Pope Francis landed in Tirana, Albania shortly after 9 a.m., the first visit by a Pope in 21 years since St. John Paul II’s trip in 1993.
As customary, before departing Rome’s Fiumicino airport, the Holy Father sent a message to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
“In this moment that I prepare to depart for my Apostolic Visit to the Republic of Albania, I wish to address to you Mr. President and to all Italians my affectionate greetings and good wishes, which I accompany with every friendly and prayerful hope of peace and serenity,” the Pope wrote.
Upon landing the Pope was welcomed by Prime Minister Edi Rama, Archbishop Ramiro Molines Inglés, the Apostolic Nuncio to Albania, Archbishop Rrok Mirdita, archbishop of Durrës-Tirana, and Archbishop Angelo Massafra, president of the Albanian episcopal conference. He then made his way towards the Presidential Palace in Tirana.
Thousands of Albanians packed the streets, which were lined with images of the martyrs who died during the religious persecution in the country in the 1940s.
At the presidential palace, the Pope was welcomed by President Bujar Nishani, as well as government authorities. In his first address, the Pope thanked them for inviting him to their country, which he described as a land of heroes and martyrs.
“Almost a quarter of a century has passed since Albania re-embarked upon the arduous but rewarding path of freedom,” the Pope said. “This experience has allowed Albanian society to take up the process of material and spiritual reconstruction, to foster an increase of enthusiasm and initiatives, and to create a spirit of cooperation and exchange with countries of the Balkans, the Mediterranean, Europe and indeed with the rest of the world.”
The 77 year old Pontiff highlighted that when respect for human rights, particularly religious freedom and freedom of expression, is recognized, it furthers the common good. Albania, he continued, is an example of peaceful coexistence among followers of different religions. The Pope noted that such respect is a “precious gift” in a time where “an authentic religious spirit is being perverted and where religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalized.”
“This creates dangerous circumstances which lead to conflict and violence, rather than being an occasion for open and respectful dialogue, and for a collective reflection on what it means to believe in God and to follow his laws,” he said.
“Let no one consider themselves to be the “armor” of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression! May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman, above all, the right to life and the right of everyone to religious freedom!”
The Holy Father went on to say that the peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths in Albania is an example to the world that such harmony is “possible and realistic”. Blessed Mother Teresa and the martyrs of Albania, he said, “are rejoicing in heaven because of the work of men and women of good will who contribute to the flourishing of civil society and the Church in Albania.”
Concluding his address, Pope Francis said that in today’s climate of economic and cultural globalization, growth and development must be ensured to all and not just a select few of the population. Albania, he said, is able to face these challenges “in an atmosphere of freedom and stability.”
“As Saint John Paul II did in April 1993, I invoke upon Albania the protection of Mary, Mother of Good Counsel, entrusting to her the hopes of the entire Albanian people. May God abundantly pour out his grace and blessing upon Albania,” he concluded.