Tirana (AsiaNews) - Once the elderly priest finished speaking, the pope got up, hugged him, kissed his hands and then rested his head on his forehead for several seconds in silence (pictured). Fr Ernest Troshani Simoni, 84, had just talked about his arrest at the beginning of Albania's Maoist dictatorship, his 18-year imprisonment (for me living is Christ he had written on the wall of his cell), followed by a period of forced labour. Sometimes he was almost tortured to death because, as his captors would say, "he would not stop talking about Christ."
After him came Sister Maria Kaleta, a 85-year-old Stigmatine nun, who talked about the joy of her vocation and about the suffering she endured after her convent was shut down. She kept her faith helping others. For many years, she was sentenced to forced labour and yet she often risked her life by baptising children at their mothers' request. For decades, she felt "a desire to participate in a Holy Mass".
In presenting the two stories, the commentator who spoke about them said, "Dear Pope Francis, we could have given a lot of flowers, so many things, but we chose instead to give you two stories of martyrdom." Francis seems to have appreciated the gift.
When it was time for his homily, the Holy Father put aside his prepared speech - in which he was going to ask for prayers on behalf of new vocations and evangelisation within the unity among priests, laity, religious, and missionaries. Instead, he spoke about the brief Vespers reading that had just been recited (2 Cor, 1: 3-4), ending by saying that "Today we touched martyrs."
During his preparation for the visit to Albania, Francis said he was surprised by what he found. "I did not know that your people had suffered so much. Today, on the road from the airport to the square [I saw] all the pictures of the martyrs. One can see that this people still remembers those who have suffered so much. A nation of martyrs. Today, at the beginning of this celebration, we heard the stories of two of them. What I can tell you is what they said, with their lives. They said this in simple but so painful words."
"How did you survive so much trouble? They will tell us that it was God, the merciful Father, the God of every consolation who consoled us. The Lord," he went on to say, "consoled even these two witnesses. Lot of good people, including cloistered nuns, prayed for them. . . . It is a mystery that the Lord answered the request of consolation of his people. The Lord consoles humbly and stealthily. He consoles in the heart's intimacy and in strength. They did not boast of what they experienced because it was the Lord who gave them the strength to go on. But they told us something, that for us who were called by the Lord to follow him closely, the only consolation comes from Him.
"Woe to us if we seek another consolation," he said before thousands of priests, monks, nuns, novices, and seminarians. "Woe to the priests, priests, nuns, novices, seminarians, and probandi when they seek consolation far from the Lord."
"I do not want to beat you today," he said eliciting a smile from the audience. "I do not want to become the executioner, but you should know that if you seek consolation elsewhere, you will not be happy. What is more, you will not be able to console anyone because your heart is not open to the Lord's consolation."
"This is what those two did, humbly, unpretentiously, doing us a service, consoling us," the pope said. "They told us that we are sinners and yet the Lord stood by us. This is the way: we should not be discouraged. On the way home, we shall think, Today we touched martyrs."
Bethany Centre visit
After his meeting with priests and consecrated people, the pontiff travelled to the Bethany Centre at Bubq Fushe-Kruje, about 30 kilometres from Tirana. The facility, which is run by Christian and Muslim volunteers and staff, is home to children who have been abandoned or are in need of care.
"This Centre," the pope noted, ""shows that it is possible to live together peacefully and fraternally as people of different ethnicities and followers of various religious confessions. Here differences do not prevent harmony, joy and peace, but rather become occasions for greater mutual awareness and understanding. The variety of religious experiences reveals a true and reverential love of neighbour; each religious community expresses itself through love and not violence, and is never ashamed of showing goodness!"
"For fifteen years now they have sacrificed themselves joyfully out of love for Jesus and for us," Francis said about the volunteers, citing Mirjan-Paolo a young man who grew up at the centre where he became a Christian.
Such words reveal "how making a gift of oneself for the love of Jesus gives birth to joy and hope, and it also shows how serving one's brothers and sisters is transformed into an experience of sharing God's kingdom. The words of Mirjan-Paolo might seem paradoxical to many in our world who are slow to grasp their meaning and who frantically seek the key to existence in earthly riches, possessions and amusements. What these people discover, instead, is estrangement and bewilderment. The secret to a good life is found in loving and giving oneself for love's sake."
Afterwards, the pope travelled to Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza. Following a brief meeting with the Prime Minister of Albania, he boarded a plane that took him back to Rome.