On the occasion of the Apostolic visitation of Pope Francis to Skopje – Macedonia, the web portal “Katolici.mk” conducted an extensive interview with H. E. Msgr. Dr. Kiro Stojanov, Bishop of Skopje and Eparch of Strumica-Skopje

On the occasion of the Apostolic visitation of Pope Francis to Skopje – Macedonia, the web portal “Katolici.mk” conducted an extensive interview with H. E. Msgr. Dr. Kiro Stojanov, Bishop of Skopje and Eparch of Strumica-Skopje

Your Excellency, it is known that on 7 May 2019 the Holy Father will pay a one-day visit to the Catholic Church in Macedonia. Please kindly tell us something about the Catholic Church in Macedonia?

It is really difficult to briefly answer this question, but I will try to do so. Speaking of the Church in Macedonia, one should be aware that it is a notion wider than that of our present-day homeland, which means that I am speaking of the geographical term. We know that Christianity reached Europe through Macedonia. Let us remember on the event when Apostle Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him with the words “Come and help us.” Yes, Christianity has been present here from the very beginning, and as a result, the continuity of Christian communities has never been interrupted to this day. Furthermore, I would like to point out that this region was the place of activity of the disciples of the Holy Brothers, namely St. Clement of Ohrid and Saint Naum whose tombs are in the City of Ohrid. The most recent flower of our Church is Saint Mother Teresa, who was born and raised in Skopje, where she also received her Christian education. The church went through difficult times of persecution in the Old Ages, during the Ottoman Empire until modern times. The Catholic community consists of the faithful of the Roman Rite organized in the Skopje Diocese, as well as of the faithful of the Byzantine Rite organized in the Eparchy “Dormition of the Mother of God in Strumica-Skopje”. Seeing that this region is a natural place of meetings and crossroads between the East and the West, between the two jurisdictions of Tsargrad and Rome, it is then understandable that the Christians in these areas have undergone everything that history brought to them throughout these important and difficult events. The current situation is the following: 15 parishes and a few filial churches. There are 22 pastorally active priests. The faithful come from different ethnic groups, the majority of which are Macedonians, Croatians, Albanians, etc.

 Could you describe the current relations between the Church and the State?

 Macedonia and Vatican have diplomatic relations on an Embassy level. Currently, the seat of the Apostolic Nuncio for our country is in Sofija, Bulgaria. An annual state delegation travels to Rome to make obeisance to the tomb of St. Cyril in the Basilica of St. Clement. The program regularly includes a papal audience. However, I would like to emphasize that the State Delegation includes representatives of both the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches. Very often, this delegation is at the highest level and the President of one of the three State Institutions serving in the capacity of a Head of the Delegation meets the Pope in person. Within the government there is a Committee for relations between Churches, religious communities and groups. The Constitution of Macedonia historically recognizes the following religious communities: Macedonian Orthodox Church – Archbishopric of Ohrid (MPC-OA), Islamic religious community, the Catholic Church, Evangelical Methodist Church and the Jewish religious community, and the representatives of these communities hold regular meetings. Shortly, it can be said that there are good relations between the groups, although there is always room for improvement. The Church and the State are separated, but we often collaborate in projects for the common good. As of now, we don’t have religious schools, nor there is religious education at school. Unfortunately, access to hospitals and prisons has not yet been legalized. Religious freedom is in a period of transition, as is the case in the other countries in transition. Understandably, everything is in a process towards a more perfect democracy. The religious communities are one of the positive links in the society, considering that there aren’t any tensions or intolerance among their members. This is duly noted by the state and therefore the role of the churches and of the other religious communities is positively rated in the process of improvement of the society. I don’t recall of any particular even which could be characterized as an incident.

 Your Excellency, as you have previously said, the religious communities in Macedonia are of multi-confessional and multi-ethnical nature. What is the cooperation with the predominant Orthodox Church, but also with those which are not included in the Constitutional category?

