A Trip to Albania with Pope Francis

An Albanian woman waiting for Pope Francis to arrive at Mass in Tirana, Albania. Spetember 21, 2014 Photo by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

An Albanian woman waiting for Pope Francis to arrive at Mass in Tirana, Albania. Spetember 21, 2014 Photo by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

We had to check in for the Papal flight to Albania  at 4:45 am.  At Rome’s Fiumicino airport there were the usual young travellers sprawled out sleeping on the floor and the Vatican Press corps stood out.  When we travel with the Pope we dress in black, have big press passes hanging around our necks and drag around lots of equipment — photographers with long lenses and heavy camera bags, cameramen with video cameras and tripods, producers carry back-packs with cables and journalists drag rolling computer bags.

On the plane we drive the stewards and stewardesses crazy because the tripods need to be kept near the exit for the cameramen to grab quickly on arrival, all the journalists want their computers on their laps, and the photographers and cameramen need their cameras with them for when the Pope comes back to speak to us.  As soon as we are on board we have to cable up so that when the Pope speaks into a microphone we get the audio (otherwise all we would hear is engine noise).

So yesterday at dawn the stewardesses were rushing up and down the aisles telling everyone to stow their luggage in the overhead compartments, the Vatican technicians were doing a voice check on the microphone, the cameraman were passing cables under the seats and I was frantically photographing the embargoed copies of the Pope’s speeches for the day that I had just been handed to send to my AP wire colleague before the plane took off so she could start preparing her stories.  Seatbelts anyone?

Pope Francis smiles as he comes back to speak to reporters on the Papal Plane enroute to Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Pope Francis smiles as he comes back to speak to reporters on the Papal Plane enroute to Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Shortly after take-off the Pope breezed back to give us a quick statement. He was smiling and cheerful and this is what he said,

“Albania is a country that has succeeded in finding peace with the different religions and this is a good sign for the world, for dialogue, for peace… I wish you a beautiful day, a hard-working day, and pray for me. Thank you.”

Albania has a population of slightly over 3 million people, roughly 60 percent of whom are Muslim and only 10 percent are Catholic.  There is a sprinkling of other religions including Orthodox Christians and Bektashi Muslims. Co-existence and co-habitation was a theme for the Pope throughout the day, and the people of Albania also seemed eager to prove it to the Pope.

Woman waiting for Pope Francis at Mass in Tirana, Albania, September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Woman waiting for Pope Francis at Mass in Tirana, Albania, September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Pope Francis chose to go to Albania yesterday  for his first trip within Europe outside of Italy– as his spokesman explained to reporters, because in typical Francis fashion it is a trip to the periphery, to the edge, to one of the poorest countries in Europe, with one of the smallest Catholic populations.

When we got off the plane we were driven into the city of Tirana,  where banners with pictures of the Christian martyrs fluttered over the boulevard.  Albanians lined the road waving the distinctive red Albanian flag with a black eagle emblazoned on it.

At his first stop at the presidential palace, the Pope unleashed his strongest comments of the day, which he would repeat.  First he complimented the Albanians on their “peaceful coexistence and collaboration” noting that “The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims is a precious gift to the country.”  Then he turned his attention to places where “authentic religious spirit is being perverted” and “religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalized.”

Although he never mentioned the Islamic State, it was clearly the object of these comments. He continued, “Let no one consider themselves to be the shielded by God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression!  May no on use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman…”

Shortly after these comments the Pope made his way in his Popemobile through the tens of thousands of people gathered in Mother Teresa Piazza for the Mass. Mother Teresa’s name is often followed by the words “of Calcutta” but she was actually Albanian , her birth name Ganxhe Bojaxhiu and she was born in Skopje, then part of Albania (now Macedonia).

An Albanian holding up a poster of Mother Teresa of Calcutta at Mass held by Pope Francis in Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

An Albanian holding up a poster of Mother Teresa of Calcutta at Mass held by Pope Francis in Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The Vatican press was taken into the Piazza ahead of time and I snapped some photos of the Albanians waiting for the Pope.  They clearly wanted to reinforce the message of peaceful coexistence.

