ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Images from Albania

The author and photographer accompany John Cardinal O’Connor during his historic trip to Albania.

A tall, bright-eyed girl of 15 was one of the many neighborhood children who crowded around the white van as it pulled up to the Missionaries of Charity’s house in Tirana, the capital of Albania. A crucifix and medal encircled her neck. The medal read, in Italian, “In commemoration of my first holy communion.”

The girl had been prepared for baptism and first communion by the sisters who staff Tirana’s mission house. The object of her curiosity was not the van, but its passenger – Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian who was born in the Balkans some eight decades ago.

Just five years ago such an event would have been unimaginable in Albania. For decades many of Albania’s three million people – Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic – prayed secretly for the day when they would be free to worship.

The country I encountered was hopeful, but afraid; joyful, but impoverished. I was sent by Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, to cover the ordination of four new bishops by Pope John Paul II. The pope’s visit was significant for at least two reasons: it was the first papal visit to Albania in history. And the ordination of the new bishops restored the Catholic hierarchy to a country that had suffered under one of the most repressive regimes ever.

One of the four new bishops is an ethnic Albanian who had served New York City’s Albanian community for 20 years, Archbishop Rrok Mirdita of Durres-Tirana. Joining him was John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York and President of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

In 1967, Enver Hoxha, Albania’s Stalinist dictator, branded religion superstitious, officially outlawed all religious practice and declared Albania the world’s first officially atheistic state.

All signs of “this superstition” were obliterated. Religious buildings that were not razed were transformed into “useful” structures. “Useful” was a key word. Gymnasiums, theaters and youth centers were useful; worship centers were not.

Likewise priests might be made useful and productive citizens; they were usually put to work in the mines or quarries.

Albania is a rural country with a Mediterranean climate and stark, beautiful scenery. The wide boulevards of the dusty, polluted capital are lined with drab Soviet-inspired government buildings. Beyond these one finds cluttered neighborhoods of shoddily built apartment buildings with scarred pastel skins.

On a brief evening stroll through a section of Tirana, photographer Maria Bastone and I saw many such buildings, some scrawled with political graffiti from the first free elections in 1991, others topped with satellite dishes. A few steps further took us to a block where bright new private houses were going up, worthy of the best sections of suburbia. A block away an apartment building seemed almost frozen in the midst of construction; formerly homeless people already occupied some of the rooms, their kitchen tables concealed by the day’s laundry.

I remarked to Maria, “Change the people and you would have China.” So much of Albania reminded me of the huge Asian country where I taught English for two years. In spite of decades of propaganda about equality, a privileged few drive Mercedes while the masses rely on decrepit public transportation. Many goods are scarce unless you have the right connections.

In the throes of reform, Albania currently suffers from an unemployment rate of about 70 percent. Most of the population cannot afford much to eat. Though cows and lambs graze in the fields, meat has become prohibitively expensive since the government allowed previously subsidized food prices to climb to market levels in 1992.

Overall the land gives off a ghostly impression. From the air, a myriad of small concrete shelters built into the ground seem ominous. Once meant as protection from an air attack, they now provide shade for peasants and, if overturned, a drinking trough for livestock.

“They were built to make us think we were continually at war with the other countries,” the son of an Albanian diplomat remarked to me.

Surely these shelters were one of the things the pope and everyone following his motorcade noticed along the road from the Tirana airport to the northern city of Shköder on the morning of 25 April. And people were another – thousands of people came from their villages, fields and mountains to witness this unusual sight. They were dressed in their best, many in folk costumes of embroidered blouses and baggy trousers. They were not all Christians. Some were Muslims, others, atheists. But they all knew this was Albania’s special day and they were proud of it.

Often the Christians among them could be identified by the signs of piety that might have once cost them their lives: folded hands, a set of rosary beads, a cross made of sticks, a papal flag.

The crowds got denser as we approached Shköder. Like the tax collector who was too short to see Jesus, people made use of trees and some stood on the head and shoulders of a statue. Others stayed in their apartments and watched from the windows. The streets of Shköder were littered with red roses for the man in white.

A young man pointed to the cathedral of Shköder and told me, “I used to play basketball there. We knew it was a church.” When he was a youth, the building was converted into a sports center. Inside banners proclaiming the glories of Marxism and Leninism were hung in place of religious images.

But on this day, the structure was unmistakably a church, although a modest one. The interior was as beautiful as the locals could make it; the walls had a fresh coat of paint, the gold-trimmed ceiling glistened, bright light streamed through the simple colored windows and a large crucifix was suspended high above the altar.

The pope spoke eloquently of Albania rising from a long night of repression. “This is the day that the Lord has made,” he quoted from Psalm 118. “Indeed, the Lord has made this day for your land.”

The resurrection of the Albanian church was truly a joyful event. But now the church must tackle some serious issues. In his address to the newly ordained hierarchy – and to all believers – the pope said they must first forgive those Albanians who persecuted them. He urged these bishops to help the people find livelihoods to better themselves and their nation’s economy. And he reminded them to pray that the war in the former Yugoslavia will not spread to Albania.

Amid the hardships and dangers there is cause for hope. Albania has not experienced the interreligious strife that has riddled post-communist Europe. The Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic communities have instead begun to work together to rebuild their country.

Meanwhile, at the end of his ordination day, Archbishop Mirdita sat in the living room of his temporary residence in Tirana, surrounded by friends, well-wishers and the nuns who manage the residence. They watched the evening news on a black-and-white television; the news was primarily about the pope’s visit and the ordination of the bishops.

Archbishop Mirdita and his colleagues, Bishops Frano Illia of Shköder, Robert Ashta, O.F.M., of Pulati and Zef Simoni of Shköder, were settling in for the great task ahead of them. The new archbishop, at least, had a happy event to look forward to the next day, the first day of his first week as archbishop: the dedication of a new church in nearby Bilaj, a tangible and very “useful” sign of renewal in an ancient land.

John Burger and Maria R. Bastone accompanied Cardinal O’Connor to Albania in April.

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