This week the Vatican released the schedule for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Tirana, the capital of Albania. Wedged between Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Greece, Albania sits opposite Bari (on the back of the “boot” of Italy) across the Ionian Sea, and is one of the poorer countries in Europe. Ruled by the Ottoman Empire for many years, it still has a majority Muslim population. However, the archbishop of Tirana recently claimed that the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha actually helped build bridges between the four major religious traditions present there – Sunni and Bektashi Sufi Muslims, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholics. The shared experience of persecution has served in some circles to enable men and women across religious traditions to respect the practices and resolve of one another not to capitulate to secular powers demanding they renounce their most deeply held beliefs.
During his upcoming visit, the pope will be travelling from Mother Teresa Airport to Mother Teresa Square to celebrate Mass. Obviously the nation still reveres their native daughter, who spent years ministering to the poorest of the poor in India. Francis and Teresa share a commitment to recognize the dignity and full person-hood of those deemed “forgotten,” “untouchable” or “expendable” by society’s haughty and powerful.
Unemployment, corruption and organized crime continue to plague Albania. Francis has often reflected on the hopelessness that can arise in a situation where the young cannot find ethical work and the elderly become increasingly viewed as economic burdens. I have been told by both natives and other Europeans that because of its mountains and miles of beaches and coastline, Albania is staggeringly beautiful. But as in so many scenic locales, tourism does not always pay dividends for those who call the area home. Francis’s upcoming encyclical is reportedly going to focus on “the ecology of mankind,” and so one wonders if he will offer any analysis on why many of the world’s most beautiful settings (in parts of Latin America, Africa and Afghanistan for example) often have such economic, cultural, and ecological unrest, and what can be done about it.
Francis would undoubtedly be welcomed and inspirational in visits to London, Berlin, Tokyo, or New York (and certainly will be so if he comes to Philadelphia!). He can, of course, call the powerful and policy-makers of the world to greater commitment to the demands of their positions of global influence. But a visit to a country which many people living in these centers of power could not find on a map is quintessential Bergoglio.
Like Francis’s namesake in Assisi, Albania’s most iconic native nun was a lover of Lady Poverty. She saw in the despised and suffering not only the wounds of Christ, but also his transfigured glory, inextinguishably present in their souls and dignified human bodies. The pope continues to call each of us to do the same, both in his writings, homilies and lectures, and in the visits and gestures he chooses to highlight while the world is watching.
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.