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VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has released the program for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Sarajevo on Saturday, June 6th. Yet questions still remain as to whether the one-day visit will include any papal pronouncements on a five-year Vatican investigation into Marian apparitions alleged to have taken place in Medjugorje, a mountain town little more than a 15-minute helicopter ride away.
Pope Francis’ visit to Sarajevo will focus on peace and reconciliation, Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ, Director of the Holy See Press Office, told reporters at a noon-day press briefing on Thursday. The visit comes 18 years after Pope John Paul II first visited the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina as it emerged from a bloody three-year war (1992-1995), which has been called the most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of World War II.
"Peace be with you" is the motto for Pope Francis’ apostolic visit. Its logo, which depicts a dove with an olive branch in its beak, is meant to show the centrality of reconciliation in a very complex country, which is still struggling with serious economic problems, religious discrimination and ethnic tensions after the war.
With a population of 3.8 million people, the country is divided into the majority Bosnian Muslim community, or Bosniaks, who number 40 percent; a sizable Serbian, mainly Orthodox, population comprising 31 percent, and a smaller minority of largely Catholic Croats, who make up about 15 percent of the nation’s inhabitants.
The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords (signed in Dayton, Ohio), which brought the three-year war to an end, established a Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a separate Bosnian Serb Republic, under a central government with rotating presidency. Overseeing the fragile peace is an international administration that was backed first by NATO forces and later by a European Union-led peacekeeping force.
At the press briefing on Thursday, Fr. Lombardi told reporters that interreligious dialogue will be a central aspect of the visit. Two key cardinals will be accompanying the Pope: French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; and the Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, who serves as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Cardinal Koch’s presence is particularly important for the dialogue with the Orthodox and the Jewish communities present in Sarajevo, Lombardi said.
Outlining the details of the intense one-day visit, Fr. Lombardi said the Pope will depart Rome by plane at 7:30 am on Saturday, June 6th, and is scheduled to arrive at the airport in Sarajevo at 9 am. There he will be welcomed by the Croat member of the three-man presidency, who will accompany him to the presidential palace for a private meeting.
After the meeting, Pope Francis will address the civil authorities and diplomatic corps, before traveling to the Olympic stadium to celebrate a Mass for Justice and Peace. The stadium is the same venue where Pope St. John Paul II famously celebrated Holy Mass in a snowstorm on his visit to the war-ravaged capital of Sarajevo in April, 1997. The stadium was also the site of the 1984 Olympic Games.
After celebrating Holy Mass, the Pope will travel by car to the nunciature, where he will have a private lunch with the six bishops of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whom he met on March 16th, during their ad limina visit.
At 4 pm, the Pope will travel by popemobile to the local cathedral, where he is scheduled to meet with local priests, religious and seminarians. A time of Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament is anticipated, followed by three testimonies given by a priest, a religious sister, and a friar. Fr. Lombardi told reporters he expects the three testimonies to be a particularly moving moment of the visit. “I think the testimonies will be very powerful, intense, and dramatic for the stories they tell.”
At 5:30 pm, Pope Francis will travel to the nearby Franciscan student center for an ecumenical and interreligious meeting with leaders of the local Catholic Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim communities.
Francis’ final stop in Sarajevo will be at a youth center dedicated to Pope St. John Paul II, where he will hear firsthand — through the testimonies of an Orthodox young lady and a Catholic young man — about the many challenges facing young people in a country which has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe today. It is also expected that three gifts will be given to the center, including a statue of Pope St. John Paul II.
The Pope is scheduled to travel to Sarajevo airport at 7:30 pm for a farewell ceremony, before departing at 8 pm. But as Fr. Lombardi briefed reporters on the Holy Father’s intense schedule, and noted the times when the Pope is expected to be at each location, he jokingly commented: “It’ll be a miracle if it all happens!”
Asked by a reporter if the Pope is expected to speak about Medjugorje, Fr. Lombardi replied: “I don’t expect any references to Medjugorje. The Pope is free to talk about what he wants, when he thinks best. It’s not for me to tell him what to do. But if the question is, ‘Do you expect it, may we expect him to talk about it?’ I don’t expect it.”
Currently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is examining the findings submitted to it by the international Vatican commission set up to investigate the alleged Marian apparitions. After being examined by the CDF, a proposal will be made to the Holy Father, who will then have the final say.
Lombardi also said the Pope is likely to take questions from journalists on the return flight to Rome. Yet he added: “It’s a short flight. Therefore, if there is a conversation with the Pope, it will be brief.”
The Pope is due to arrive back in Rome at 9:20 pm on Saturday evening.
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.