SKOPJE -- Pope Francis called North Macedonia a “crucible of cultures and ethnic and religious identities” and he encouraged the small Balkan nation to press forward with efforts for closer integration with the rest of Europe.
The pontiff, in his first-ever visit, described the country as a “bridge between East and West” in an address to political leaders on May 7.
North Macedonia's diversity forms a "mosaic in which every piece is essential for the uniqueness and beauty of the whole," he said.
"These particular features are also highly significant for increased integration with the nations of Europe," he said.
"It is my hope that this integration will develop in a way that is beneficial for the entire region of the Western Balkans, with unfailing respect for diversity and for fundamental rights."
Like neighboring Bulgaria -- Francis's first stop on his three-day Balkan tour -- North Macedonia, a country of 2.1 million people, is mainly Orthodox Christian.
But the country has an estimated 15,000 Roman Catholics and a large community of ethnic Albanian Muslims, who make up about one-quarter of the population.
North Macedonia, like many of its Western Balkan neighbors, aspires to join the European Union and NATO, goals that were advanced with its name dispute with Greece now resolved.
Athens opposed the country's use of the name “Macedonia,” claiming it indicated Skopje’s designs on Greece’s province of the same name. The two sides agreed on a compromise last year, with the country changing its name to North Macedonia.
Skopje hopes to get a clear signal for the start of European Union accession talks in June and hopes also to become the 30th NATO member by the end of the year.
Five other Western Balkan countries -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia -- are in various stages of the accession process to join the EU.
After meeting with the country's leadership, including outgoing North Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, France held Mass in Skopje’s main square.
Despite the pontiff’s praise, North Macedonia’s political landscape remains deeply divided between the ruling Social Democrats, who supported the name change, and the conservative VMRO-DPMNE opposition party, which vehemently opposed it.
"You come at a time when Macedonian society is deeply divided, and the Macedonian [nation] is heavily wounded by broken promises, unfulfilled expectations, and faltering trust in the international community," Ivanov, a close ally of the opposition party, told the pontiff.
Viktor Dimovski, state secretary of North Macedonia's Foreign Ministry, told the media on May 6 that the pope's historic visit comes at a crucial moment in North Macedonia's drive to join the EU and NATO.
"The pope's visit strengthens further internal cohesion and unity, and brings messages of reconciliation and solidarity," he said.
The pope's visit also included a prayer at the memorial of North Macedonia's most famous native daughter, Mother Teresa, who was born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents in 1910 in Skopje when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
Francis was surrounded by Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity nuns in praying before the memorial. Mother Teresa was canonized by Francis in 2016.
Francis praised Mother Teresa's dedication to the poor in his homily at Mass.
"She went to the Lord exactly as she went to the despised, the unloved, the lonely, and the forgotten," Francis told an estimated 15,000 people gathered in central Skopje.