Discovering the Catholic Church in Macedonia

Film Director Shares Observations of a New Springtime

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ROME, DEC. 3, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The Church in Macedonia faces complex issues, both in society and in relations with the Orthodox. But according to a film director who has been studying the situation, a new flowering is under way, marked especially by a surge in vocations to the priesthood.

Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need interviews Ivan Cigic, film director, journalist and expert in the churches of the Balkans.

Q: Ivan, you’ve just come back from a filming trip in Macedonia. Can you tell us what was the purpose of this trip?

Cigic: We went there to film a documentary about the Catholic Church in Macedonia. We were there for almost 20 days going from one place to another trying to discover all the details of the Catholic Church there. 

Q: What was your emotional response when you came to this country?

Cigic: My first impression is that it is a very nice country, with a very warm and welcoming people, but very poor. After the dismantling of Yugoslavia, Macedonia was on her own, surrounded by her neighbours who were very unhappy about the rise of new states in this part of the world. Macedonia faces many economic difficulties: high unemployment -- they calculate about 25% but the grey economy is very high as well so one cannot rely on the official statistics -- inefficient agriculture combined with not being a member of the EU makes it difficult to export their products to the west, and finally the average salary is about 250 euros per month even for the highly educated people. The situation is difficult. 

Q: You mentioned that the rise of Macedonia as a new state was not welcomed by some of the neighbouring states. Not only externally with the bordering neighbours but also internally there have been clashes. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

Cigic: This part of the world was very troubled especially after the fall of communism in Albania. The countries surrounding Albania like Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro have a huge number of minority Albanians who did wish to be part of the new states. About eight years ago these Albanian minorities demanded some independence or autonomy regarding cultural and political life. The Macedonian authorities tried to negotiate a compromise for peace, which ended in some conflict that lasted for about a year and a half with some casualties but we are happy to say that it did not explode into a major conflict like the events in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

Q: What about the neighbouring countries, why was there a jealousy or lack of understanding to this new state? 

Cigic: This has historical roots. The Greeks especially never accepted the Macedonian people as independent. The Greeks have been always proud to declare that the first Greek state was Macedonia. So when Macedonia declared independence, Greece saw this as a direct attack on her sovereignty. Today, Greece and Macedonia are in discussion at a tribunal in The Hague and the UN for a new name for Macedonia. The Greeks are unwilling to recognize Macedonia as a state and wish to take back the name Macedonia -- though NATO has since accepted Macedonia as a member state so the Macedonian people feel more secure now than before.

Q: The Catholic Church in Macedonia comprises two traditions, the Latin rite and the Byzantine rite. Firstly, how did this come about? Secondly, how are these two traditions viewed within Macedonia because they are both a minority churches? 

Cigic: Basically, the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite has been considered a missionary church. 

Q: A foreign body within Macedonia?

Cigic: That’s correct and the Byzantine Rite Catholic Church was perceived as a branch of the Orthodox Church until the 19th century. They were based in what is today Greece. When the Greeks denied them their right to speak their own language and have their liturgy in their own language, and further to impose the Greek language upon them, they [Macedonian Catholics] decided to split and ask the Pope to accept them as a part of the Catholic Church, with the stipulation that they could keep their language and use it for their liturgy. The Vatican accepted. They then declared themselves as part of the Catholic Church. This provoked and resulted in a huge clash. The Greek policy resulted in an almost total extermination. Many were killed and others exiled to what is today the southeast part of Macedonia and for decades, they had no church leaders. Today there are a little bit more than 12,000 Byzantine Rite Catholics surrounded by an Orthodox majority.

Q: What are the relations like today? We have the Greek Orthodox, we have the Macedonian Orthodox, and we have the Catholic Churches … and now Islam…? 

Cigic: As in the Balkans, it is a complicated situation. Still today many Greek Orthodox and Macedonian Orthodox consider the Byzantine Rite Catholic Church almost as traitors. And communication between them is very limited, but now that there is the growing issue of Islam in Macedonia, the relationship has lately thawed and is peaceful.

Q: There is one bishop responsible for both the Latin and the Byzantine Rite. He, as stated in his motto “Ut Unum Sint”, would like to work toward reconciliation between these communities. How is this going ahead? 

Cigic: I think Bishop Kiro Stojanov is one of the most important persons in the history of the Catholic Church in Macedonia especially considering that he is the first Macedonian bishop in 104 years. He is well accepted by all religions in Macedonia. He is perceived, not just among believers but by all Macedonians -- atheist or of other religions -- as someone who with great success is trying very hard to build bridges among all the religions. 

Q: You mentioned that for many generations there has been no hierarchy but there have also been no priests and many of the parishes have been dormant or abandoned. How did the people keep the faith during those times? 

Cigic: It is very interesting that although the churches remained empty for decades [Catholics] kept a “collective memory”. They did not want to abandon their faith. They did not even think or say that their faith could be replaced by something else. After the appointment of Bishop Kiro Stojanov, something happened; a completely new generation of young priests has been born. These new priests are well respected by the community and somehow they [Catholics] have regained their hope that the Church will be great again like it was in the middle of the 19th century before the tragedy happened. So people are coming back, starting to go back to confession and are active in the liturgy. Another interesting observation I made was the Orthodox believers, seeing these active Catholic priests, are coming to the Catholic Churches to confess because they said that they often do not have these opportunities in their own churches. So slowly, slowly they are coming closer and closer to achieving this unity. We witnessed in a small village during Easter the coming together of Catholics and Orthodox in the church praying together. It did not matter whether it was a Catholic or Orthodox church. It was nice to witness this. 

Q: So ecumenical relations are happening at the grass roots level?

Cigic: Yes, I think so and what is interesting is that this is initiated by the people, the believers and not the hierarchy. So it means that it will last and it will be alive. 

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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