Interprovincial mission in Albania
Fr. Andrzej Michoń CSsR: We are in Albania. Albania is a small country in Europe on the Balkan Peninsula, which is just 27,000 km2. This country is inhabited by only 3 million people. The country mostly consists of mountains and hills, but it also has a beautiful coastline. This country borders Greece in the south, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. Albania also has access to the Ionian and Adriatic Sea, and thus also indirectly borders Italy. Although it is a beautiful, charming and unspoiled country (increasing numbers of tourists come here), many people live here in extreme poverty, especially here in the mountainous areas. There are no roads, no infrastructure, no hospitals. Schools are poorly equipped, and many people (especially young people) emigrate to Italy, England and Germany.
The history of Christianity in Albania is very long. It is very likely that St. Paul would have been here, so this history dates back to the first century of Christianity. In one of his letters, St. Paul writes that he is going to Illyria. The Illyrians are the ancestors of the present Albanians. Christianity was highly developed here, but for almost 500 years the majority of believers here have been Muslims, who constitute almost 70% of the population. 20% are Orthodox, and only 10% are Catholics. The most famous Catholics are probably Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who admittedly was born in Skopje in Macedonia, but descend from an Albanian family (her mother and sister are buried here in Albania) and Skënderbeu, who lived in the Middle Ages, named by the Pope as Athleta Christi (Champion of Christ). In his honour was also named the snow-capped mountain behind us. He was the last Christian leader of Albania.
Fr. Laureano del Otero Sevillano CSsR: As Redemptorist missionaries we are invited to be missionaries Ad Gentes. At this point in our mission, in our interprovincial community in Albania we began a new itinerant missionary experience in the south of the country. This is an area where there are not many Catholics. This area is mainly inhabited by Muslims and Orthodox Christians. Moreover, the lack of priests is quite noticeable here. There was no priest here until we came. We feel called to support and help those churches that are the smallest and most in need, where there is no access to the Eucharist and the sacrament of confession.
At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis encouraged the Church to go to the periphery. European Redemptorists decided to go to a country on the periphery of Europe, to Albania, where an international community was established in 2014. In this community, three Redemptorists from three different countries began a new experience. This is the country where most of the followers profess Islam. There are also Orthodox Christians and a small Catholic community. It is a very poor country, so the Redemptorists responded to Christ’s call to bring the Gospel to places where it is still unknown. Since 2014 Redemptorists have been serving in the center of the country, in the city of Kamëz, which is located on the outskirts of the capital city – Tirana. Now we also serve in the southern part of the country.
Rita Doda FSFM: I am Sister Rita, I am Albanian, and a Franciscan from the Congregation of St. Filipy Mareri. The Albania is a nation that has suffered a lot, especially in the last five centuries when the Ottoman Empire conquered and used our country. Many people during that time converted from Christianity to Islam in order to save their lives. After the liberation, another wave of oppression hit Albania as the communist dictatorship oppressed believers. It was a very difficult situation. Many people suffered, but they had the desire of God. I was brought up in an oppressed and persecuted family, which however, never lost faith and hope in God, and that the time of resurrection and renewal will come. Although it was a hard time without freedom of speech, faith and religious practice, the family gave me faith in God and in Christian values and virtues. I discovered my calling in my family thanks to my grandmother, who was a holy woman and who prayed all her life that her granddaughter or grandson would become a priest or nun. Thanks to my grandmother’s prayers and Mother Teresa’s example, I am walking the path of faith and I say to you: do not be afraid, never! Open your hearts to God, because He gives us a gift and takes nothing! Let us put our hope in the Lord!