 The previously mentioned Interreligious Council holds regular meetings where we negotiate the views of the churches and of the other religious communities in relation to adopting new laws, constitutional changes, but also when we need to defend the basic human rights of freedom of thought and many other questions related to moral and ethics. These criteria have been met when it comes to the cooperation with the predominant Orthodox Church. We pay visits to each other during religious holidays, personal meetings are also frequent, especially on occasion of visitors to our Churches, whereas joint prayer meetings are practiced during the prayer octave for Christian unity. The basic leading principle is not based solely on tolerance, considering that it also includes cooperation, mutual respect and a joint contribution towards the faithful and all people of good will.

How did the opportunity arise for the Pope’s visit of the Catholic believers in Macedonia?

It is a well-known fact that every local Church in a given country is eager for the visit of the Supreme Pontiff, namely the Pope. Starting from the last century, there have been increased possibilities for Popes to be able to travel outside of the walls of Vatican. If there was a time when the proverb “all roads lead to Rome” applied, it can now be said that all roads lead out of Rome (at least for the Pope). We only need to remind ourselves that St. John Paul II flew over the globe several times. For the pontificate of Pope Francis, it is important to note that he frequently directed his travels towards the neglected and marginalized countries. Having said that, we are able to see his personal attitude towards socially marginalized people, as well as towards the community of believers in the diaspora. As previously mentioned, the dialogue between Macedonia and Vatican has been intensified, seeing that the President of the country and I have invited the Pope to visit Macedonia on several occasions. My plea was answered as follows: “When I have the opportunity, I will pay a short visit.” That’s how it actually happened. Planning a visit to Romania and Bulgaria, it happened that Macedonia was also included in the program of the Pope’s travels. The time of the visitation is decided by the Pope himself, except in case when there is an important jubilee or anything of the kind, such as World Youth Day, World Family Congress, Eucharistic Congress, etc.

This is a personal question: Were you surprised or maybe afraid when you found out that the Pope would come in Macedonia?

Frankly speaking, the answer of the Pope did not take me by surprise. During all the previous meetings I was hoping that this visitation would eventually materialize, taking in consideration that he was always sympathetically inclined towards the activities in our Church, such as the event of the establishment of the new Eparchy for a really small number of believers. This illustrates that Pope Francis does not pay much attention to numbers, but instead to the dignity and rights of each individual and each group of believers who have all the rights to fully manifest themselves both as individuals and as Church. In terms of the “fear” regarding to the organization for his visitation, I believed and I still believe in God’s Providence, in the unity and harmony of our priests, and in the togetherness of our believers. I simply felt that we would give our best, and we would leave the rest to the cooperation and assistance of our friends from abroad. However, I see what is the point behind this question, because if I was really aware of the magnitude and hardship of all the preparations and organizational activities, probably I would have been scared. Yet, we are now working ceaselessly and we feel a great deal of God’s presence.

Could you please describe the planning process in terms of organization and spiritual preparation?

Organizing everything is not an easy task by all means, but the areas have been delegated to different actors. One part of the organizational structure, such as the reception, security, traffic, health services, etc. is entrusted to the state authorities. Another part was organized according to the instructions of authorized persons from Vatican who visited Skopje on several occasions and provided guidelines for all the details in relation to space delimitation, setting-up of the altar, accommodation of the Holy Father and his entourage – in short, we were only expected to duly listen to them and to perform the suggestions of the Vatican team. We are only due to invite the guests (venerable church officials and their accommodation), etc. The whole logistics is to be done jointly with the state. What I would really like to emphasize is the spiritual preparation. Namely, no other preparation is more difficult than the spiritual. Knowing that the visit of the Holy Father is an apostolic journey, it is our duty to make sure that it would bring spiritual gains. Literally as the parable from the Gospel, “the field should be prepared,” that is, to prepare the “field” so that the word of God in the form of signs and announcement would fall on fertile land. It is understandable that the worker and the sower are also important, but the most important is the one who provides the growth, which is God himself. That is why I have issued a pastoral letter to all the believers in which I have interpreted the importance of such a preparation which is mostly shown in the form of prayer. I used the opportunity to explain to the believers the view of the faith and the logo and motto of this visitation. On the other hand, at the end of the pastoral letter I have provided useful guidelines in relation to everyday prayer for the blessing of the Pope’s arrival, special images with prayer texts were printed, it was decided every parish to choose one day of the week as “Pope’s Day” in which the faithful would gather for adoration, reading of the Holy Scripture or other prayers. Moreover, catechesis on a weekly basis will be held whereby all the believers would be able to take part in topics such as the Sacrament of the Church, the Services within the church, and especially Peter’s service in the Church. The celebration of this year’s Easter would also represent a kind of spiritual and immediate preparation for the meeting with the Pope. The priests had a separate day of fast and prayer in order to revive ourselves during this time and to prepare both ourselves and our believers to make this great event not only a manifestation, but also an event of the faith. We would like to be able to pick the best fruits of this visit that God bestows upon us through Peter of our day. In other words, the difficulty of the preparation rests in prayer, spiritual renewal and the growth in faith so that God would be able to sow his seeds on a fertile land.

