During his whirlwind visit, he met with politicians, religious leaders, and disadvantaged children, and celebrated Mass in Mother Teresa Square in Tirana.
“That was a great day which left a very good impression on the pope himself,” Frendo recalled. “It brought together all religions present in Albania, where Catholics form only 15% of the population.”
“In that big square where Pope Francis celebrated Mass, there were much more non-Catholics than Catholics. His simplicity, his smile, his ability to listen and to understand, his words which inspire hope to a nation badly in need of a message of hope: all this drew the admiration of all those present.”
One of the most memorable moments of the trip came when Pope Francis listened to the testimony of an octogenarian priest who was tortured, jailed, and sentenced to hard labor under the communist dictator Enver Hoxha.
The pope wept as he listened to Fr. Ernest Simoni in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tirana. Images of Francis embracing the priest went around the world.
Two years later, in 2016, the pope appointed Simoni to the College of Cardinals. A month after that, 38 Catholic martyrs killed under communism in Albania between 1945 and 1974 were beatified in the city of Shkodër.
Frendo would like the heroism of Albania’s Catholics to be better known in the wider Catholic world.
“The Catholic Church in this country has suffered a persecution much harsher than the ones experienced by Catholics in other ex-communist countries,” he noted.
“It suffices to remind you that Albania was the only country worldwide that in its Constitution had stated that it is an atheist country, where every practice of religion, whether in public or in private, was considered as a crime against the state.”
“Many priests and laymen were imprisoned and killed after having endured the harshest tortures.”
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Like other European nations, Albania is struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The country has recorded more than 86,000 COVID-19 cases and 1,472 deaths as of Feb. 9.
Like Catholics in other countries, Albanians have faced obstacles to attending Mass during the crisis. Frendo said that the pandemic had weakened some Catholics’ connection to the Church, but strengthened the faith of others.
“For some, it can be an occasion for feeling that this experience has showed them that they can do without attending Mass, thus forming part of that section of believers who ‘believe without practicing,’” he said.
“Whereas for many others, it has served to make them feel a great void in their religious life.”
“Speaking of our diocese, it is true that attendance for Mass is not as numerous as it was before the COVID crisis -- no wonder at all, many are still afraid to attend big crowds.”
“However, considering the big numbers who attended the Christmas celebrations, but also our weekly Sunday Masses, I think that we ought to feel very satisfied with the participation of the faithful.”