Pope helps Albanians celebrate their 'resurrection'


TIRANA, Albania -- It was a hallelujah yesterday for Europe's poorest nation: Pope John Paul II came in golden robes to celebrate a national resurrection. There can have been few spring days in the past half-century as exalting for a Balkan land so long self-consumed by tyranny, isolation and the systematic persecution of all religion.

Improbability reigned for a day in a time-stood-still place whose Communist leaders once proclaimed the world's first officially atheistic nation.

The world's most famous Albanian, octogenarian apostle of the poor, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, humbly came in sandals and her trademark blue-and-white habit.

"Your experience of death and resurrection belongs to all the church, and to all the world," the pope told 5,000 worshipers at a Mass in the provincial town of Shkoder. Many wept at the sight of him. The faithful overflowed a freshly repainted 19th-century cathedral reconsecrated last Christmas Eve after decades as a state-run gymnasium.

The pope ordained four bishops as administrators of a reborn church, naming them successors to the apostles from under a wooden cross where a basketball scoreboard once hung. Three of the new bishops spent long years in detention for their faith, one condemned to death as a Vatican spy. The fourth, exiled pastor of an Albanian Catholic church in New York, came home to Shkoder yesterday with 120 proud parishioners from the Bronx who brought a large U.S. flag to Mass with them.

In an exhausting 13-hour visit, the pontiff repeatedly lauded Albanians for their victory in overturning hard-line Communist rule.

"You have won back freedom in a virtually bloodless way. You are risen almost miraculously from an abyss of tyranny and death," he said in a nationwide address. "When it seemed that every rational hope of faith had been snuffed out, liberation has come. Life is reborn. The courage to exist has re-emerged. The light of hope shines anew."

To a huge crowd that jammed the main Scanderbeg Square in central Tirana at nightfall yesterday to hear his farewell message, the pope preached brotherhood. Albanians, he said, must beware of ethnic disputes as they seek to build democracy from communism's shards.

Most Albanians are Muslims. Among a Christian minority, Greek Orthodox outnumber Roman Catholics, who are about 10 percent of Albania's 3.4 million people.

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