On 7 May, immediately following his stay in Bulgaria, where Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the cities of Sofia and Rakovski on 5 and 6 May, the leader of the Catholic Church traveled to neighbouring North Macedonia. North Macedonia became the official name of the former Republic of Macedonia in February.
During his 10-hour sojourn in the capital of Skopje, Pope Francis first had a meeting with the president, prime minister and other representatives of the government and nation and then visited a memorial site for Mother Teresa, a native of Skopje, to meet with people living in poverty. At midday he celebrated Holy Mass on Makedonija Square. Pope Francis then met young people as well as priests and religious in the afternoon before flying back to Rome in the evening.
“Do not be afraid, little flock” – the motto chosen for the papal visit reflects the situation of the Catholics living in the country that was once part of Yugoslavia: only about two per cent of the country’s approximately two million inhabitants are Catholic. When compared to the 1.2 million Orthodox and more than half a million Muslims, it is truly only a little flock that feels “like a family”, according to the head of the North Macedonian section of ACN International, Magda Kaczmarek. As Kiro Stojanov, bishop of the only bishopric in North Macedonia, stressed, this makes the visit of their pope all the more important for the small number of faithful. “We have 15 parishes and several succursal churches with a total of 22 priests,” the bishop explained the current situation of the country. “Our faithful come from different ethnic groups, most of them Macedonians, Croats or Albanians.”
“The religions coexist peacefully for the most part and the religious sisters do wonderful work in the children’s and youth ministry,” Magda Kaczmarek reported. She is more concerned about the widespread poverty and weak economic performance of the country; for many of its inhabitants, farming is the only source of income. She then mentioned the emigration of large numbers of young and educated people, those who could help the country grow economically, to other countries. She pointed out the country’s low birth rate with 1.5 children per woman and, at about 30 per cent, its extremely high unemployment rate. “If politics cannot create better living conditions and ensure that the youth have prospects, then the country is heading into dark times,” Magda Kaczmarek gave voice to her concerns.
She therefore believes that North Macedonia was looking forward to the papal visit not only as a source of religious impetus to stabilise the faith. Rather, the country hoped that Pope Francis would appeal to the political and economic policymakers during his visit to help create a more stable future for North Macedonia.
Last year, ACN International granted a total of 76 400 euros for projects in North Macedonia (which was still the Republic of Macedonia then), in particular for the construction and renovation of churches. A top priority at the moment is the construction of a new church in Kumanovo, the country’s second largest city. In addition, ACN provides subsistence aid for religious.