In our human imperfection, we are doing all that is possible to open our heart and soul, because this would be a day of great mercy for the believers.

Your Excellency, please at least briefly explain to our readers the meaning of the motto: “Fear not, little flock” and the three elements of the logo, namely the Christian symbol (the cross), the national symbol (the flag) and the color of the sari of Mother Teresa.

 Thinking of the motto for the Apostolic visitation, I was somehow inspired by the thought from the Gospel according to Luke: “Fear not, little flock” by means of which Jesus teaches and encourages his apostles in his great catechesis for God’s Providence. By doing this, Jesus encourages and consoles. The times in which we live often make people filled with despair and hopelessness. It is something that also applies to the faithful. Christianity loses its meaning without hope. The Church should instill hope in the soul of today’s man. It should console and to inspire relentless faith in the Providence, which never leaves man. Thus, I think that this thought is a powerful message of the Church in the day and circumstances in which we live. We need faith which is alive and full with hope. The role of Peter, that is, of the Holy Father, is to “strengthen in faith.” That is why this motto has been chosen for the purpose of this apostolic journey.

The logo for the visit of Pope Francis to Macedonia contains three main elements:

The first element is the open Macedonian flag placed within the borders of the Republic of Macedonia, the country to be visited by Pope Francis.

The second element is the designed face of Pope Francis, sequined with blue lines which symbolize that the Pope comes in the country of Mother Teresa. The face of Pope Francis is represented in semi-profile with his right hand blessing Macedonia with all its characteristics, whereas in the left hand he holds the episcopal crosier which symbolizes his pastoral visit to Macedonia. The Pope is illustrated in a combination of white and yellow, arising from the rays of the Macedonian, also representing the colors of the flag of Vatican.

In the bottom part there are blue waves which indicate everyday challenges, accentuating the heritage left to Macedonia, to the city of Skopje and to this region by Mother Teresa.

 It is pleasant to hear of the spiritual preparation of the Church for this visitation, but don’t you think that this visit by the Pope has some political dimension as well?

 We know that the Apostolic journey outside of Italy always carry with itself two dimensions, one of which is the spiritual by which the faithful expect their Superior and by means of which the unity between one part of the local Church with the Peter’s heir is displayed in the best possible way. All meetings, in particular the liturgical ones are in the light of the renewal of the faith. However, the fact that the Pope is a sovereign of one country – albeit a very small one – renders the meeting of international importance for the highest public officials of the given country. Therefore, broadly speaking, political dimension can also be applied. Generally, the Pope dedicates the first part of his visit to the meeting with the country’s leading officials and the diplomatic choir, whereby as the Head of the Church always includes the attitude, views and the doctrine of the Catholic Church followed by speeches on general topics such as peace, coexistence, progress, social justice, etc. There are certain types of visits which can be called purely political, which happens when he visits big centers of political power such as the United Nations or the European Parliament. In the case of Macedonia, I feel that it would be a meeting filled with dignity, and that no crucial issues will be touched. It would be a kind of a principled speech and a meeting of friendship.

 Do you think that the country and its citizens expect some significant “benefit” from this visit?

