On June 6, Pope Francis (in Bosnian, Papa Franjo, pronounced Papa Fran-yo) came to Sarajevo. The last time a Pope visited Sarajevo was a cold day in 1997, when Pope John Paul the II came after the official end of the conflict. Though he had tried to come during the conflict, the security threat was deemed too much by the Vatican and his trip was cancelled.
The former Yugoslavia consisted of three main national and religious groups. Though there are exceptions, typically Bosnians are Muslim (known as Bosniaks), Serbians and Bosnian Serbians are Orthodox, and Croatians are Catholic. Prior to the conflict these religious affiliations and ethnic identities were aligned so closely that they became synonymous, and now they represent the collective identities of the groups.
We woke up early Saturday, because though Papa Franjo was not giving the public mass until 11:00 am, we had to be in the stadium at 9:00 am and all public transportation here was cut off for the day. Though some people had taken actual pilgrimages to see the Pope here, the entire morning felt like a pilgrimage.
As we got closer to the Olympic Stadium, the crowds became thicker. Bosnians already stroll, but it was impossible to move at any pace faster than a slow meander.
This is the Croatian flag, and it was prevalent. Though nationalism doesn’t appear to be a significant problem ostensibly, anyone here will tell you that it bubbles dangerously under the surface.
It’s really not difficult to see George R.R. Martin’s inspiration for the Sparrows and the Faith Militant.
The above picture gave me chills when I saw it in person. You’ve already seen one of the mass graveyards from the conflict, and I’ve seen others that I haven’t posted, but this one was new to me. On my right were crowds of people massing to see the Pope and to honor their god, while on my left the fields were littered with mass graves from the hundreds of thousands that died in the war. The dichotomy was incredible to behold and unnerving.
They provided these ridiculous-looking but incredibly convenient paper hats because it was so, so hot. The difference between Pope John Paul II’s snowy visit and this hot one is important to note, if only because the visit was meant to illustrate the growth in the Balkans since the last visit, but also to emphasize what still can and should be accomplished.
“Mir Vama,” plastered across the entire city, translates to “Peace be With You.” In Russian (but not in Bosnian, interestingly enough), the word mir means both “peace” and “world,” a linguistic reality that has always been interesting to me because those two are not the same, but they are represented as such and only the context of the word can indicate the accurate translation.
I did not realize this, but every time the Pope visits a location, a new chair and podium are constructed by local architects. A Balkan Insight article says of these items that:
The central point of the stage belonged to the white altar, made by Bozo Marincic and designed by Ilija Skocibusic from Tomislavgrad, while the cross was made by Robert Tomic from Posusje.
Its design includes many symbols of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The altar itself was constructed from three parts representing three main ethnic groups in Bosnia – Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats and Serbs – and includes writings in Bosnia’s old language – Bosancica – as well as symbols drawn from Bosnian medieval tombstones.
The throne that Pope Francis will use during the mass was made by Salim and Edin Hajdarovac, carpenters father and son from the town of Zavidovici. It is also carefully decorated with many symbols of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A choir filled a huge segment of the stadium. When they sang, the collective energy was phenomenal.
Security was also insane. Though this was not the largest gathering I have ever attended (the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte with President Obama in 2012 was probably the largest and the most secure), the security was large. This was one of three or four helicopters circling the Stadium (one was always over the Pope); all transportation was shut down; and the city was littered with swollen police forces.
They provided an entire text of the Mass and the music, but it was all in Bosnian and Latin. Those of us that can read music found the location by listening to the choir and matching it to the music- it’s certainly an odd dynamic when you understand the language of music more than the language you’re immersed in. (I fully believe that anyone who can read and understand music is bilingual).
The conductor was wearing one of those cardboard hats while conducting and I was highly amused because it appeared ironically comical, the maestro reverently conducting Ave Maria while wearing a cardboard hat…
It’s interesting to see these people (any born before 1993, really), who I know experienced the conflict in some capacity, and imagine their stories, and what brought them here or what this really means for them. Narrative, I believe, plays a significant role in the world, and any conflict is more than the statistics that have come to define it. The stories, too, matter- just as much as the quantification of conflict (how many gravestones fill those mass graves?), the qualification of conflict matters (what is the story and the life under each of those gravestones?).
