CNA Staff, Feb 9, 2021 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis only spent 11 hours in Albania when he visited the country in 2014. But for some, his trip was life-changing.
According to Archbishop George Frendo of Tiranë-Durrës, the papal visit spurred an increase in the number of people seeking to join the Catholic Church in his cathedral parish.
“Every year in our cathedral church, for Easter, we have between 40 to 50 adults who, after following a period of preparation for baptism as catechumens, are baptized (besides others who are baptized in other parishes),” he said in an interview with CNA.
“After the pope’s visit, more than 100 adults asked to be received in the catechumenate in the parish of our cathedral.”
At first glance, the 74-year-old archbishop is an unlikely candidate to lead the Catholic Church in the Albanian capital, Tirana. He was born in the Maltese city of Qormi in 1946. As a teenager, he entered the Order of Preachers.
“I was Provincial of the Maltese Dominican Province when I was approached by our Master of the Order, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, who told me that some Italian Dominican sisters who had already settled in Albania had asked him whether he could send Dominican priests to serve in this country,” Frendo recalled.
“Dominicans had already been here from the 13th century (shortly after the death of St Dominic) until the 15th, when they were expelled by the Turks.”
“We accepted this request and in August 1996 we inaugurated our mission in Albania.”
Frendo felt an instant connection to the country, which borders Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Greece, and has a population of 2.8 million people.
“I immediately fell in love with Albania and the Albanians, and as soon as I finished my second term of office as Provincial, I came as a missionary here in July 1997,” he said.
“Only one year after, the Archbishop [Rrok Mirdita] nominated me vicar general. In 2006, I was ordained auxiliary bishop, and following the archbishop’s demise I was installed as archbishop of this Archdiocese of Tirana-Durrës.”
Albania, a Muslim-majority country, is one of the poorest nations in Europe. Pope Francis chose it as the destination for his first European trip outside Italy following his election in 2013.
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.”
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.”
The archbishop underlined that, despite COVID-19 and Catholicism’s minority status, the Church in Albania is in a healthy state.
“The Catholic Church in Albania enjoys great credibility and respect,” he said. “A Church that has sought and seeks no privileges, a poor Church, but very close to the poor. A Church that suffered terribly during the communist regime, towards which the dictator (Enver Hoxha) displayed a particular hatred.”
“A Church that, in moments of crisis, saw at its doors persons of different creeds asking for help. A Church that has not been shamed by sexual scandals on the part of its ministers. A humble Church that can speak to the world with a message of hope.”