 It is completely normal to expect such a thing, considering that the Pope is one of the biggest moral authorities in the world, which means that his word and visit is viewed on an international level as mutual recognition, respect and effort towards improvement, especially of values in crisis such as peace and norms for ethical living. This visit would certainly represent a major step forward for Macedonia on the international stage. On the occasion of this visit, the President of the country and the Holy Father will address the public. I believe that both speeches are going to have powerful messages, because they will express attitudes with the wish that this visit would contribute for the improvement of the cooperation in the sense of common good not only for this country, but in the whole region.

Do you expect an improvement of the relations between the Catholic Church and the State after this visit?

 I have already stated that the relations are good, but the fact that a visit of this magnitude is going to happen represents a sign for a further improvement. We don’t expect some sensational changes, but it is sure that we are going to collaborate with an increased amount of trust for the common good of the believers of the Catholic Church and for the good of the society in general.

 Do you see some change of the role of Your Church within the society after this visit?

In the Gospel we read of the nature and mission of the Church which was given to us by Jesus. The Church is a prophetic community, the yeast and the light of the world. By evoking these images, Jesus wanted to say that the Church with its life, not as an organization, but as a living being, lives and testifies for the value of the spirit, but not only of the spirit in the society in which it operates. Clearly, because of the specific circumstances of the time and geographic position, I believe that our Church has a specific role to play. You see, throughout history, we have always lived on the crossroads, but crossroads can also mean a place of meeting. From the visit of the Pope we expect a strong spiritual renewal, because the very fact that he is going to visit us sends a message that we are on the “right way.” I see the objective of the Church as that of “building bridges,” that is, to be not only a place of tolerance, but also a place of meeting and dialogue. Not to be the holders ourselves, but together with others to be a part of the renewal in the society which craves for betterment and improvement. Dough never becomes yeast, but there won’t be fresh dough without yeast. Thus, with all humility and honesty we expect a revival of the spirit of our believers so that with an increased responsibility and authenticity in their testimony they would be aware of what history expects of them, so that they could fulfill these expectations with a new spirit, helped by God’s mercy. In this context, I see spiritual revival as the biggest contribution to the Church by this visitation.

I am sorry for asking, but not all people in Macedonia are Christians, and are you are also aware that there are some people who are unsatisfied.

 That’s true, Macedonia is the fatherland not only to Macedonians, but also to all people who live here. On the other hand, the Catholic community is a very small one, the biggest one being the Macedonian Orthodox Church – OA[1], followed by a strong Islamic community, as well as people who are atheists. We would like – very much like the Pope – that this would be primarily a visit to the Catholic community, while also showing appreciation and respect to all citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, in order to bring about for the improvement of coexistence, promotion of spiritual values and respect of the dignity of every human being. Finally, all those who are opposed do not have to participate in any way whatsoever, not even by watching the TV program which will follow the stay of the Pope. For us, as for the majority of the people, the Pope is the herald of peace and human dignity. He doesn’t mean harm to anyone, and wants to help whenever possible. For these reasons, I expect that this visit will take place in peace and in mutual and dignified respect.

 You have also mentioned and it is generally known that most of the Christians in Macedonia belong to MPC-OA. In light of this, will the Pope meet their leader and will there be ecumenical talks, especially for the status of MPC-OA?

Unfortunately, the Pope’s stay in Macedonia is going to be a very short one, literally about 10 hours. In such a program there wouldn’t be room for a separate meeting with the Head of MPC-OA. An ecumenical and interreligious meeting will take place in the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, whose charisma and sanctity unites us in the best possible way, because she was a citizen of the world coming originally from Skopje. During the Pope’s visit of the Memorial House, he will stay for a short prayer whereby he would meet the Head of MPC-OA and the Heads of the other religious communities included in the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia. This will be a short meeting full of respect and appreciation. In case the Pope was going to stay longer in Macedonia, it is possible that such a meeting with the individual Heads of the Church and of the other religious communities would have taken place. Yet, his role isn’t and it can’t be directed towards any contribution in other inter-ecclesiastical issues which do not concern the Catholic Church. Just like he respects every man, he also genuinely respects Christians and the Heads of the other Churches, but he doesn’t consider to be called to do something which outside of his authority. I expect that the Head of MPC-OA and the heads of the other religious communities will participate in the Liturgy at Macedonia Square. Another ecumenical meeting with the youth is scheduled to take place, where representatives of the youth will have short questions for the Pope. We hope that this meeting would further improve the coexistence and cooperation with the others and with those who are different from us, as a cause for mutual enrichment, not as something that would distance us. The youth as a category are the ones who are most open for coexistence in the future.

