An ignorance, for that matter, that is widespread beyond the frontiers of this country which for years decided to cut its ties with the rest of the world. Who really knows what happened here after the Second World War? Who knows about Sister Maria Kaleta who although she was afraid of being reported agreed to secretly baptise a little girl with a little water taken from a river using her plastic shoe? Who knows about Don Ernest Simoni who was tortured almost to death because he did not want to speak against God and spent eighteen years in prison and ten in forced labour because he was a priest? Who knows about Don Stefen Kurti who was put on trial and killed only because he baptised a child? Who knows how many other men and women state atheism tried to eliminate in the years before 1991? That was only twenty-five years ago.
This ‘outskirts’ country, the first stage of the European tour of this Pope who once again has preferred the ‘least’, was for a day the centre of the attention of the international mass media. Through his physical presence here Francis forced the world to turn for a moment towards this corner of the Balkans; he pointed to it as an example to follow because of the tenacity with which it has flourished after decades of Communist rule. As a result, as well, of the unending commitment of men of the nation’s religions – Catholics, Orthodox, Sunni Muslims and Bektashis – who have never stopped believing together in the possibility of an Albania that is free and open to diversity. For the Pope, ‘the authentic meaning of religion is too often deformed and the differences between the different confessions are distorted and exploited, with them being made into violent clashes rather than open dialogue’.
On this point when speaking from Tirana to a world that is experiencing new and terrible persecutions in the Middle East, Francis observed in a clear way during his meeting with the dignitaries at the presidential palace: ‘Let no one consider themselves to be the “armour” of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression! May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman, above all, the right to life and the right of everyone to religious freedom!’
But to utter the phrase ‘religious freedom’ in the heart of Tirana, on the road marked by the huge posters of the faces of the forty martyrs killed because they did not want to deny their beliefs, is something that is explosive. The penetrating looks of those martyrs also struck Francis who on more than one occasion returned to the subject, expanding its boundaries. At his meeting with religious heads he observed that ‘religious freedom is not a right which can be guaranteed solely by existing legislation, although laws are necessary. Rather religious freedom is a shared space – like this one – an atmosphere of respect and cooperation that must be built with everyone’s participation, even those who have no religious convictions’.
Because perfect systems are not enough to assure religious freedom, you need men and women who enter the fray, exchange testimonies of life with each other, and document each other on why it is a good thing to be together and to be free.
Francis then suggested two approaches that are useful in promoting this fundamental freedom. The first is ‘that of regarding every man and woman, even those of different religious traditions, not as rivals, less still enemies, but rather as brothers and sisters. When a person is secure of his or her own beliefs, there is no need to impose or put pressure on others: there is a conviction that truth has its own power of attraction’. And he added that ‘each religious tradition, from within, must be able to take account of others’: almost to emphasise that encounter, inter-religious dialogue (a word that is still decisive even though it has been worn out by being abused), is not something that is extrinsic to my faith but an essential part of it.
And the second approach is: the commitment to the common good, because ‘Whenever adherence to a specific religious tradition gives birth to service that shows conviction then there exists an authentic and mature living out of religious freedom’.
In embracing the ‘people of martyrs’, the Pope dedicated special attention to his Albanian day with the young. Struck by the fact that Albania is perhaps the youngest country in ‘old’ Europe, he addressed to them a warm invitation during the Angelus. He exhorted them to say ‘“no” to the idolatry of money! –, “No” to the false freedom of individualism, “Yes” to a culture of encounter and of solidarity, “Yes” to the beauty that is inseparable from the good and the true’.
‘Fly high. Fly high’ he repeated to the pilgrims, who numbered about 300,000 and who had come for the great Holy Mass in Mother Teresa Square, even from Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Countries of that periphery for whom Francis has a preference; they are places so bursting with history and witness that they allow him to offer those keys to interpret what happens a thousand miles away, in other outskirts or in the ‘centre’ of the world.
In his repeated cry ‘let no one consider themselves to be the “armour” of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression!’, one could but perceive the suffering caused by what was happening in the Middle East, in Syria and in Iraq, where terrorists kill Christians and anybody who refuses to convert to Islam. In his appeal to the importance of defending religious freedom at any cost, showing its widest spectrum, were also contained all the challenges that from the East to the West, in different forms and to varying extents, appear on the public scene and call upon men of faith.
In the ‘details’ of a visit of about ten hours in a part of Europe which is so ‘marginal’ one saw all the ‘universal’ power of the proposal made by Francis: the proposal to ‘think like Christ’. ‘Fly high!’: because those who allow themselves to be carried on the wings of an eagle, indeed, can fly high. And the Albanians are extraordinarily linked to eagles.