I left the private audience with the Holy Father energized more than ever to continue my academic vocation. For me, the date of July 10, when I was received in private audience by the Pope, will never be the same. This will be a date that I will remember and celebrate each year.
We met in the Pope’s private library in the Apostolic Palace, which is the official residence of the reigning pope in Vatican City. The setting and the Pope’s desk were familiar — it’s where the Supreme Pontiff conducts his daily routine and where he receives cardinals, sovereigns, presidents, ambassadors and the heads of Vatican dicasteries.
The papal apartments are also located in the Apostolic Palace, but Pope Francis does not live there. Instead, he lives in the Vatican guesthouse, as he explained in the Jubilee of Mercy Audience on Jan. 30, 2016: [I live] in the Casa Santa Marta. It is a large home where about 40 priests and a few bishops — who work with me in the Curia — live, and there are also a few visiting guests: cardinals, bishops, laymen who come to Rome for meetings in the dicasteries, and such things. Friends, colleagues, students and former students have asked me: How can one have a private audience with the Pope? A priest friend and missionary in Nairobi, Kenya, wrote: “Congratulations. It is God’s blessing to meet the Pope personally.”
Indeed, it is, and I feel more than blessed. The Pope has probably one of the most intense jobs among the world leaders. The practice is that private audiences or face-to-face meetings with the Pope are reserved only for heads of state, government leaders, new Vatican ambassadors to the Holy See, groups of bishops in an ad limina visit — an obligatory visit for all bishops to venerate the tombs of the Holy Apostles, Sts. Peter and Paul, and to meet with the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome — or more generally to the world’s elites. Our group was none of the above, and we did not fit in any boxes or categories for a papal private audience. We came from the periphery (Albania) to meet the Pope of the peripheries. “Go out, head for the peripheries” — this is, in a nutshell, the leitmotif of Pope Francis’ pontificate.
Our group, headed by Jesuit Father Zef Bisha, the superior of the Society of Jesus in Albania, presented Pope Francis with the book in Albanian translation entitled Catholicism, Culture, Conversion: The History of the Jesuits in Albania (1841-1946), which I write and which was published by the Society of Jesus Publishing House in Tirana, Albania. The book is a scholarly study of the history of the Jesuits in Albania, a country with a Muslim majority and a Christian margin. (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox make up 10% and 6.8% of the population, respectively, according to recent data.)
The book analyzes the history of the Jesuits in Albania, a religious order in a Muslim country that was part of the Ottoman Empire when the Jesuits first set foot there. The book is based on previously unexplored primary sources researched in several Vatican and government archives in both Italy and Albania. The study in Albanian translation was presented to the public on the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ pontificate. Pope Francis himself writes in the preface of the book: “I am happy for the publication of the book, History of the Jesuits in Albania.”
It is true: The smallest and the most unexpected gestures have the biggest effects. A month ago, in June, Pope Francis had undergone abdominal surgery, and since then his movement has been restricted. I was surprised to see him standing, shaking hands and smiling at each person from our group. Speaking of first impressions, the meaningful handshake with Francis passed the test. I felt inspired and a bond of trust was immediately established. I was ready to start a conversation. Francis has the gift of smile, which sometimes people forget to give but expect to receive. He embodies God’s goodness with a smile, as he said of his predecessor Pope John Paul I, adding, “How beautiful is a Church with a happy, serene and smiling face.”
As he sat at his desk, his attention was on us and what we were going to present to him. After the handshake and the seating of our group around his work desk, Pope Francis started the conversation, asking how we were doing, and saying that Albania was the first country in Europe he visited when he became Pope. The Pope, with a special eye to the peripheries, couldn’t have chosen a better country, which is part of Europe but not part of the European Union.
“I go for the peripheries,” Pope Francis said. “I go to Marseille, not to France.” This is significant, as it shows both personal and peripheral attention to the culture and people — Marseille, according to Smithsonian Magazine, is probably Europe’s most diverse city, or Europe’s bouillabaisse — made up of Muslims, Armenian Orthodox, Jews and Buddhists, where different people and cultures have long coexisted.
The attention of the Holy Father to the value of immigrants, refugees and women, all of whom are peripherals and vulnerable in modern societies, is well-known. He mentioned during our conversation that a talented “Albanian woman-surgeon followed him when he was in the hospital,” adding, “Albanians are doing good all over the world.” Pope Francis would give a strong “yes” to the question: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Immigrants and refugees are fratelli and have much talent to contribute to society. They are “special companions on our way, to be loved and cared for as brothers and sisters. Only by walking together will we be able to go far and reach the common goal of our journey.”
Coming from a family of immigrants, knowing firsthand the struggles of immigrants, explains Pope Francis’ intimate closeness to the plight of the immigrants and refugees living on the socioeconomic peripheries — their struggle to find employment, stability and acceptance in the host country. Father Bisha presented him with the new book in translation, covered in a traditional red-and-white-striped cloth used in the Catholic region of Zadrima in northwestern Albania, called mesalle in Albanian. The cloth is woven on traditional weaving looms by women. When the cloth is small, it is used on the table as an individual placemat for eating; when it is bigger, it is used to wrap foods blessed for Easter commemorating the Resurrection. Many mesalle stitched together make a tablecloth.
But there is more meaning and purpose to the mesalle. Father Bisha explains that during the Communist persecution in Albania, the harshest in Eastern Europe, “Priests use mesalle to cover the improvised prison altars when they celebrated Eucharist/Mass in secret in high-security Communist prisons.” The mesalle in which the new book presented to Pope Francis was wrapped was made after the fall of communism using the same traditional looms, symbolizing martyrdom — that of the Albanian martyr Jesuit Father Daniel Dajani, who came from Zadrima — the area famous for handwoven mesalle. The martyrs were a key focus of Pope Francis’ Sept. 21, 2014, trip to Albania. Two years later in April 2016, Pope Francis beatified 38 holy people who died martyrs’ deaths in communist prisons from 1945 to 1974. The Holy Father recognizes Albania’s sacrifices and the harsh persecution the entire nation suffered. He also commented on Albania’s example in saving the Jews. During World War II, when Albania was under German occupation, the small country became a haven for Jews who were fleeing Europe. The Albanian population — Muslim, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic — refused to turn on the Jewish families whom they kept secretly in their homes.
Overall, the private audience with the Holy Father was focused on the value of the peripheries and peripherals, immigration and martyrdom — all themes dear to Francis, and which have shaped his pontificate in so many different ways. I left the private audience with the Holy Father energized more than ever to continue my academic vocation, dedicated to sharing with my students the matters of the intellect and of the spirit that were reflected in our conversation with the Pope. I am sure that the 40-minute meeting will be as life-changing for my students as it is for me. Thank you, Pope Francis.