Vatican City, 21 September 2014 (VIS) – This morning Pope Francis began his visit to Tirana, Albania - his fourth apostolic trip and the second by a pontiff to the “Land of the Eagles”. The first was by John Paul II in 1993, two years after the fall of the dictatorship and following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Republic of Albania. On that occasion, the Pope celebrated Mass in the Cathedral of Scutari, which had been transformed into a sports centre under the communist regime, and he blessed the first stone for the reconstruction of the Shrine to Our Lady of Good Counsel, built in 1895 and demolished in 1967. In Tirana in recent years both the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of the Jesuit Fathers and the Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ have been rebuilt.
The Holy Father, who departed from Rome's Fiumicino airport at 7.30 a.m., arrived in Tirana at 9 a.m. and was received at the aerodrome dedicated to Mother Teresa by representatives of the religious and civil authorities, including the apostolic nuncio in Albania, Archbishop Ramiro Moliner Ingles, and the Albanian prime minister Edi Rama. He proceeded by car to the presidential palace of Tirana, where the welcome ceremony took place, and he was greeted by the Albanian president, Bujar Nishani. Following a brief discussion, the president accompanied the Pope to the Salon Scanderberg for a meeting with the authorities, the diplomatic corps, and some of the country's religious leaders.
In his address to those present, the full text of which is published below, the Holy Father spoke about Albania's path to recovering civil liberties and religious freedom, warning of the exploitation of differences between religions and praising the peaceful co-existence and collaboration between those of different religious beliefs in Albania.
“I am very happy to be here with you, in this noble land of Albania, a land of heroes who sacrificed their lives for the independence of the nation, and a land of martyrs, who witnessed to their faith in difficult times of persecution. I am grateful for the invitation to visit your country, called 'the Land of the Eagles', and for your warm welcome.
“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, 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 recognised and guaranteed, creativity and interdependence thrive, and the potential of the human personality is unleashed through actions that further the common good.
“There is a rather beautiful characteristic of Albania, one which is given great care and attention, and which gives me great joy: I am referring to the peaceful coexistence and collaboration that exists among followers of different religions. The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims 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 exploited. 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.
“Let no one use God as a 'shield' 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 nurtured 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 an inspiring example to other countries.
“Mr President, after a winter of isolation and persecution, the springtime of freedom has finally come. By means of free elections and new institutional structures, a democratic pluralism has been consolidated which is now favouring economic activity. Many people, especially at the beginning, chose to emigrate in search of work and a better standard of living, and in their own way contributed to the advancement of Albanian society. Many others rediscovered reasons for staying in their homeland, wanting to build it up from within. The efforts and sacrifices of all have improved the life of the nation in general.
“The Catholic Church, for her part, has resumed a normal existence, re-establishing her hierarchy and rejoining the threads 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 use by all citizens. The presence of the Church and her activities are therefore rightly seen as a service, not only to the Catholic community, but rather to the whole nation.
“Blessed Mother Teresa, together with the martyrs who witnessed to their faith – to whom we pray and offer our appreciation – most certainly are rejoicing in heaven because of the work of men and women of good will who contribute to the flourishing of civil society and the Church in Albania.
“Today, however, new challenges arise which must be faced. In a world that tends toward 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 globalisation of the markets there must also be a corresponding globalisation 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”.
“I offer my heartfelt thanks to each of you for your gracious welcome, and, like Saint John Paul II in April 1993, I invoke upon Albania the protection of Mary, Mother of Good Counsel, entrusting to her the hopes of the entire Albanian people. May God abundantly pour out his grace and blessing upon Albania”.
Following his address the Pope continued to Mother Teresa Square where he celebrated Holy Mass.