ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Sons of Eagles

A reflection on the newly appointed bishops of Albania, and a thumbprint history of this turbulent country.

Here’s what St. Paul says about the qualifications of a bishop:

…a bishop must be irreproachable married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money…. He must also have a good reputation among outsiders…

Here are the men whom Pope John Paul II recently chose as bishops for Albania:
– Franco Illia, 74, spent 20 years in prison, accused of being a Vatican spy.
– Robert Ashta, 74, was forced to give up ministry as a priest and employed for 11 years as a construction worker.
– Zef Simoni, 64, spent 12 years in jail.
– Rrok Mirdita, 53, for 20 years provided pastoral care to Albanian immigrants in New York City.

In a dramatic and moving ceremony in the cathedral of the city of Shköder on 25 April, the pope himself ordained these four priests as bishops and, by so doing, restored a Catholic hierarchy to Albania.

Until the collapse of its hard-line communist government, Albania was the most totalitarian nation state in the world.

Immediately upon assuming power in 1944, the Marxists began to persecute all religious groups. Clergy and laity were arrested and often sentenced to death.

In 1967 all religions and religious activity were entirely forbidden by law; all churches, monasteries, mosques and other religious institutions were closed. The Albanian government proudly proclaimed that, having eliminated all religion, it was the first totally atheist state in the world.

Christianity probably arrived early in Illyria (ancient Albania), after its conquest by Rome in 168, and flourished there for centuries. However, since the Ottoman Turkish conquest of the Balkans in the 15th century, the majority of Albanians have been Muslim.

By the end of World War II, probably one third of the Albanian population was Christian, and about one third of the Christian population was Roman Catholic. Today Catholics in Albania may number as many as 360,000.

Historically, the Orthodox Christians were under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople, but once Albania became an independent nation in 1912 there was a movement to create an independent, national Orthodox Church. In 1929, an autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church was declared, and in 1937 it was recognized by Constantinople.

Curiously, the Albanian Catholic (Byzantine) Church is in Italy! When many Orthodox from southern Albania fled the Turks in the 15th century, they sought refuge in southern Italy. In 1596 they entered into full communion with Rome and became the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church.

Today they have two dioceses, one in Lungro in Calabria and the other in Piana degli Albanesi in Sicily, and the territorial abbey of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata near Rome. They number somewhat over 60,000.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA

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