Skopje gears up for papal visit to Mother Teresa's hometown

Skopje (Republic of North Macedonia) (AFP) –


When he first heard Pope Francis would visit North Macedonia, the birthplace of the world's most famous Catholic nun Mother Teresa, Marinko Pinjuh thought it was "fake news".

Like many of his fellow Catholics, the waiter said he is equally puzzled and delighted to welcome the pontiff to their tiny country on Tuesday.

Catholics account for less than one percent of the Balkan state's population of 2.1 million, most of whom are Orthodox Christians while a quarter are Muslim.

But the capital Skopje does have one claim to Catholic fame: Mother Teresa -- who earned the sobriquet "Saint of the Gutters" for her lifelong work with the poorest of the poor in the Indian city of Calcutta -- was born there in 1910.

"He is coming to the hometown of Holy Mother Teresa, who became the moral conscience of the world," Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said ahead of the pope's "historic" visit.

Mother Teresa, who was canonised in 2016, lived in Skopje when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire.

Born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, she belonged to a rich family from the ethnic Albanian minority in Skopje.

North Macedonia's Catholics hail from both the country's Albanian and Croat minorities, as well as descendants of Macedonian Slavs who did not embrace Orthodox Christianity after the Great Schism in 11th century.

- Mother Teresa everywhere -

Although Mother Teresa rarely returned to her birthplace after leaving in the 1920s, her legacy is everywhere in the small Balkan capital.

A motorway bears her name while a plaque marks the place where she was born, though the house itself was destroyed in a devastating 1963 earthquake that nearly wiped the city off the map.

Next to it are trees she planted during her last visit in 1980, according to her grand-nephew Gombar Alojz, 71, who sells pendants with the nun's effigy in his nearby shop.

A few metres away tourists pose for pictures with a photo of Mother Teresa, while down another road stands a memorial devoted to her life and works, which the Pope will visit on Tuesday.

Believers should thank the revered nun for the pope's visit, Macedonian bishop Kiro Stojanov told AFP.

During an Easter mass he called on his congregation to welcome Francis with "humbleness" and to show themselves as "worthy of his love".

Outside Skopje's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart stands a statue of Mother Teresa with her hands clasped in prayer, while nuns of her order were recognisable at the Easter mass by their white saris with blue borders.

"Do not be afraid, little flock," said the bishop, quoting the Gospel of Luke.

In this "small country, the number of (Catholic) believers is equally small... but like Jesus, the pope is devoted to the ordinary man," he said.

- Why North Macedonia? -

Believers are now gearing up for the mass of a lifetime, with Francis set to guide them in prayer in Skopje's central square. Around 15,000 people are expected to join the ceremony.

Pinjuh, the 42-year old waiter, never thought his town would host the pontiff.

Why did the pope choose North Macedonia?

"No idea," he says. "Everybody has the same question."

Andreja Atanasovska, a 22-year old Catholic economy student, echoed him.

"It is a bit odd, isn't it?," she said. "But it is nice to meet the pope!"

Catholic saleswoman Katerina Milevska said the visit is related to the recent change of the country's name -- which added "North" to Macedonia -- that helped seal a deal to end a long-running dispute with Greece.

"Since the situation is tense in the rest of the Balkans... the pope wants maybe to release a message of peace to Christians of Europe in these difficult times," she said.

Gombar Alojz, who met Mother Teresa twice, is convinced that the pope is coming to tell Macedonian Catholics: "You are a small flock and I want you to increase."

"There are really very few of us," he added.