Geg Paluca: After many years of persecution, churches were able to open only 30 years ago. We were the ones who took part in the opening and restoration of churches. I went from Shkodra with my daughter to ask the priest to come to my village to celebrate Holy Mass during Lent. We found out that Mother Teresa came to the cathedral then. There were a lot of people. I told my daughter: “stand near the entrance, the door, so that you can meet Mother Teresa. Maybe you will manage, because you are a woman”. We met Mother Teresa for the first time in our lives. It was then that my daughter expressed her desire that she wanted to join Mother Teresa. She did not come home with me anymore, but went with Mother Teresa, and has been a sister of mercy for 30 years. Parents prayed and we received faith from our parents.
Fr. Andrzej Michoń CSsR: At the beginning of our service in Albania we were learning about the language, culture, traditions and customs. We did not have much time for this, because the bishop immediately entrusted to us two parishes in which we served. I was the parish priest in the parish of St. John Paul II, where there was a large charitable and social center. Our parish was on the outskirts of Tirana, where there were so many poor and abandoned people who left their mountain villages and came to the outskirts of the city. In the capital they were looking for an easier life, which sometimes turned out to be very difficult. We conducted many different activities in our center. There was a large day-room for children, attended by almost a hundred children every day. We conducted various types of courses for children and adolescents to develop their talents: guitar, English, Italian and piano courses. The sisters that I worked with looked after women. Many of them had no profession and could not get a job. The sisters organized sewing and cooking courses so that later these women could support their family, start working, and thus live better and more dignified lives. We put a lot of emphasis on working with the poor, but also with the disabled. We opened a small center of Bl. Peter Donders and we took care of 30 disabled children and young people, organizing physiotherapy, speech therapy, classes with a psychologist, as well as courses and workshops on adaptation to life. We are currently working in the parish of St. Alphonsus. We try to implement the charism and goal of our Congregation as much as possible, so that our work is oriented towards the poor, the abandoned, and those who need the most to listen to the Good News of plentiful redemption.
In the north of Albania, in the city of Shkodër, there is a sanctuary where for many years the image of Our Lady of Good Counsel was loved and venerated – this image, which St. Alphonsus loved very much as well, which he always had on his desk, to which he had great devotion. As Redemptorists, we are known for spreading the cult of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but our founder, St. Alphonsus venerated the image of Our Lady of Good Counsel in a special way. That painting was right here in Albania, in the north of the city of Shkodër. For many centuries, Our Lady chose this place to receive veneration from her devotees. Only when Albania was attacked by the Turks (the Ottoman Empire), the angels (according to the tradition), or the family of Angels, to save this painting, took it from Albania and brought it to Italy, where this image is loved and venerated to this day.
Emanuel Topjana: I have been an active member of the Catholic Church for three years. Before, I was an ordinary Catholic, I was in church only on Sundays. When I got involved in the youth group then I met Jesus who has become an integral part of my life. In the future, I would like to devote myself more to work with young people, so that children and young people have as much fun and benefit as possible. I want to be a good animator.
Ajkiesa Zefi: I am 17 years old, and I have been a member of the youth group for many years. The group is full of joy, challenges and games, I am very pleased. Young people should have faith, especially Catholic young people from the vicinity, in order to get to know God, to derive joy from it and get to know the Christian community.
Albert Rrucaj: I have attended various meetings. I am a member of the CHIRO (Christ) youth group. These meetings helped us a lot, we learned the culture, met many new friends, we often spent time happily with each other, we met people from other ecclesial communities.
Fr. Laureano del Otero Sevillano CSsR: There is a winter in the heart of all humans, also in the heart of Europe. Saint Clement invited us to preach the Gospel anew, and this is precisely the challenge: finding new forms, new places and new languages to reach to the heart of the people, so that spring sprouts again. Spring is Resurrection and Easter. I am now in Bilisht, in the eastern part of Albania, and here I reflect together with the missionaries in this zone: How can we go out again and find the heart of these people? How can we announce to them anew Jesus Christ, and be witnesses of the Redeemer in this wounded world?
Authors: Fr. Andrzej Michoń CSsR, o. Laureano del Otero Sevillano CSsR
Translation: Dominik Król CSsR