Tirana, Albania, Sep 19, 2014 / 17:04 pm America/Denver (CNA).
Focused on the memory of the martyrs, Pope Francis’ one-day journey to Albania is aimed at restoring the link between the country and its Catholic roots, which had been disturbed as secularization has advanced there.
Pope Francis will visit Albania Sept. 21, with the theme of “Together with God, toward the hope that does not disappoint.”
The trip's logo represents a Christian people rising from the blood of martyrs; Tirana, the capital, is preparing to welcome Pope Francis with a series of images of the Albanian martyrs displayed along its main boulevard.
“Pope Francis’ visit, together with those images in the boulevard, aims at restoring the interrupted reality of a Church that has suffered martyrdom,” says Fr. Matteo De Fiore, rector of the Salesian house in Tirana.
Fr. De Fiore stressed that “if the Catholic Church becomes aware of this reality, it can have more impact than anyone else. When I first came to Albania, in 1998, the memory of the martyrs was still alive. But nowadays, I cannot feel anymore that strength fed with the memory of the martyrs.”
“Secularizing trends have affected Christian societies more than communism,” Fr. De Fiore observed.
The origins of Catholicism in Albania stretch back to the Apostle Paul, who wrote in his letter to the Romans that “ I have replenished the gospel of Christ … from Jerusalem round about as far as unto Illyricum,” a province of the Roman empire partly found in modern-day Albania.
The Church established a hierarchy in Albania in the first century, and consolidated itself until the 15th century, when it became part of the Ottoman empire.
In the Middle Ages the Church was strengthened through the presence of such religious as the Benedictines, Dominicans, and Franciscans, and three-quarters of the Albanian people were Catholic, with the remainder being Eastern Orthodox.
Christianity declined under the Ottomans, who controlled Albania until 1912; the Congregation for the Propogation of the Faith sent missionaries to the by-then Muslim land in 1643.
In the 20th century, Albania was part of the Eastern bloc, and atheism was promoted, and religious persons of all confessions persecuted.
The activities of Church were hindered, school and seminaries closed, and bishops and priests were killed or arrested. When Albania was officially proclaimed an atheist state in 1967, more than 2,100 churches and mosques were closed.
Out of seven bishops and 200 hundred priest and nuns in activity in Albania in 1945, just one bishop and 30 priests and nuns were alive when the communist regime collapsed in 1991.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, was the first priest to get a visa to enter Albania after the fall of communism.
“When I went to Albania, there was no Church, no hierarchy … everything had been destroyed by the communist's rule,” Archbishop Paglia told CNA Sept. 18.
While many Albanians do not practice a religion, official figures are that 60 percent are Muslim, and 17 percent are Christian.
Pope Francis hopes by his trip to recover Albanians' roots with their Catholic past, and undo the secularization and irreligion promoted in the 20th century.