By a mysterious design of providence I arrived in Kosovo precisely during the days of mourning for the sudden death of Bishop Mark Sopi who for some time had been inviting me to visit the large number of initiatives engaged in there with Caritas of Triveneto.
I was called to celebrate his funeral in the presence of thousands of people, Catholics and Muslims, who had come from the whole of the region to give their final farewell to the Bishop who with so much devotion had died for that land.
And exactly in those days, almost unexpectedly, I was invited by Ibrahim Rugova, the President of Kosovo, to his private residence.
I had been able to know Rugova from the middle 1980s through his writings, and I was very impressed by him. Helped by poetry and literary and philological studies to penetrate the meaning of membership of his people with depth and breadth, faced with the historical urgency that had been created after the death of Tito, this man had understood that he could not isolate himself in the empyrean of letters but had to act concretely to the point of entering the social and political arena.
The meeting with him in his home was profound and moving. I was very struck by the fact that despite the heavy suffering of an illness that was by then in its final stage (he would die a few days later), he wanted to meet me. I felt that this was an act of esteem towards not so much my person as the Church that I represent.
Rugova expressed condolences to me that were not formal and referred to his strong and true friendship with Bishop Sopi, of whom he spoke to me briefly, demonstrating that, in a way that respected different functions, the Catholic Bishop and the Muslim President had worked a great deal together for the good of their country.
The President told me that he had very high regard for the role of Catholics in Kosovo and expressed his esteem for John Paul II in the past and for Pope Benedict XVI today, being profoundly convinced of the role of being a bridge that the Catholics have had and are having in this final stage of the definition of the new physiognomy of Kosovo.
In that land I saw many clear signs of the possibility demonstrated by constant practice of dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. In two entirely Muslim villages the elderly members had wanted to build two churches almost as if to render homage to the Catholic faith of their great grandparents; the municipality of Pec Peja had decided to give the Catholic Church land for the building of a hospice; and Rugova himself was very happy that the municipality of Pristina had given land for the construction of the Catholic cathedral in the centre of the city dedicated to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the uncontested symbol of the unity of the whole country, for which he himself had laid the first stone.
Precisely because of all these elements, Rugosa was convinced, and he explained this to me during our meeting, that Kosovo cannot turn back but must continue on its path towards full independence, supported by international organisations and capable of enabling its different identities Albanians, Rom, Serbians and all the other minorities to live together in dialogue, co-operation and collaboration.
All of this, in his judgement, could take place in a Europe that is capable of strong co-responsibility towards new emergent realities.
In this context, the President poet also talked about the need for social and economic development which in his view should principally advance in two directions: the production of electrical energy and special minerals and the maximum appreciation and use of the talents of young people, who made up the largest part of the population and were an extraordinary resource of an unusual kind given the demographic trends of the rest of Europe.
In ending the meeting, the President gave me two precious minerals from the mines of Kosovo, of which he was a very great expert an expression of the deep attachment of this man to his land.
Through great trials, Rugova had known how to accompany his people over recent years. His figure, with his testimony, imposed itself on everyone by winning his battle, and also the last and most terrible battle, that against cancer. Death, in fact, did not extinguish the testimony of a man who until the end pursued the ideal in its historical and also political concreteness.
Rugosa testified to us that the ideal in the full sense is not a theory or an ideology but a commitment to reality that reality itself verifies and tests, thereby demonstrating its verity.
To speak with him, because of the sensitivity of his face, the sober and essential depth of his style of communication, at such a dramatic moment of his life, was for me a comforting confirmation that it is possible to be men like him. In civil society, in the world of culture and politics, we have need of men of that stature.