A young Albanian man holds up a sign showing pride in his nation's religious tolerance. Photo by Trisha Thomas September 21, 2014

A young Albanian man holds up a sign showing pride in his nation’s religious tolerance. Photo by Trisha Thomas September 21, 2014

The Pope returned to the theme of religion and violence later in the day in a meeting with local religious leaders. He told them, “Authentic religion is a source of peace and not violence. No one must use the name of God to commit violence.  To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.”

Albanian Religious leader arriving for meeting with Pope Francis. September 21, 2014.  Tirana, Albania. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Albanian Religious leader arriving for meeting with Pope Francis. September 21, 2014. Tirana, Albania. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The Popemobile rushed quickly through the piazza not giving the Pope the chance to do his habitual kissing of babies and blessing the faithful.  I wondered if the rush was for security reasons, but later the Pope’s spokesman reassured me that there were no concerns or threats, the Pope was just trying to maintain his schedule.

The head of the Pope's security, Domenico Giani, eyes the crowd carefully as the Popemobile makes its way through Piazza Mother Teresa in Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014, Photo by Trisha Thomas

The head of the Pope’s security, Domenico Giani, eyes the crowd carefully as the Popemobile makes its way through Piazza Mother Teresa in Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014, Photo by Trisha Thomas

In 1944 communist dictator Enver Hoxha took power and for 46 years cut off his people from the outside world, driving them into poverty and, after declaring the country an “atheist” state in 1967,  presided over the destruction of mosques and churches and decades of persecution of anyone who wanted to practice a religious faith.  It wasn’t until the 1990s that Albania became a parliamentary republic.

At one event during the day, Pope Francis listened to 84-year-old  Father Ernest Simoni who was sent to labor camps and tortured for 28 years for his Catholic faith.  In a moving description, he told the Pope how he was arrested in 1963 after holding a Mass following John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  Father Simoni, unlike many others who were executed, survived to tell his story.  Pope Francis was visibly moved by his words and wiped away tears.

Sometimes we have some slow moments on these trips when we are just left standing around waiting outside while the Pope is inside.  Here I am with my Vatican photographer buddies.

Mozzarella Mamma and her Vatican photographer buddies hanging around outside a Papal event. Guess which one is me?  Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Mozzarella Mamma and her Vatican photographer buddies hanging around outside a Papal event. Guess which one is me? Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Pope Francis is the second Pope to go to Albania, the first was JPII in 1993, just after the country emerged from its decades of isolation under communist rule. Pope Francis’ trip to

Albania was a brief distraction that comes of the eve of the long-awaited Synod on the Family at the Vatican which begins on October 5th. Bishops are preparing to discuss such important issues as communion for divorced and re-married couples and it seems the Cardinals are already sharpening the swords for a fierce battle over marriage.  Last week five Cardinals came out with a book called “Remaining in the Truth of Christ” which proclaims the indissolubility of marriage and counters the recent comments by Cardinal Kasper, a theologian close to Pope Francis, who has opened up to the idea of communion for divorced Catholics.

Now while the Cardinals are preparing for battle, Mozzarella Mamma has something else to do before diving into the delicate intricacies of Catholic doctrine.  I have to go to Venice to cover George Clooney’s wedding.  Yes indeed, if you haven’t heard yet the 53-year-old actor will be marrying his gorgeous Lebanese born, Oxford-educated, lawyer for Julian Assange, girlfriend Amal Alamuddin.They are planning a mega-event involving luxury hotels, super-star guests, high fashion, fine food and tons of glamour next weekend in Venice.   And I am going.   Well, to Venice at least.

Now, dear blog readers, you may think, “oh how lucky you are to be covering such an event.”  Well, it is not exactly as though I have an invitation.  I won’t be sipping Bellinis on the roof-top of the 7-star Aman Hotel, or accompanying George and Amal on a romantic gondola ride around Venice.  Hell, knowing the way AP Television works, you will probably see me in waist high rubber boots standing in the middle of a canal with a cameraman trying to get a shot of George and his guests. It is sure to be a media circus and I must be nice to all my paparazzi friends because they are always the ones who know where to go and what to do.

Just to make you laugh– when Tom Cruise married Katie Holmes outside Rome in 2006, AP Television rented a helicopter and my APTN cameraman colleague Eldar Emric (who learned the cameraman trade during the war in Bosnia) found himself strapped into a harness, hanging out of a helicopter flying over the Odescalchi Castle near Lake Bracciano.  Don’t worry George, you won’t see me hanging out of a helicopter over your wedding, AP doesn’t have the budget for that kind of stuff anymore.

