Macedonia: The Catholic Church is like a little family

Magda Kaczmarek, section head of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for Macedonia, visited the southeast European country in June 2017. In the following interview, she describes the first impressions that she was able to gain in the country’s sole Roman Catholic Diocese and the Greek Catholic exarchate.

Mrs. Kaczmarek, You recently toured Macedonia on a working visit for ACN. The former Yugoslavian republic is a conglomerate of peoples…

Yes, today the Republic of Macedonia has some two million inhabitants consisting of quite disparate peoples. Macedonians represent the most numerous population with over 60%, followed by Albanians, Turks, Roma, Serbians, Bosnians and other ethnic groups.

The unsettled situation in the country has caused the Catholic Church in Macedonia, together with other confessions, to call for prayers for peace. What are the causes of this situation?

There are two principal reasons. One the one hand, Greece lays a claim to the historical name of Macedonia. The conflict around the name of Macedonia began with the declaration of independence of the Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia 1991 with the name of the Republic of Macedonia. For this reason, Greece has blocked Macedonia’s accession to e.g. NATO and the EU. This is clearly a conflict situation and this conflict is ongoing. Added to this is the fact that the number of Albanians has greatly increased; in particular the Albanians who migrated from Kosovo especially after the last Balkan War. They now make up a quarter of the population, and they claim the right to their own language and laws.

And do these divisions also influence religious life in the country?

It is a question of how much tolerance the newly-constituted government of the Social Democrat Zoran Zaev shows. Among the Albanians there are also Catholics, and they will certainly seek to practice their faith in their mother tongue. And the Albanian Muslims are building their mosques. There is a danger of radicalisation here, which is especially present in the Balkans due to the influence of Saudi Arabia. The largest Albanian settlement in Macedonia is outside Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia, and is called Skopska Crna Gora, the Black Mountain of Skopje. It has the appearance of an enclave.

Saint Teresa, Mother Teresa, was born as an Albanian in Skopje but is regarded by both peoples, both the Macedonians and the Albanians, as their mother, is that correct?

Yes. Mother Teresa connects both peoples, so to speak. In Skopje a monument was built in the form of a museum with a chapel. In both countries, airports, motorways, shopping centres, hospitals and naturally many parishes and churches have been named after her.

Macedonia is on the Balkan route. Have you seen refugees?
Not really. It appears that some are still living on the Serbian border. In Macedonia we were told of chaotic conditions on the border to Serbia during the last year, and of refugees who died in Macedonia because they were already exhausted when they arrived there. The Catholic Church has also tried to give aid. The parish of Radovo has set up pastoral care for migrants and organised training and seminars for volunteers who work with refugees.

What other challenges does the country face?

The country counts officially as a candidate for the EU, but on my visit I saw hardly any overseas investors: no car dealers, no international companies or supermarkets. Apart from that, corruption seems to be a major problem. It is reported that in some places one can even buy a university degree without ever having studied. The corruption is also apparent at the level of the authorities. But unfortunately the problem of corruption is equally severe in other countries of south-eastern Europe. It will take a long time before the people change their way of thinking and appreciate that corruption endangers the whole of society.

The Catholic Church in Macedonia is a very small minority in the country, correct?

The two largest religions on the country are Orthodox Christianity (65%) and Islam (33%). Only 1% of the population is Catholic, so it is just a small Diaspora Church. Mons. Kiro Stojanov is officially the Exarch for the Byzantine Rite with his seat in Strumica, and at the same time he is also the Bishop for the Latin Rite with a seat in Skopje. A total of 23 priests are active in 17 parishes. The Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite always seems to me to be like a little family. The majority of the priests, members of religious orders, and congregations are related to one another. The source of vocation in Macedonia is the place that I already mentioned, Radovo, with 45,000 inhabitants. Here, special importance is attached to child and youth ministry. ACN supports for example their summer camp, “Holiday with God”, in which, incidentally, Orthodox children also take part. This fosters ecumenism.

And what is the situation of the Roman Catholic Church?

The Roman Catholic Church has somewhat contracted in recent years. Until recently there were only two Roman Catholic priests in the whole of Macedonia. In recent years, two large parishes were abandoned, by the Salesians in Bitola and the Jesuits in Ohrid. Both of these communities came from abroad, because there were not enough local people to take up the vocation. The priests generally have a tough time. Unfortunately they cannot live from the alms of the local congregations alone. The Bishop greatly regrets that his priests are compelled to seek funding from abroad in order to survive.

What are the main areas where ACN could help the local Church in Macedonia, in your opinion?

The young cathedral dean, Don Davor, would dearly love to renovate the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Skopje. It was built in the Communist era and has not been renovated for decades. The roof leaks. Don Davor wishes to start planning the renovation soon. Also there is no religious literature in the Macedonian language, and therefore the translation of the missal and lectionary as well as the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is planned. According to the dean, the compendium is a good instrument for preaching the Gospel, because the people are very open to it. Many of them have never been baptised, or they have never practised their faith, and they are searching for “SOMETHING”. “We priests cannot wait for the people to come to us, we must go to them,” I was told by the Croatian priest, who arrived from Bosnia 2 years ago when the Bishop was looking for priests abroad for the Diocese of Skopje.

Was there an experience or encounter during your visit that especially moved or impressed you? 

Yes, together with the Bishop we visited the parish of Kumanovo. The young Polish priest there, Tomasz, has recently started to revive the parish. The parish already existed but had been vacant for a long time. I was greatly impressed that three families with many children had emigrated from Kosovo to Macedonia in order to give witness to life and faith in the parish and its environs. Each of these families has between eight and ten children. The parents are well educated and had good professions in their home country. For example Anna, now pregnant with her ninth child, is a German teacher. Her husband is a dentist. During our visit he had just had an interview for a job. Anna spoke to us about her faith and how she found God. For her, a life without Christ has no meaning. They both wish to set a living example to the many others who are searching for meaning in their lives. I was deeply impressed by so much trust in God and love of God.

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.