Going towards Mother Teresa Square, where an altar had been set up, the faithful seemed to engage in a journey back to the twentieth century and its various forms of totalitarianism. On the right and the left were lines of dark examples of socialist architecture – the palm of honour probably goes to the pyramid-mausoleum which was built to contain the remains of the dictator – and testimonies to the twenty-year period of fascism with their empty solemnity. But in this painful descent into the well of time the faithful were not abandoned to themselves: they were accompanied from on high by the thirty-nine martyrs who were killed during the communist dictatorship and whose faces stretched from one side of the road to the other. Faces of priests, monks, friars and nuns who were killed after show trials and torture. ‘It was as though God had gone back to heaven, leaving earth to the devil’, wrote Fr. Zef Pllumi of that tragic fifty-year period, when repression was so severe that when the regime began to totter in 1990 there was only one priest in the country able to hold a Holy Mass.
Pope Francis too was struck by the witness to faith offered by the Church of Albania. When in the afternoon he listened to the accounts of a priest and a nun who survived the persecutions he abandoned his prepared speech and improvised an off-the-cuff reflection. ‘Today we touched martyrs’, he concluded.
The Catholics, the first target of the dictatorship, were not the only ones to suffer. Various Orthodox and Muslim religious lost their lives and the destruction of their places of worship was widespread. This has been commemorated by the exhibition that was planned in record time and inaugurated by the Prime Minister on the eve of the visit of the Pope. An exhibition that should be recommended in particular to all those, and they are not few in number, who argue that the cause of violence is religions – always. Were they eliminated, so the argument runs, the problem would be solved. The Albanians, who have behind them fifty years of a dictatorship that was deliberately and consciously atheist, would not agree with this view.
But Pope Francis did not cross the Adriatic only to pay tribute to a past, however recent and glorious it may be. He wanted to point out a lesson to the world which today comes from this periphery of Europe. The fall of the Communist regime, indeed, did not lead to explosions of violence, as happened in the other tormented countries of the Balkans. The Albanians did not divide along religious lines (Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics) but, instead, gave priority to the creation of a State in which fundamental freedoms would be respected, including religious freedom, and practised in fraternity. In this they continued a tradition which goes back to the first steps taken by independent Albania at the beginning of the twentieth century.
If state atheism resulted in a dictatorship against man, religious sense, observed the Pope, can also be distorted. It can become a dangerous factor working for clashes. ‘Nobody can use the name of God to commit violence’, warned the Supreme Pontiff. Albania for the moment has been immune to this temptation. Thanks to whom? Certainly, thanks to the martyrs and their ability to forgive as well.
The Land of Eagles is no longer hell on earth. Nor is it a paradise. It is an open building site where the witness to faith of the martyrs has opened up a space of freedom.