 You mentioned the Memorial House of St. Mother Teresa. What is the actual meaning of the visit of this Center?

 You see, Mother Teresa was canonized by Pope Francis himself. In the year of her sanctification it was considered to be the biggest canonization. Many people in the world know Mother Teresa as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Most of them don’t know that she was from Skopje, because she developed her charisma in the service to the poor in India. The Holy Father wants to pay his respects to her birth place and to say a special prayer for her intercession for the poor. There he will meet a group of poor brothers and sisters of ours who are taken care of by the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa. This is a message of the biggest of our fellow citizens and the wish of the Pope to get closer to the poorest. You already know that the Pope on his travels never forgets the poor. I would say that this visit symbolically represents “a kiss to the poor”. Hence, I believe that this is a big step forward towards the awareness raising that Mother Teresa is our fellow citizen, whereas the poor are our immediate brothers and sisters. Consequently, it is important that the heads of the other religious communities will gather together, because as believers we are called to help the poor, the sick and the weak regardless of their ethnical and religious belonging. I have a feeling that this is going to be one of the biggest messages of this visit.

 As it can be seen from the program, after the meeting in the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, a Holy Liturgy is scheduled to take place at Macedonia Square. How is it supposed to look like?

 For us as believers, the Holy Liturgy is the holiest of meetings because it represents a meeting with God. The most solemn Liturgy is the one which speaks the most for the unity of God and man. As a Church, we are at the highest point of that unity when the Liturgy is presided over by the Holy Father, joined in the service by bishops and priests with the additional participation of the faithful. How is it going to look like? I dare say, but I also hope that this will be the most beautiful Liturgy in Skopje. However, the time factor also limits us in this case, so the Liturgy will have to take place within a set timeframe. It will be served in Latin and Macedonian, but there will be handbooks for everyone in many languages. The sermon of the Holy Father will also be interpreted. We expect that the sermon with which the Pope will address the faithful, but also all people of good will, to be the most powerful message and justification of the meaning of this visitation. All the cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests will participate in the liturgy, joined by the cathedral choir together with choirs from different places. The Liturgy will be broadcast on the national Macedonian television, and it will be probably transmitted by many other television houses worldwide. Thus, with the help of the mass media, many other people will take part in it with together with all of us who will be on the altar. The liturgy has its own powerful message in the beauty and strength of the meeting. I would hereby like to add that all those who want to participate will be informed and organized in due course for their access to the square.

 Do you expect other religious and public institutions to participate in the Holy Liturgy?

As I said, the Eucharist is the highest point of the meeting, being purposely on the main square so that everyone can participate. A regular practice at this type of liturgies is that representatives of other religious communities and public officials also take part.  

 As it can be seen from the schedule, the Pope is Your guest. We presume that he is going to stay in Your residence. Is the place reserved exclusively for him, or are there other guests accompanying him?

 The residence is a place where the Pope is actually at home. If there was a Nunciature he was going to stay there, but in cases when there isn’t one, he usually stays in the residence of the local bishop. As you can see in the schedule, every minute of his stay in Skopje has been planned, and for this reason the Pope and his closest entourage will stay in the residence. All the other honored guests are going to be accommodated in hotels. After a short break, we are moving onto the second part of the visit which will take place around the cathedral.

 After the break, there is a meeting with the youth. Where will it take place?

 As the Pope frequently wants to say, which is true, the future of the world rests on the youth. Even in his shortest travels, he tends to meet the poor and the youth. Also in Skopje, a meeting is arranged beside the Cathedral where the youth from different religious denominations will pose questions which the Pope will answer, which would be directed not only to the youth present therein, but also to young people everywhere in the world. The youth possess the perspective, strength and enthusiasm to change the world. However, the youth are also the most vulnerable category, seeing that they are frequently without direction in life. The Pope is not in position to give prescriptions, nor does he want to do so, but he certainly wants to support the youth in their honest efforts to work towards a better world in which they will be able to realize their call in the building of life. As a general rule, I believe that this meeting will be full of songs and filled with joy and excitement which is a characteristic of young people. The message of the Pope can be “Carta magna” for our pastoral for the youth, as well as an encouragement for coexistence and cooperation of future young generations, without divisions on the basis of faith and nation.

