Pope Francis' upcoming visit to Albania could encourage the leaders of the Catholic Church in a nation with a long history of religious persecution and political domination, said a priest in the country. Father Don Carlo Lorenzo Rossetti, a Fidei donum priest from the Diocese of Rome, has been based in Albania since 2003. In a Sept. 17 interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Fr. Rossetti said that despite significant challenges facing Catholics in the country, “the Church is rising again!” The priest explained that both Church and civil authorities have high hopes for the Holy Father's Sept. 21 visit. “Catholics hope that he might strengthen all pastoral workers, giving them courage and willingness to work in unity and in communion with the universal Church,” he said. “Civil authorities are hoping for a greater visibility for their country, which would make it easier for Albania’s future integration into the European Community,” he added. The country became a member of NATO in 2009 and is an official candidate for accession to the European Union as of June 2014. Albanian's history is fraught with dominance by foreign, totalitarian and Communist regimes. After centuries of domination by the oppressive Islamic-Osman Turkey, followed by a rigid monarchy under King Zogu, and then Italian fascism and German Nazism, the country entered into one of its darkest periods after World War II. The radical and inhumane Stalinist Enver Hoxha governed the country under a Communist regime that persecuted all religious denominations, especially Christianity. “...the Catholic Church was particularly (under attack) because of her links with foreign counties, especially Italy and the Vatican. The majority of the martyrs were executed in this period,” Fr. Rossetti said. In 1967, the government sought to remove all traces of faith and religion from the country. It created an atheistic constitution with no mention of God, and churches were destroyed or re-purposed as stores or sporting halls. The eventual fall of the regime in the early '90s meant a re-emergence of Church activity, but the effects of the anti-religion crusade meant a generational gap in the knowledge of the faith. “In the very first beginning of Church activity after the fall of dictatorship some older priests who survived captivity and torture visited a lot of villages (largely in the North, which has a slightly larger Catholic minority population), proposing Catholic baptism without any catechism. You can easily encounter adults who claim to be Catholic, even ‘very Catholic’, while not knowing the basic Christian prayers.” Catholic church-goers in the country today consist largely of the older generation, which remembers the Church before the Communists, as well as young people who grew up in a freer Albania. There remains a large population of people who identify as Catholic for ethnic or sociological reasons rather than spiritual ones, and the Church is still seen as very “clerical” with little lay participation, largely due to the years-long gap in catechesis. Still, Father Rossetti said, there is reason for hope within the Church. “(T)he last 20 years the pastoral work has been great. Thanks to the personal intervention of St. John Paul II, a lot of congregations and new movements entered Albania and are now serving this country. Also priestly vocations have grown.” As for other religions, Albania is about 70 percent Muslim. Other minorities include Orthodox Christians and Evangelical Protestants, a minority that has seen recent growth. The Muslim population “are not at all radicals or fundamentalists,” Fr. Rossetti explained, and “the spiritual character of Albania is not a fanatic one: the mainstream opinion is that there is a God in heaven.” In a country that has seen so much religious persecution from outside forces, it is important for people of faith to be united, the priest stressed. “The coexistence of different religions is a buffer against secular atheism and a bastion to uphold the spiritual dimension of the human person.” While most native Muslims of Albania are not radical, the return of Islamic jihadists who have been fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq has raised a security threat for the visit, though the Vatican is taking no extraordinary precautions. Habeeb Al Sadr, Iraq's ambassador to the Holy See, told Italian paper Il Messaggaro that the Pope was a target of ISIS and that he would not “rule out” an attempted attack during this or other overseas visits. Still, the Pope plans to drive around in his open topped vehicle as usual, as he wants to be close to the people, the Vatican has said. Politically, the country is now a Republic with presidential elections every five years, though it has been a struggle to get democracy to take root. “The classical heritage of Greek philosophy, Roman civic culture and Biblical spirituality, which is the very foundation of human rights and modern democracy, was largely bypassed in Albanian history,” Fr. Rossetti observed, though adding that economically, the country is growing “because the starting point was zero!” Pope Francis will be the second pontiff to visit the nation. Pope St. John Paul II visited in 1993, as the country was ousting the last of the Communist party. He ordained four bishops while he was visiting, and since his visit, the Albanian Church has seen the beginnings of a revival. Papal visits are known for bringing about not only religious but political changes and revival. Perhaps one of the most famous visits was St. John Paul II's first papal visit to his native Poland. The history of Poland is not unlike that of Albania - marked with foreign domination and Communist rule. In June of 1979, while Poland was caught in the clutches of Soviet communism, the Pope came for a nine-day visit. Throngs of people — more than a million — gathered to see the John Paul II despite government efforts to quell excitement. Christ, the pontiff said, was the past and the future of Poland, and the people responded by shouting, “We want God!” The visit was an historic turning point for the country. Shortly thereafter, in 1980, the Solidarity movement was formed, which eventually brought freedom and human rights to Poland. Many attribute the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union to those nine days in 1979. While Albania is not the home of Pope Francis, the current pontiff has a similar charisma and popularity to St. John Paul II. He is known for his way of transcending politics and speaking simplistically to people's hearts about Christ. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, S.J. said he expects the recently canonized John Paul II will be a central figure of Pope Francis' visit. Another important figure will be Albanian-born Blessed Mother Teresa, who left her native country in 1928 to become a sister. Best known for her work as the founder of the international Missionaries of Charity and helping the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India, she is a national hero in Albania. Pope Francis will fly into the Albanian international airport named in her honor, and will celebrate Mass at Mother Teresa Square in the national capital of Tirana. Fr. Rossetti hopes the papal visit will also help re-orient the Church's focus in Albania to her primary goal — evangelization. “We must improve Christian life through the rediscovering of the Church’s primary goal, which is to evangelize, to transmit the Good News of Jesus Christ, the New Man, who reveals the true identity of all human beings. We are sons and daughters of God, called to live in unconditional love, and destined to eternal life and joy,” he said. “As Pope Francis stresses, the Church has to concentrate her efforts on her own peculiar gift, the Gospel — the defense of the God-given dignity of man and woman and the splendid announcement of the victory over evil and death. “
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