This Sunday’s papal trip to Albania will focus on the importance of dialogue with Islam, as the Muslim-majority nation with a notable Christian presence provides a fitting context for the theme.
Albania is about 57% Muslim, but Catholics make up around 10% of the population, and Orthodox another near 7%.
Pope Francis is very interested in “promoting a positive, serene and harmonious climate of interreligious co-existence, so that the peaceful coexistence of the different confessions and religions in Albania can also be a message for other countries, for other parts of the world,” said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, as he gave details of the trip at a press conference this morning.
Father Lombardi was asked about the threat of an attack by the Islamic State and other Jihadist groups during the trip.
“If the question is: ‘Are there specific threats and specific concerns for which particular measures must be taken?’ The answer is no,” he responded, adding that “there are no specific threats or risks to change the way the Pope will conduct himself, or the way the trip is organized.
“No, we go calmly. The open jeep will be used that is used in Saint Peter’s Square in the principal tours amid the people, with the idea we know that the Pope wants to move without hindrances among the people.”
Father Lombardi said that in addition to dialogue with Islam, other themes will include a homage to the martyrs of faith, victims of the communist regime, and the memory of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was born in Albania.
The trip will “pay homage to the martyrs of the faith in that country, which suffered a terrible persecution under atheist Communism; it was regarded as the first atheist State of the world, having inscribed atheism in its very Constitution,” the spokesman noted.
Father Lombardi also recalled Pope John Paul II’s trip to this same nation in 1993, commenting that since then, there have been many changes in the Church in Albania. In fact, one of Francis’ meetings will be held in the new cathedral, a symbol of the development of the Church in that nation.
The one-day trip is packed with activities. It is Francis’ first trip to a European country outside Italy and the fourth of his pontificate.
The Pope’s addresses will be translated but will be delivered in Italian, as many inhabitants of Albania speak the language, given the country’s historical as well as physical proximity to Italy.
The visit will begin with a welcoming ceremony at Tirana’s Mother Teresa international airport, where Francis will be greeted by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. From the airport the Pope will travel to the Presidential Palace where he will pay a courtesy visit to the President, Bujar Nishani. Afterward he will address representatives of the civil authorities.
He will celebrate Mass in Mother Teresa Square, followed by the recitation of the Angelus. After Mass, the Holy Father will meet with the bishops of Albania for lunch at the Apostolic Nunciature.
Albania has three dioceses, two archdiocese, and one apostolic administration.
In the afternoon, Pope Francis will meet with leaders of other religions and other Christian denominations at the Catholic University Our Lady of Good Counsel.
The Holy Father will travel to the Cathedral of St Paul in the evening to celebrate Vespers with priests, religious sisters and brothers, seminarians, and members of various lay movements.
One of the most significant moments of the trip will happen at the vespers ceremony: two survivors of the religious persecution, a priest and a nun, will give their testimony.
The final event on the schedule will be a meeting with children of the Bethany Center, along with representatives from other charitable institutions of Albania. Disabled and abandoned children are cared for at the center.
Although Pope Francis’ Apostolic Voyage will be only the second visit by a reigning Pope, four other Roman Pontiffs have ties to the country: Pope St Eleutherius, Pope St Caius, and Pope John IV were all born in what is now Albania, while the ancestors of Pope Clement XI also hailed from the country.