 We see that the meeting in the cathedral is only for the priests, nuns and priests’ families. What is the essence of that meeting?

 It is a tradition that the Pope visits the bishops in the region he visits. However, because of the limited time of stay and because we only have one Ordinariate, there will be a meeting with the priests and with the closest associates of the bishop. This is supposed to be a close meeting with those who “bear the weight of the day and the heat of the sun,” that is, the priests and their field associates. If someone needs support, backing and appreciation, it is the priests. On this meeting we expect a mood where the pope will be familiarized with a few testimonies so that we will be able to hear his message for the closest associates of the pastoral. This meeting does not plan the inclusion of the heads of the other churches, nor does it involve public institutions. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it is a closed meeting, because it will be broadcast on TV, but it is a very important meeting for the life of priests, nuns and associates. I believe that the message of the Pope will be a strong and clear one, because from previous experience we can see that he pays much attention to such meetings.

 The meeting in the Cathedral marks the end of the official part of the Pope’s visit. Will it be followed by accompanying him to the airport and a farewell ceremony?

Yes, from the Cathedral the Pope and his entourage will head to the airport. By protocol, he is accompanied by the President of the country, the President of the Government, the Apostolic Nuncio, and the Bishop’s Ordinariate.

As it seems, this will be one of the biggest meetings ever organized by our city? Who from the Excellencies has been invited?

 The Pope will be accompanied by his usual entourage consisting of several cardinals and bishops from the State Secretariate and ceremonial officials. We are supposed to invite bishops and cardinals with which we are associated. I maintained my criteria and I invited our Metropolitan bishop, the Cardinal of Sarajevo, the episcopes of our Episcopal Conference and the episcopes from the territory of former Yugoslavia, as well as our neighbors. Most of the responded to my invitation. It is obvious that the interest is great, and we accept their coming as a sign and expression of our unity.

 Do you fear that there might be provocations?

 No, I don’t. Anyway, everything is in God’s hands and I hope that through our prayers and through the unity of all the citizens in Macedonia it will be a proof a life in unity and togetherness regardless of all our differences and characteristics. I also believe in the state organs entrusted to keep order and peace and I express my deepest respect towards their responsible service. in fact, may God bestow his peace on this meeting.

At the end I would like to ask a bold question. We are well aware that this visit will cost a lot. Could you please tell us how much will it cost and who will bear the costs?

 It is a bold question, but I will try to give you an answer. First of all, one cannot put a price on such a visit. Hence, I am not sure how much it will cost precisely, but I know for sure that there are good people and institutions who are ready to provide financial support.

 Your Excellency, thank you very much for your detailed answers. Could you please tell us what are the fruits that you expect as a blessing from this visit?

First of all, I expect fruits of mercy for the faithful of our Church and for the other believers who have an open heart for the Word of God and a wish that they themselves can contribute towards the building of a better society without decrease of the spiritual values. Realistically speaking, I expect a revival of our faith and further encouragement for a more authentic life in faith, not only in its confession, but also in its practice, in order to be open to all good things and to be worthy heirs of the charisma of St. Mother Teresa, to love and to provide help to our brothers in need. Broadly speaking, I believe that the visit of the Pope will contribute hugely for the stability in the region where tensions and many equivocations still exist. It can be a sign of good will, respecting our conscience and the dignity of all people, as well as to live with more fruits of cooperation and security. It is the prayer that inspires myself and our faithful to expect God’s help, because, as I have said, we experience this visit as a sign of God’s love and strengthening in the faith. Speaking of the motto “Fear not, little flock,” let us not forget that in this verse Jesus speaks of the hope in the infinite fatherly love of God for all nature, as well as for man who is his image.

Your Excellency, thank you very much and God bless you.


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