More blog posts coming your way soon from Venice….

16 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Carina
    2014/09/22

    So does the Pope go through security with you? I couldn’t imagine him undergoing a patdown.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/09/23

      No, the Pope definitely does not go through Security with the journalists. His car is brought straight up to the plane after we are already on board fussing around with our computers, cell phones and cables. No pat down for the Pope. I got one this time though. Usually the security is pretty relaxed with Papal press, but this time they were thorough both in Rome and on the departure and in Albania on the way back. Interestingly, the Pope made the news the first time he took a trip because he arrived at the airplane carrying a black briefcase. Apparently he is the first Pope to carry his own briefcase. I wish I had a few priests to help me carry all the stuff I have to lug around on these trips– tripod, computer bag, etc. Oh well.

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Kay
    2014/09/22

    I always find it fascinating as to all these places that the Pope visits. It seems kind of haphazard as to locales, but there must be some process as to where he goes and some vetting done. Trisha can you give some insight as to how the Vatican choses where the Pope visits and how far this is done in advance? I guess this is chosen and booked a year or two in advance (kind of like a Rolling Stones Tour)? :-)

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/09/23

      Actually it is a bit haphazard and lately not organized very far in advance. So, not like a Rolling Stones Tour. There are certain events that are planned way in advance — like World Youth Day. The Pope went to the last one in Brazil and will go to the next one in 2016, which I believe will be in Krakow. He will also be going to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September 2015. Right now he has three other trips on his schedule. One was planned ahead, the others seem to be last minute. The planned ahead one is to Sri Lanka and the Philippines next January,the last minute ones are a one-day trip to Strasbourg to speak at the European parliament in November and a visit to Turkey (Ankara and Istanbul) at the end of November. This Pope likes to think out of the box a bit and sometimes I think he surprises his staff with his choice of where to go. I think Albania was a surprise choice. The trip that every Pope has wanted to make is to China — the Vatican is desperate to have a breakthrough with the Chinese, but the Chinese government has not been keen on the idea.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Ciao Chow Linda
    2014/09/22

    It is so encouraging to read of the peaceful co-existence of religions in Albania. I am sorry to say I was unaware of the religious make-up of the country, and I thank you for including those statistics. You gave me a big smile when I saw the photo of those feet. I have no doubt whatsoever which are yours – chic even amid a papal trip to Albania when everyone else’s feet look somber! So now to George Clooney’s wedding? Oh my, It will be a media circus and I’ll be looking forward to your post. When you described the takeoff with the pope, I kept thinking of the frenzy of it all, and the organization it takes, the details involved in doing your work and getting it right. You must have nerves of steel and a great capacity for multi-tasking. But that’s our Mozzarella Mamma for you.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/09/23

      Thank you Linda for your kind comments. I hate to say it but I definitely do not have nerves of steel and I am pretty lousy at multi-tasking. Today my teenage daughter said to me “Mamma, why do you always forget EVERYTHING,” and the only thing I could think to answer was, “because I am trying to remember too many things.” I get really tense about ridiculous things that seem terribly urgent and important — like trying to feed the Pope’s comments on the plane from my computer on the bus just after we arrived in Tirana — and the cell-phone internet wasn’t working. It was taking me 50 minutes to send a 2 minute edit of the Pope’s comments. Turns out the Albanian security was partially jamming the phone lines for security reasons. On the feet, I used to have to wear black shoes as well on Papal trips, but things under Francis have loosened up a bit so I risked sandals this time and got away with it!

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Alan
    2014/09/23

    ‘Flames’ and Popes and planes
    They mean a trip to Paris or Rome
    for someone else . .

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/09/23

      Huh? I must be a little slow tonight Alan. I don’t get it.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Gwen Thomas
    2014/09/23

    Albania sounds like it has lessons for all of us. Very interesting story. And….have fun in Venice, waist deep in canals and all!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/09/23

      Thanks Sis!! I will send you of photo of me in Waders!!

