Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Albania on Sunday, Sept. 21 – the homeland of Blessed Mother Teresa, and is poised to stand in solidarity with the Albanian people, as he honors the hundreds of martyrs who died for their faith under the atheistic Communist regime, that collapsed with the resurgence of the Democratic Party in 1992. Today, Albania is a secular country that is known for their religious tolerance.
“The pope’s visit brings with it, so much hope,” said Jacksonville resident Gjergj Lacuku, 43, who was born in Shkoder, Albania, and escaped from his homeland 20 years ago seeking religious freedom. “Even though Albania is a democratic country now, we are still recovering – financially and spiritually – from the devastation of Communist rule, and the pope’s visit is an honor.”
The married father of four children, Lacuku’s mother and two brothers still live in Albania and are waiting with much joy and anticipation for the pope’s visit. “Pope Francis is going to visit Tirana, the now capital of Albania and my village is about an hour away, so I’m sure my brothers will travel there just to be where the pope is,” said Lacuku who works for CITI Bank.
Ardian Gjoka, 41, who is from Lezhe, Albania, immigrated to the U.S. in 1999, agreed. He said Pope Francis’s visit shows that the Holy Father recognizes the perseverance of the many devout Catholics who held on to their faith in spite of Communist rule.
“I remember as a young man living in Albania, we couldn’t talk or practice our faith except in secrecy,” said Gjoka, who is a married father of one child. “I remember going to school and being taught religion is bad and then coming home and practicing our faith.”
Gjoka said during Communist rule more than 1,800 churches were either, closed, destroyed or repurposed for government use, and 120 Catholic priests were killed.
“Those were very dark times for Albanian Catholics,” said Gjoka, an immigration attorney, whose parents live half of the time in Albania and half in the U.S. “With his visit, Pope Francis shows us that he appreciates our determination to keep alive our Catholic faith in spite of Communism.”
“The whole country – Catholics and non-Catholics – are excited for this visit,” said Gjoka. “Not since Saint John Paul II who visited Albania after the fall of Communism, has a pope been to our country. It’s a great event.”