By Christopher Wells
When Pope Francis arrives in Skopje on Tuesday morning, he will become the first pope ever to visit North Macedonia.
It’s an important moment for the small Catholic community in the country. The Church in North Macedonia comprises less than one percent of the population – a fact reflected in the choice of the motto for the visit, “Do not be afraid, little flock”.
A diverse flock
Bishop Stoyanov has a unique position in the Church, heading up both the Latin-rite Diocese of Skopje – with several thousand adherents – and the Macedonian Catholic Eparchy of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed in Strumica-Skopje, with more than 15,000 faithful of the Byzantine Rite. In addition to North Macedonians, the Church in the country also has a large number of faithful of Albanian origin, as well as Croats, Poles, Bulgarians and others.
Going to the peripheries
Pope Francis has made “going to the peripheries” a focal point of his papacy, making a special effort to visit countries with small Catholic minorities, including neighbouring Albania, Turkey, and Sri Lanka; and more recently, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. In North Macedonia, too, he is expected to bring with him a message of “peace, coexistence, and justice”, in the words of Bishop Stoyanov.
It is a message that will have a special resonance in this city, which sits at a major cross roads of the Balkans, between Athens to the south and Vienna to the north; and between the Albania and the Adriatic Sea to the west, and Bulgaria and the Black Sea to the East.
A multi-ethnic and multi-religious country
And the Pope’s message will resonate, too, with the multi-ethnic and multi-religious population of the country. Inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue and coexistence will be a major focus of this Visit: the Pope will be meeting with young people from a variety of different backgrounds at the Pastoral Centre near the Cathedral in the afternoon, after meeting earlier in the day with leaders from North Macedonia’s Eastern Orthodox, Methodist, Muslim, and Jewish communities.
Saint Mother Teresa
The meeting with religious leaders will take place in the Memorial House of (Saint) Mother Teresa, who was born to an Albanian family in Skopje; the Memorial is built on the site of the church – since destroyed – where Mother Teresa was baptised Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu.
Saint Mother Teresa was canonized by Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square in 2016, and was a natural choice for the Patron Saint of this voyage. While at the Saint’s Memorial House, he will also meet with poor people who are being assisted by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity – one more concrete example of Pope Francis’ priorities for a missionary Church rooted in acts of charity, and reaching out to the peripheries of modern society.