthcare have been established for the use of all citizens. The presence of the Church and its activities are therefore rightly seen as a service, not only to the Catholic community, but rather to the whole nation."
"Today, however, new challenges arise which must be faced. In a world that tends to economic and cultural globalization, every effort must be made to ensure that growth and development are put at the service of all and not just limited parts of the population. Furthermore, such development will only be authentic if it is sustainable and just, that is, if it has the rights of the poor and respect for the environment close to heart. Alongside the globalization of the markets there must also be a corresponding globalization of solidarity; together with economic growth there must be a greater respect for creation; alongside the rights of individuals, there must be the guaranteed rights of those who are a bridge between the individual and the state, the family being the first and foremost of such institutions. Today Albania is able to face these challenges in an atmosphere of freedom and stability, two realities which must be strengthened and which form the basis of hope for the future.
For Christians, this future also means rediscovering their evangelising mission, the pope said during the Mass. Today's Gospel, "tells us that, as well as the Twelve Apostles, Jesus calls another seventy-two disciples and that he sends them to the villages and cities to announce the Kingdom of God. [. . .] "In the mission of the seventy-two disciples we see a reflection of the Christian community's missionary experience in every age: the risen and living Lord sends not only the Twelve, but the entire Church; he sends each of the baptized to announce the Gospel to all peoples. Through the ages, the message of peace brought by Jesus' messengers has not always been accepted; at times, the doors have been closed to them. In the recent past, the doors of your country were also closed, locked by the chains of prohibitions and prescriptions of a system which denied God and impeded religious freedom. Those who were afraid of the truth did everything they could to banish God from the hearts of men and women and to exclude Christ and the Church from the history of your country, even though it was one of the first to receive the light of the Gospel."
"Recalling the decades of atrocious suffering and harsh persecutions against Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, we can say that Albania was a land of martyrs: many bishops, priests, men and women religious, and laity paid for their fidelity with their lives. Demonstrations of great courage and constancy in the profession of the faith are not lacking. How many Christians did not succumb when threatened, but persevered without wavering on the path they had undertaken! I stand spiritually at that wall of the cemetery of Scutari, a symbolic place of the martyrdom of Catholics before the firing squads, and with profound emotion I place the flower of my prayer and of my grateful and undying remembrance. The Lord was close to you, dear brothers and sisters, to sustain you; he led you and consoled you and in the end he has raised you up on eagle's wings as he did for the ancient people of Israel. The eagle, depicted on your nation's flag, calls to mind hope, and the need to always place your trust in God, who does not lead us astray and who is ever at our side, especially in moments of difficulty."
"Today, the doors of Albania have been reopened and a season of new missionary vitality is growing for all of the members of the people of God: each baptized person has his or her role to fulfil in the Church and in society. Each one must experience the call to dedicate themselves generously to the announcing of the Gospel and to the witness of charity; called to strengthen the bonds of solidarity so as to create more just and fraternal living conditions for all."
"Today I have come to make you thank you for your testimony, and also, I have come to encourage you to grow the hope within you and around you. Do not forget the eagle. The eagle does not forget the nest, but flies high. Fly high! Go! I came to involve the younger generation; assiduously to nurture the Word of God by opening your hearts to Christ, to God, to the Gospel, to the encounter with God, the encounter between you how you do it and with whom testimony meeting dates throughout Europe.
"In the spirit of communion among bishops, priests, consecrated persons and laity, I encourage you to bring vitality to your pastoral activities and to continuously seek new ways of making the Church present in society. In particular, I appeal to the youth. There were so many on the airport road, here! This is a young people! Very young. And where there is youth, there is hope. Listen to God, worship God and love each other as a people, as brothers."
"To the Church which is alive in this land of Albania, I say 'thank you' for the example of fidelity to the Gospel! Do not forget the nest, your distant history, and your trials; do not forget the wounds, but do not seek vengeance. Go ahead, working and hoping for a great future. So many of your sons and daughters have suffered for Christ, even to the point of sacrificing their lives. May their witness sustain your steps today and tomorrow as you journey along the way of love, of freedom, of justice and of peace!
Finally, Francis spoke again to young people at the Angelus, telling them "you are the new generation of Albania, the future of the nation. With the power of the Gospel and the example of the martyrs, you know how to say 'No' to the idolatry of money, 'No' to the false freedom of individualism, 'No' to addiction and to violence; you also know how to say 'Yes' to a culture of encounter and of solidarity, 'Yes' to the beauty that is inseparable from the good and the true; 'Yes' to a life lived with great enthusiasm and at the same time faithful in little things. In this way, you will build a better Albania and a better world".