“Let us show the world how strong we are!”
Twenty years after the end of the civil war here, Bosnia’s young people are looking forward to the Pope’s visit
It is has been 20 years now since the civil war which cost 243,000 human lives and forced over 2 million people from their homes. Two decades have not been enough to heal the deep wounds that the war has left behind. Yet, 20 years has been long enough for the people living there to have the feeling that they have been forgotten. When Pope Francis announced his visit, he said, “I ask you all for your prayers, that my visit may be an encouragement for the Catholics, a leaven for the good and a contribution towards greater fraternal harmony and peace. And also for interreligious dialogue and for friendship.”
“Encounter, Reconciliation – Shaping a Future in Peace together”
This encouragement is something that the Catholic citizens of the country most urgently need. The bishops of the country – above all Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo and Bishop Franjo Komarica of Banja Luka, who is also the chairman of the bishops’ conference of Bosnia and Herzegovina – have never ceased to raise their voices on their behalf. For the Catholics of the country, who belong overwhelmingly to the Croat minority, have no lobby to speak for them – neither in the government of this majority Muslim entity, nor in the international political community. So it is that Bishop Komarica is constantly protesting at the fact that the Catholic Croats scarcely see a cent of all the EU aid money that is designated for the returning war refugees. Similarly, in the world of work, people with Croatian names often find themselves discriminated against, with the result that even among those who stayed on in the country during the war there are many who can now see no other alternative than to try their luck abroad. According to information from the Catholic Church in the country, out of the 835,000 or so Catholics who once lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina prior to the war between 1992 and 1995, only around 440,000 are now still resident in the country.
And yet the Church is very much alive. The fact that many young people in particular are so involved is something that the Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina owes above all to the intensive youth work in the archdiocese of Sarajevo. It is here that a youth centre is being built that will be named after Pope Saint John Paul II. This centre – the construction of which ACN has supported with $675,000 – is open to all the ethnic groups in the country and will also be used for international gatherings. “Europe will come together here!” says Father Simo Marsic enthusiastically. He is the youth pastor for the archdiocese of Sarajevo and also the director of the centre.
“This centre will be an open window on other religions and denominations and on other ways of thinking and living. In this way we can learn and live the art of tolerant and peaceful coexistence,” he adds. In practical terms this will be achieved through pastoral meetings, training sessions and leisure activities in which individuals and groups from all over the country will be free to participate. The centre will also offer overnight accommodation, so that gatherings of several days can take place. Its motto is: “Encounter, Reconciliation – Shaping a Future in Peace together.”
Father Marsic is particularly pleased that Pope Francis has chosen this new centre as the place to meet with the young people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the most excited of all are the young people themselves. Mandalena, one of these young people, sees the papal visit as a message from the young people of Bosnia to the world and to the people in their own land. She says, “Let us show the world, let us show Bosnia and Herzegovina how strong we are! Let us follow the footsteps of peace, with a smile on our faces and with love in our hearts. Let us welcome this man who believes in us, let us draw strength from this historic event – strength for the future, for new challenges and for the battle against hopelessness, and so that we can have a bright future in this country. Let us draw the strength to proclaim Christ, to love the Church and to respect other people.”
Valentina, one of the youth group leaders, says of the forthcoming papal visit, “This event will mark the month of June, will mark this year, this decade and our own hearts, thoughts and feelings. It is an opportunity for us all to make our contribution to this community and to this Church.” It is, she adds, “a chance for us to listen to what this gentle and modest man, the Peter of our times, has to say to us”. It is also a chance for her personally, as a group leader, to awaken in herself “the spirit of peace, the spirit of prayer, the spirit of solidarity and mutual respect, the spirit of love and loving kindness,” and to let it grow and so help spread the spirit of Christianity.
Antonio, a young man, also has great hopes of the papal visit to Sarajevo. He believes that “this meeting will bring back hope,” and adds: “Hope, as one of the foundations of human society, is slowly losing ground in our country. More and more young people are leaving the country in search of happiness, and they are leaving their families and friends behind because they believe that everything will be better then.” But the Pope has said, “Do not fear, life is before you. Do not let your hope be stolen from you.” For Antonio this means that “our life is right here, with all its crosses and difficulties, with all the pain, but at the same time with a sense of inner happiness. Life is worth living, and we can achieve great things.” He also sees the Pope’s visit as an opportunity to show the world, and at the same time to show themselves, that there are “great people living in Bosnia, people who believe.”
As for Father Marsic himself, he also has high hopes of the papal visit. “I believe that the visit of the Pope will be a huge encouragement, and I am hoping that the young people will become still more strongly engaged in the Church and in society. The young people who are involved with the Saint John Paul II Centre are often the ones who are most active in their own home parishes. They are showing that it is possible to live peaceably together in this country, to find work, to found a family and to build a life for oneself.”
And there is another issue dear to his heart, namely the harmonious coexistence between the various ethnic groups and religions, so that bridges can be built for a peaceful future. The older generation often finds it difficult to step out from the shadow of the past. “But through these joint activities the young people also bear witness to the older generation that they have the courage to believe in a better present and a better future,” he concludes.
There is another great moment approaching this year, in fact, for Father Marsic is hopeful that the centre can be formally opened on 22 October 2015. It is on this day that the Church will be commemorating the patron of the centre, Pope Saint John Paul II. It is no coincidence that the centre bears his name, for as early as 1997, just two years after the war ended, Pope John Paul II travelled to Sarajevo to appeal for peace and reconciliation. Then in 2003, already marked by age and illness, he visited Banja Luka. He urged the young people there “to engage their energies, so that life can get back to full swing again at every level” and warned them “not to stand on one side, not to give way to discouragement, but to strengthen their initiatives, so that Bosnia and Herzegovina can once again become a land of reconciliation, encounter and peace.” And Father Simo Marsic comments: “We are taking these words to heart as a mission for the work of our youth centre.”