A “plural” yet united Church

The international bishops' Conference includes 4 Countries - Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo - along with 9 bishops of 6 nationalities " "

  The multifaceted mosaic of languages, nationalities and traditions intertwined in the Balkans is reflected also in the life of the Catholic Church and in the respective ecclesial structures. The International Bishops’ Conference of the Saints Cyril and Methodius, that includes four Countries of ex-Yugoslavia and nine bishops with six different nationalities. How does this complex structure work and it is possible to set up national bishops’ conferences especially for Serbia, the largest of these Countries? Iva Mihailova, for SIR Europe, addressed this theme with the president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Mons. Zef Gashi, Archbishop of Bar (Antivari) in Montenegro. The prelate also spoke of the situation of Catholics in his country. Your Excellency, could you tell us about your bishops’ Conference? “The Conference dedicated to the Saints Cyril and Methodius is international in that it includes four States: Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. We are nine bishops of different nationalities and rites (two members of oriental rite): two Hungarians, two Albanians, two Croatians, a Slovenian, a Macedonian and a Ukrainian. I must say that this multicoloured group is marked by mutual esteem, we communicate in Croatian (during Communism we all completed our studies in Zagreb) and understand each other quite well. Problems arise when we want to carry out a joint initiative. Catholics in these four countries born after the division of Yugoslavia represent different cultures and languages, traditions, although national legislation change and thus problems of a State and not the problems of another State. In the meantime, as bishops we continue meeting twice a year and try to do our best. Then each one of us serves in his diocese according to his own specificities”. A few years ago it was suggested to divide the international conference in national conferences… “Some of the bishops have this desire, while others have a different view. In reality there isn’t much we can do together, owing to the above-mentioned diversities. For this reasons some of its members believe that the Conference should be reformed. But others are happy with the present situations. As things stand in Serbia it would be easy to set up a national Conference since there are five bishops there. Here in Montenegro there are only two of us and the question would be how to set up a Conference with two people only! And the bishop of Macedonia and the bishop of Kosovo would remain alone. We wrote about it to the Holy See and spoke with our superiors at the Secretary of State. We are waiting for their answer on this issue”. You are also archbishop of Bar in Montenegro. What is the Catholic reality in your Country? “Catholics of Montenegro are divided in two dioceses: the archdiocese of Bar (Antivari) that covers 80% of the Country’s territory, including the capital Podgorica, and the diocese of Cattaro, on the northern shore until the border with Croatia. In Bar 90% of the faithful are of Albanian origin while in Cattaro they descend from the Croatians. There is a total of 40 thousand Catholics, namely 4.5% on a population of 620 thousand inhabitants, 70% of whom are Orthodox and 15% are Muslims. There used to be more Catholics, but after the Second World War many of them emigrated to the United States or to other European Countries for political and economic reasons”. How are the relations with the civil authorities and with the Orthodox Church? “Our relations with the government and with the leaders of the different religious communities: Muslims and Orhodox, are good. But the Orthodox Church in Montenegro is divided in two, the one that is part of the diocese of Montenegro and of the coast, belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church of Montenegro established in the 1990s when it became independent from the Patriarchate of Belgrade. Relations between the two metropolitans of the respective Churches are not that good and for this reason also our relations with the Orthodox are not as good as we would like”. How is the life in Montenegro today? “Fortunately we did not experience wars after division from Yugoslavia. But since the main resource of Montenegro is tourism, because of the conflicts people stopped coming and people grew poorer. Gradually, the situation started to improve. We are hopeful also for having slowly started the process for accession to the European Union”. In a month, next June, Pope Francis will be in Sarajevo. With what spirit are you awaiting this visit? “We are very happy, and we would be even more happy if the Holy Father came to Montenegro. We conveyed this wish of ours many times and the government is ready to invite the Pope, but there remains the problem of the consensus on the part of the Orthodox Church. However, we continue to cherish this hope”.

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