TIRANA (Reuters) - Father Gjergj Meta’s grandfather managed to save the gold chalice and communion plate from his village church when it was razed like many others in Albania during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha half a century ago.
Hoxha, a hardline Stalinist, had banned religion in 1967, driving Albania’s Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim faithful underground in his drive to create what he boasted was the world’s first atheist state.
This Sunday, Pope Francis makes a day trip to Albania - his first to a European country - to pay tribute to followers of all religions who, like Meta’s grandfather, suffered some of the worst persecution in the 20th century, and to hold up the impoverished nation as a model of inter-religious harmony.
Meta, 38, was among the first generation of Albanian men who trained for the priesthood in Italy, returning to his homeland when it ditched communism in 1990.
He said his first mass in 2001 with the same chalice and plate two months after his grandfather died. “My lips drank from the same cup as those who had given their lives for the Church,” said Meta, a pastor in the coastal city of Durres.
That Francis should choose to visit Albania, an impoverished Balkan country of 3 million people just across the Adriatic from Italy, rather than one of the major capitals of the old continent for his first trip is in keeping with a papacy geared to casting light on the problems of the poorest.
“The pope is not starting (his European visits) from Berlin, Paris or London. This is a desire to show his concern for people who are not the most powerful and most rich,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi. “There is no doubt about his interest in the margins (of society).”
Albanians see the visit as affirmation of their place in the European family, something they hope to cement one day with membership of the European Union, having joined NATO in 2009.
Catholicism has reclaimed its place in this predominantly Muslim but largely secular country in the more than two decades since the borders reopened and the country set out to rejoin Europe.
The revival of the faith, and its peaceful coexistence with Islam, is what Francis will celebrate on Sunday in the Albanian capital Tirana against a backdrop of turmoil in the Middle East and signs of rising cultural intolerance in Europe.
“The presence of the pope will say to all people: ‘you can work together’ ... I felt I had to go,” Francis said last month.
Catholics account for around 10 percent of the population. Some 60 percent of all Albanians are Muslim, while others are mainly Christian Orthodox or agnostic.
They are united by a unique language and deep-rooted customs that are often the same regardless of faith in Albania’s largely traditional and patriarchal society.
In talking to reporters about the trip last month, Francis noted that precisely 1,820 churches, Orthodox and Catholic, were destroyed under Hoxha, whose paranoid rule ran four decades until his death in 1985.
Many were turned into cinemas, dancing halls or warehouses.
More than 100 Catholic priests or bishops were executed or died under torture or in labor camps. Just 30 survived, said Lombardi, who was formerly provincial of the Jesuit religious order in Italy with jurisdiction over Albania at the time.
Meta said he was haunted by the killings. “They were my age, even younger,” he said of the victims.
Hoxha built a museum of atheism, including an exhibit allegedly portraying Pope John XXIII, who led the Catholic Church from 1958 to 1963, dancing the twist with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The two never met.
Francis follows in the footsteps of Pope John Paul, whose 27-year papacy coincided with the end of the Cold War. His visit to Albania in 1993 marked the revival of religious faith after decades of repression.
John Paul consecrated four bishops in the northwestern city of Shkoder, where Albania’s revolt against communism began in 1990. The appointment of the bishops re-constituted an Albanian Catholic Church hierarchy that Hoxha had annihilated.
Muslims and Catholics alike will pack the Tirana square where Francis will celebrate Mass, a spot that takes its name from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an ethnic Albanian born in present-day Macedonia when much of the Balkan Peninsula was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
“The pope values highly the harmony between religions and their co-existence in Albania,” said Skender Brucaj, leader of Albania’s Muslim Community.
“This is of added value to the world today because, unfortunately, of late we hear about turmoil created in the name of faith, but which has nothing to with religion or what Islam preaches,” he said.
Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Editing by Matt Robinson, Philip Pullella and Tom Heneghan