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Pope's visit confirms Albania's new status.

OXFORD, England - "I have fully preached the gospel," says St. Paul in Romans 15:18, "as far round as Illyricum." Illyricum was the Roman name for Albania. Inevitably, Pope John Paul II quoted this text on his daylong trip to Albania on April 25.

It was his 58th international journey and the first visit of a pope to Albania, though it is only 50 miles across the Adriatic from Italy. In 1981 he went down to Bari, shrine of the relics of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) and practically bellowed over the sea for religious liberty.

At the time, it seemed an impossible dream. For in 1967 Albania had become the first officially atheist state in which any manifestation of religion was a criminal offense against "the scientific materialist worldview."

You went to prison simply for possessing prayer books, crucifixes or icons or for taking part in "underground" liturgies. Children were taught to denounce their parents for teaching them the sign of the cross.

Priests, mostly Jesuits and Franciscans, were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. John Paul went to thank the survivors and to build the church of the future, consecrating four new bishops where there had been none: Franco Illija, Zef Simoni, Rrok Mirdita and Robert Astha.

He compared the fate of the nation to Christ's passion, saying it had been "enriched by so many martyrs" and now enjoyed "the freedom of the Resurrection." He said, "It is a miracle that it has risen from the abyss of totalitarianism without bloodshed. The Albanian experience belongs to the whole church and to the whole world."

For the future, he stressed the importance of democracy, tolerance ("cohabitation with understanding") and "European values."

He needed to bring out the "secular meaning" of the visit, for Catholics form only about 10 percent of the just over 3 million population and live mostly in the north. The Orthodox 20 percent are down to the south next to Greece.

The remaining 70 percent are of the Muslim tradition. "Converted" like the Bosnians during the four centuries of Ottoman occupation, they are neither fundamentalist nor fanatical.

The cathedral of St. Nicholas in Shkodra (better-known as Scutari) was until recently used as a sports hall. A crucifix replaced the electronic scoreboard.

Everyone was there from the Muslim President Sali Berisha to Orthodox clergy and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the world's most famous Albanian (though from the Yugoslav province of Kosovo).

John Paul started Mass in Albanian, which wowed the crowd, unaware that he was reading it phonetically. But most of the time he spoke Italian, which Albanians have learned from TV. In January 1992, 18,000 of them crossed over to Italy - and were quickly sent home.

Since that nadir, the Albanian Catholics have put together a choir capable of performing works by George Friedrich Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Not quite what Vatican II ordered, but these are early days in a country where the church was last free in 1939.

After Mass, John Paul laid the foundation stone for a shrine to Our Lady of Good Counsel, patron of Albania. In a reference to Bosnia, he beseeched Our Lady to put a stop to "the absurd and bloody conflict that has spilled so much blood for so long."

Back in Tirana, the capital, 60 miles south of Shkodra, he addressed the nation in Skanderbeg Square. Skanderbeg was the great national hero in the battles against the Turks in the 15th century.

Even the communist dictator Enver Hoxha could not suppress the fact that Skanderbeg had sought help from Pope Paul I in 1460 and had been praised by two further popes for "saving Europe." Better not to disturb such ghosts.

"You come as a symbol of hope for the whole nation," said President Berisha, striking a better note, "and your visit touches the heart of all Albanians, independently of their religion." So John Paul delighted this small, ignored and struggling nation simply by going there.

Albania has joined the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the International Monetary Fund. It has diplomatic relations with the United States. A visit from John Paul confirms its international and European status.
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Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 7, 1993
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