ON MAY 7, following his trip to Bulgaria—where Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the cities of Sofia and Rakovski May 5 and 6—the Pontiff will travel to neighboring North Macedonia. North Macedonia became the official name of the former Republic of Macedonia last February.
During his 10-hour sojourn in the capital of Skopje, Pope Francis will first have a meeting with the president, prime minister and other representatives of the government. He will then visit a memorial site for Saint Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje, to meet with people living in poverty. At midday he will celebrate Mass on Makedonija Square. Pope Francis will then meet with 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 to North Macedonia reflects the situation of Catholics living in the country that was once part of Yugoslavia: only about two percent 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,” said the Magda Kaczmarek, who oversees projects in North Macedonia for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
As Bishop Kiro Stojanov of Kopje—the only diocese in the country—stressed, this makes the visit of the Pope all the more important for the small number of faithful. “We have 15 parishes and a total of 22 priests,” the bishop said, adding that “our faithful come from different ethnic groups; most of them are Macedonians, Croats or Albanians.”
“The religions coexist peacefully for the most part and women religious do wonderful work in children’s and youth ministry,” Kaczmarek reported, explaining that a concern is widespread poverty and the weak economic performance of the country; for many of its inhabitants, farming is the only source of income. She also noted the emigration of large numbers of young and educated citizens, the very people who could help the country grow economically. The situation is worsened by the country’s low birth rate of just 1.5 children per woman; the unemployment rate stands at 30 percent. “If politics cannot create better living conditions and ensure that the youth have prospects, then the country is heading into dark times,” Kaczmarek said.
She therefore believes that North Macedonia is looking forward to the papal visit not only as a source of religious impetus to stabilize the faith. The country is also hoping that Pope Francis will appeal to the political and economic policy-makers during his visit to help create a more stable future for North Macedonia.
In 2018, ACN International provided a total of $85,000 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 women religious.