      Reply
  6. Avatar
    Nancy Rockwell
    2014/09/23

    Another fascinating piece! I loved the bits of Albanian history, and the story of the priest who was imprisoned for 28 years. The Communists fear of religion, in a way, proves the power of God. Pope Francis made this trip in such a deeply faithful way, singling Albania out for its peaceful interfaith life. Bravo, Pope Francis!
    Now, I wonder if George and Amal will have a religious ceremony or a civil one? And what is Amal’s religious background? Lebanon has many Christians, also many Moslems and Orthodox.
    I think it is delightful that, after so many years of rejecting marriage, and of hanging around with women who were bimbos, he has fallen for a woman who is intelligent, excellently educated (far better than he) and probably as rich as he is, so he doesn’t have the usual controls over her. I think part of their attraction may be their vision and values about justice and human life, which led her to defend Assange and him to make The Monuments Men.
    Hope you can have some fun in Venice, in addition to the work. And that you don’t have to wear waders anywhere!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/09/23

      Ha! That was the word I was looking for WADERS. Thank you for that, it just wasn’t coming to me. I think the longer I live in Italy, the more my English slips away. Anyway, that is what I will probably end up wearing. A couple on things on the Clooney wedding — George’s future wife, Amal, is beautiful, smart, classy, rich etc.(her family has apparently insisted on paying for this wedding which is sure to cost a fortune). She is of Lebanese Druse origin. George is apparently an atheist, so I am not sure what kind of ceremony it will be. Interestingly, and perhaps cynically, there are a lot of rumors out there that George has given up on the bimbettes and is now going for a smart, classy lady because he is thinking of heading into politics, and is looking for a woman who can also be a political partner and yes they probably do share values in terms of social justice. More soon on the Clooney wedding. And yes, I will probably have fun in Venice, even if I have to wear waders — what I love about my job is the variety of the stories we get to cover, and these few weeks have certainly been a good example of that.

      Reply
  7. Avatar
    Joan Schmelzle
    2014/09/23

    Hi,
    Interesting article to read. Too bad there aren’t a few more Albanias. The world would be happier. I got a chuckle out of your description of the cameraman for Cruise wedding. Are you sure AP won’t splurge for George?!
    I look forward to your coverage of the Synod. Some of what I read here chiefly on “National Catholic Reporter” and a couple of other “Future Church” type emails I receive doesn’t make me very optimistic.
    On the good side the new choice for Archbishop of Chicago seems like a reasonable and Francis-type person.
    A presto

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/09/23

      Hi Joan — thanks for your comment. I think my coverage of the Clooney wedding is bound to be more fun than the Synod coverage. You will probably get much more useful information off National Catholic Reporter than you will from me. I think the negative impression you are getting from them is about right. This Pope is trying to make the Church more democratic (or at least within the bishops and cardinals) moving the power away from the Curia. But I think what he is finding is that there are a lot of very conservative Bishops and Cardinals outside the Curia. Anyway, I will try to get my brain around the Synod when I get back and I will do my best to blog about it.

      Reply
  8. Avatar
    John
    2014/09/24

    Very interesting and Pope Francis continues to delight. Interesting that Clooney may be interested in politics. Whether a Lebanese wife would help or hurt in US politics is an interesting question. How do you manage re-entry to daily life after these trips?

    L/D

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/09/25

      It is interesting to think that George wants to go into politics. What would he be interested in? I think his family is from Kentucky, but does he have a residence there, or is he based in California. Does he want to follow in the foot-steps of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger and become governor of California? Or how about Senator from California or from Kentucky using that as a launching pad as Hillary used her Senate seat in New York. Speaking of Hillary how about running as Hillary’s Vice Presidential candidate. Now that would make a hot ticket!!
      As far as re-engaging with the family before and after trips. Like all mothers, I feel like I spend a huge amount of time planning and organizing– trying to line up people to take my kids to doctors and orthodontists while I am gone. This past month in Rome, I’ve been frenetically trying to set up schedules and activities for the girls — dance, gymnastic, piano lessons etc. On top of that buying books and school supplies, organizing schedules etc. Sometimes things fall through the cracks, but that’s life I guess.
      Caterina has been really irritated at me the past few days because I am spending 5 days away covering this wedding she keeps on telling me, “but you’re not even invited Mom, why do you need to go???”

      Reply

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