After decades of Communist rule in Albania, Pope Benedict XVI’s initiative to dialogue with non-believers drew hundreds of young people for a two-day event in the capital of Tirana.
“There is a great thirst for spirituality in Albania after 47 years of atheist, communist, absolute dictatorship,” Richard Rouse of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which organized the event, told CNA.
“In communist Albania,” Rouse added, religion “was absolutely not allowed. For 47 years they tried to kill God—and failed.”
On Nov. 14 and 15, the Pontifical Council for Culture, along with the local Catholic Church in Albania, organized a series of events that facilitated both dialogue with and discovery of Christianity.
In the piazza in front of Tirana’s St. Paul’s Cathedral on Nov. 14, hundreds of young people took part in discussions in three different tents on the topics of work, spirituality and information and communication.
“For example, in the ‘work’ tent,” Rouse explained, “we discussed 'what does work itself mean? Is it just about getting money or is there some social dignity to it?'”
Each specific discussion session was then followed by a larger conversation in the piazza with members Catholic hierarchy and other participants.
What became clear, Rouse noted, is that Albania is “a great fertile terrain,” for Christianity.
On Nov. 15, dialogue with academics and intellectuals at two events hosted by Tirana’s universities held “more high-brow conversations that began with a more studied and philosophical set of questions,” Rouse said.
The topics discussed included questions of identity—both religious and national—as well as issues related to fundamental human rights and religious liberty.
The concept of the event, known as the Courtyard of the Gentiles, stems from a 2009 address by Pope Benedict, where he called for a Catholic dialogue “with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.”
Members from the Pontifical Council for Culture, under the guidance of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, have initiated a series of similar gatherings across Europe beginning in Paris in March 2011. The invitation list, so far, has included a host of intellectuals drawn from both the arts and sciences.
The title given to these events is in reference to the “Court of the Gentiles” which, in the time of Jesus, was an area in the Temple of Jerusalem where non-Jews could interact with Jews.
Richard Rouse believes the new format, which will reach the United States in 2013, is already bearing fruit.
“I think that was a weakness in some previous dialogue was that we presumed a bit too much about the atheists,” he said, “so, we’ve gone back a step further to say ‘okay, open floor—tell us what is it you believe in.’ That’s very important.”
He said just by asking that question they have “enticed people” into a deeper reflection upon such things as the meaning of life and into asking “where can those questions lead to a religious perspective and how can that take on a social dimension?”