“This Easter is special for us, because we celebrate it on the eve of the visit of the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. I truly believe that this visit is an important step for the spiritual renewal of Macedonia, the Macedonian people and Macedonian citizens… Christ is Risen! Really Risen!” That is the message of the Macedonian President Dr. Gjorge Ivanov this Easter, a message of renewal for all North Macedonians, “Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or to people of a completely different religious tradition.” It is a hospitable message from the leader of a Balkan nation with both a multiethnic population (Macedonian 64.2%, Albanian 25.2%, Turkish 3.9%, Romani 2.7%, Serb 1.8%, other 2.2%) and a multi-religious population (Macedonian Eastern Orthodox 64.8%, Muslim 33.3%, other Christian 0.4%), according to The World FactBook.
North Macedonia has had friendly relations with the Holy See, and in fact has been very active in renewing its relationship with the Holy See compared to Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries. Former presidents, especially Boris Trajkovski and Branko Crvenkovski, were active participants in ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue and have made their country a platform for high level gatherings for ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. Additionally, it has become a tradition for the president of North Macedonia to pay a visit to the Holy See for the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who are known as “Apostles of the Slavs,” on May 24. President Gjorge Ivanov has reiterated his country’s desire to have Pope Francis visit North Macedonia. Although the chances looked slim since Francis had visited two neighboring countries, Albania and Turkey, in 2014, this May 7 visit of the pontiff is making Balkan history: Francis is the first pontiff to visit North Macedonia, a country with a Catholic minority.
One way to understand Francis’ goal of visiting North Macedonia is by considering his search for the world’s peripheries and his theology of the peripheries, bringing the periphery and all it has to offer to the center and to the world’s attention. Francis is “go[ing] out, head[ing] for the peripheries” – the leitmotif of his pontificate. But why is Francis in search of the Balkan periphery? What does the North Macedonian periphery have to offer? The answer, in many ways, lies in a mission in which Francis was preceded by Mother Teresa.
First, Roman or Latin-rite Catholics are a minority in North Macedonia, and most of these Catholics are ethnic Albanians (like Mother Teresa), Croatians and Montenegrins. Additionally, and quite uniquely ecclessiologically, there is a minority within the Catholic minority: the Byzantine, Greek-rite or Greek Catholics (estimated 15,000). In the past, North Macedonia’s Greek Catholic faithful were part of the Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church. With the creation of Yugoslavia, which included Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Albanians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and others, the Macedonian Greek Catholic Church was put under the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Križevci in Croatia. Following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and North Macedonia’s declaration of its independence from Serbia in 2001, St. Pope John Paul II signed a decree establishing an independent Apostolic Exarchate for the Byzantine Catholic Church of North Macedonia.
Interestingly, the bishop of Skopje, Msgr. Kiro Stojanov, is in charge of both the Roman Catholic and Byzantine Catholic North Macedonians. Msgr. Stojanov is the bishop of Skopje and Apostolic Exarch of Macedonia, a unique position making him the highest Catholic prelate in the North Macedonia. It is worth mentioning that Msgr. Stojanov is the first ethnic Macedonian to lead North Macedonia’s “combined” Catholic flock.
Starting with the pontificate of John Paul II, the Holy See’s policy in North Macedonia has focused on using local structures and local leadership for the North Macedonia’s Catholics of both Roman and Byzantine traditions. Thus, the periphery offers a unique ecclesial model of lived faith shared between the Roman Catholics and Byzantine Catholics minorities under a local shepherd.
Additionally, this unique Catholic ecclesial structure might be a template for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to grant the highly contested and suffered-for autocephaly to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which since 1967 (when it proclaimed autocephaly from the Serbian Orthodox Church) has been considered a Church of an irregular status; that is, it is not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the other Orthodox Churches. The pontiff’s visit will help to bring attention and possibly a much-desired solution to the thorny issue of North Macedonian Orthodox Church autocephaly, which has isolated the Macedonian Orthodox Church from the rest of the Orthodox churches for five decades and has caused a schism with the Serbian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches and with Greece.
The issue of the very name “Macedonia” was finally happily resolved in June 2018 and in February 2019, following long decades of dispute over that name, when the Republic of Macedonia officially changed its name to Republic of North Macedonia. The settlement of the dispute with Greece will open new avenues for North Macedonia’s eventual full membership in NATO.
Second, the North Macedonian capital, Skopje—the city Pope Francis is going to visit—is the birthplace of one of the most celebrated modern women saints: Mother Teresa of Kolkata, an ethnic Albanian from Skopje, whom Francis canonized in 2016. Francis will follow in her footsteps, visiting the places in the periphery where Mother Teresa was born, grew up, and was educated. At the time of Mother Teresa’s birth (August 26, 1910), Skopje was part of the Ottoman Empire. The nation states of Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, and Greece did not exist. Kosovë was a first-level administrative division, otherwise known as a vilayet, of the Ottoman Empire, and the city of Skopje was part of the administrative province of Kosovë.
Because of the earthquake of 1963, there is nothing left of the home of the Bojaxhius—Mother Teresa’s family—which was centrally located in Skopje, or of the church in which Mother Teresa grew up and which her family frequented. Mother wrote of the centrality of the church in her family’s life, saying “her family grew up in the church’s courtyard.” When Malcolm Muggeridge asked Mother Teresa about her religious calling—“When did the feeling that you must dedicate yourself to the poor people come to you?”—Mother Teresa responded with her usual humility and gratitude: “It was many years ago when I was at home with my people.” She said it all. She brought what she had learned in the laboratory of the periphery to the world, from the homemade sanctity of her mother Drana Bojaxhiu and the virtues and values of the people of Skopje.
The school of the Skopje periphery was not a peripheral school for Mother Teresa to start a lifelong religious vocation to the poorest of the poor. Instead, the school of the periphery was life-giving and life itself. In the school of the periphery, Mother Teresa learned and lived by the transformative Christian virtues and values which she then took with her to her next periphery in Kolkata. The Skopjen-Albanian periphery proved to be much more resourceful and transformative than expected. Much good came from the school of the Balkan periphery, which trained the saint of the gutters, who became the face of mercy in Kolkata’s gutters. Francis’ visit to a country with a Catholic minority can be understood within his special care for society’s borders and peripheries, which are enriching to the center.
Third, inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism motivate this mission. Francis will emphasize ecumenism and dialogue of life—shared lives between Muslims and Christians existing in North Macedonia, a laboratory which prepared a figure of the stature of St. Teresa, who was at the service of all God’s people regardless of their religious backgrounds. This value, Mother learned in the city of her birth, Skopje, from her Albanian parents. As Mother said:
Doesn’t matter [what] religion, doesn’t matter [what] color, doesn’t matter [what] place, my brother, my sister created by God Himself—same hand—and then the fruit of that love must be action, must be service, I do something.
In sum, Francis’ visit will bring much good to the mightily tried and persecuted people of North Macedonia; he is, to paraphrase Acts 16:9, coming over to Macedonia to help them. The “peripheral” location of North Macedonia with a Catholic minority, which sent out one of the world’s greatest missionaries, is coming to the center.
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