The Pope in Albania

News came this week that Pope Francis is going to pay a one day visit to Albania on September 21st. Flying out at 7.30am he will be greeted at Tirana airport by the Prime Minister, and go on to meet the President, and other authorities. At 11am Francis will celebrate Mass in a square, and this will be followed by the Angelus. Lunch will be with the bishops of Albania, and then he will greet leaders of other religions and denominations. At 5pm Pope Francis will celebrate Evening Prayer (Vespers) with priests, religious, seminarians and members of lay movements at the Cathedral, and go straight on to visit a children’s hospital, flying back to Rome at 8pm. Now, two things occur to me about all this. First, I don’t know about you, but I feel exhausted just reading the schedule of this 77 year old man. And not only will he be moving around all day from place to place, but he will have all that attention on him, and speeches to make at the relevant times. Phew!

But also, what an amazing choice of destination. Albania must be one of the least known countries of Europe. By going there, Francis continues his policy of visiting the least obvious places. While it’s true that Francis is not the first Pope to visit – St John Paul went there too – it’s fascinating that he chooses Albania ahead of France or Germany or the great cities of Italy itself… On a holiday in Corfu 20 years ago, I took a boat trip across to Albania just for the day. It was pretty horrifying – very, very poor and depressing. We must remember that Albania is the only country to have banned all religion. All signs of Christianity were completely removed. Our guide showed us a battered wrought iron cross on a ruined church, proudly telling us that “they missed that one”. That was already five years after the Berlin Wall came down, but Albania was only just starting to emerge from its darkness… Now the population is 10-16% Catholic – somewhat higher than Wales, and they have five dioceses. Still beset by the effects of its appalling regime under Enver Hoxha, it is slowly getting there.

They are particularly proud that Mother Teresa was ethnically Albanian, and it will be at Mother Teresa Airport that Pope Francis lands on 21st September. And at Mother Teresa Square that he celebrates Mass. What a journey Albania has made and is continuing to make. From an atheistic state to a papal visit. For indeed nothing is impossible to God.

Fr Matthew