From the very moment the Pope landed, we were able to follow his journey on one of many television screens erected in the Stadium.
Also represented were other flags- the yellow and white ones are representative of the Vatican colors.
The blue, white, and red one you see above is representative of the Czech Republic. Immediately before I traveled to Bosnia, the World Affairs Council of Charlotte hosted Petr Gandalovic, the ambassador to the United States from the Czech Republic, and the cosul of the Czech Republic to Charlotte is Petr Vasicko (both are extraordinarily nice). Madeleine Albright, too, is from this country, and Prague is its capital.
One section was reserved for the nuns, who were having the time of their lives in what I can only describe as their version of Sister Act. Nuns are perhaps the happiest, most genuinely nice people I have ever encountered in the world (the most beautiful woman I have ever seen was a nun in Colombia, a friend of my host family, and who was beautiful not because she had extraordinary features but because the warmth of her heart shone through her eyes and crinkled in to the corners of her face).
Finally, Papa Franjo rode in on his Pope-Mobile. One thing I love about Pope Francis (among many things) is that he asked for the removal of the glass from his Pope-Mobile because it obstructed his connection with the people he represents.
Frank (fondly known now as our own Papa Franjo) lifted me on his shoulders to get these shots.
Also interesting to me is the way the hands of the crowd lift toward Papa Franjo, reminiscent of the cries of “Misa, Misa!” to Khaleesi in Game of Thrones, among other literary allusions. They truly believe in his representation of God here on Earth and to me, that’s such a fascinating dynamic.
I’m not even going to apologize for the inordinate amount of pictures of him. Though I am not religious and am certainly not Catholic, I have much respect for Pope Francis. In addition to the things he’s done (just Google Buzzfeed, Pope Francis) he was also a key in the change in relations with Cuba and the USA. Though he, too, has made mistakes and done a few things I don’t agree with, I feel that he has done admirable things and is a true representation of what Christianity is supposed to be- a real-life Monsieur Bienvenu (Les Miserables, Victor Hugo).
The collective energy in the stadium, all tens of thousands of people praying, singing, saying mass (forgive me for not knowing the Catholic rhetoric), was incredible. I’m never so moved as when I am a part of a larger group in an evident sense of belonging- and I think, too, that that recognition of gratification of belonging (something every human is psychologically wired to need) is integral to understanding the dynamics of any conflict.
The Pope spoke about peace in Latin (translated to Bosnian) at all of his engagements that day. Most major news networks carried the story, so I’ve only linked a few articles but I urge you to read the transcripts and the reactions, reactions so complicated with implication that I won’t elongate this post by trying to fully explain them.
They had communion in a process surprisingly organized for a passionate stadium of tens of thousands of people.
We left during Communion because I can’t begin to imagine getting out of that stadium, but the experience was one of a kind. Walking out we passed another graveyard, and while the picture isn’t phenomenal, the moment of standing among the dead, listening to the rising chorus of tens of thousands singing from the Olympic Stadium was one that was phenomenal.
Though I identify as capital-A Ambivalent in regards to religion, I grew up Methodist and I find religion and its role in the world and on an individual level fascinating and arresting. I believe in the collective power of love and harmony, and I believe that there can be spiritual moments- looking over the graveyard, for example, or sitting in a forest, or standing under a waterfall, or during any kind of music (especially when I am playing certain pieces of music)… and I understand, I think, the enticement and the high that people get from mass gatherings of belief, of love, of belonging, and specifically when those gatherings offer reassurance that the individual matters, that the individual will not be erased from this world but will be remembered in Heaven or whatever respective afterlife or aftersignificance applies in the situation.
I understand how it’s intoxicating, and experiencing that was incredible.
Arnela and I accidentally ran into the Pope’s motorcade as he left the city later that day, and just like the President, it was multiple cars long and I can’t tell you which he was actually in.
Roll out, Papa Franjo!