POPE FRANCIS WILL VISIT THE CHURCH OF THE MARTYRS
Włodzimierz Rędzioch talks with the archbishop metropolitan of Tirana, Rrok Mirdita, before the papal journey to Albania which is going to take place on 21 September 2014.
WŁODZIMIERZ RĘDZIOCH: – The history of the Church in Albania is hardly known. What should we know about it?
ARCHBISHOP RROK MIRDITA: – First of all, we should know that the history of our Church has got its apostolic roots and that Christ’s gospel was already proclaimed in the first century. We have a long and glorious tradition of martyrdom, but persecutions of the Church caused a situation in which the community of the Church got reduced and today is less than 15 per cent of population of Albania. During long reigns of the Ottomans - nearly 500 years – the Catholics could not openly practice their faith and were excluded from the public life. But our small Catholic community enriched the life of the whole nation thanks to the holiness of their members. Holiness gives fruits which can be appreciated also outside the Church and can enliven the whole society. Our Church became small but the contribution of its sons into the life of the country was increasing. I will remind one fact: for centuries of the reign of the Ottomans only the Catholic Church used Alban language, thanks to which we maintained our language, although languages of war occupants were imposed onto us. It did not result from nationalist premises, but from a willingness to proclaim the Good News about God’s love expressed in Christ, in the spirit of our nation. A short time before and after announcing independence, in 1912, the Church played a key role in arousing good patriotism through education. Therefore, the irony of the fate is that the communist regime, beginning from 1945, accused the Catholics of betraying the national interests and started a long and dramatic period of persecutions which reached their top after an absurd proclaiming Albania an atheistic country (1967). Communist expressions are difficult to describe but the Church depends on Christ’s promise and ‘lives’ in the hearts of believers, from which none power of this world can remove it. Therefore, after the collapse of communism, Christian life flourished anew.
– On 5 October 1980 in Otranto, an Italian harbor city, which geographically is situated opposite Albania. Pope John Paul II said: ‘On today’s occasion I cannot fail to look at the sea, a nearby heroic church in Albania, experiencing hard and long-term persecution, but being rich in testimonies of its martyrs, bishops, priests, monks and religious laymen. Beyond it, my thought was running also to other Christian brothers and to all believers in God, who are experiencing a similar fate in this nation’. Could Archbishop say what scale of communist persecutions was like?
– First of all, I must say that John Paul II with his words said in Otranto, brought some refreshment to the desert of spiritual life of the Albanians. It was a clear sign from the Holy See that Albanian Catholics fully belong to the Universal Church, that one cannot use decrees to destroy the spiritual bond of faith and communion with the Holy Father. Everybody in Albania, priests and laymen, were wondering what the Pope thought about the situation in our country. The answer which came then from Otranto, was a great consolation for us.
Persecutions of the Christians were cruel. In 1945 the regime acknowledged the papal legate as ‘persona non grata’, broke all contacts with the Holy See, deported 80 missionaries and closed down a seminary. It was the first step followed by systematic persecutions of local priests (in Albania at that time there were about 200 priests and 130 nuns).
In 1946 communists killed 2 Jesuits, one Franciscan Father, 2 seminarians and 10 laymen in Szkodra. In the first year of activity of communist regime archbishop of Szkodra died in custody, 32 priests were imprisoned and 15 priests were killed. People of the Church were falsely accused in order to be sentenced to death in processes farces.
After 1948 the Episcopate did not exist: 2 bishops and 29 priests were sentenced to death, 2 bishops and 8 priests were killed in tortures, 4 priests were killed without any process, 20 priests were killed in concentration camps and 40 priests died because of exhaustion and wounds just after being released from the camps. 106 members of clergy proved their love to Christ with their blood and passed away from this world, asking God for forgiveness for their persecutions. In 1967 the regime called Albania an atheistic country and started a campaign of destroying churches and Muslim temples. In the years 1969 - 76 six priests were killed – only because they gave sacraments. Believers were without priests and the whole work of the Catholic Church, also for the sake of development of the country’s culture, was destroyed. When the regime collapsed, the Church in Albania did not feel sorry about its wounds, but was pleased with the gift of freedom and a glorious testimony of its faithful sons.
– John Paul II paid a pastoral visit to Albania as quickly as he could, and that pilgrimage was a symbol of the resurrection of the Church in the country which was supposed to become the first atheistic country of the world. What was the papal visit for the Albanians – and also personally for Archbishop?
– After a long period of hatred dominating in Albania, love was needed. And John Paul II was perceived by hearts of our people as a great apostle of love. He touched wounds of the body of the Church and the country. He consecrated 4 bishops: 3 priests and me who had suffered in communist prisons for many years. He gave a memorable speech to the nation. When Albania was under communist repression, I was honoured to serve to those Albanians, who, risking their life, left the country and settled in New York.
They were desperate people, because their relatives in the country were treated as traitors’ relatives. John Paul II told me to come from New York, to be the archbishop of the capital city of the country, which, as the only one in history, was to be atheistic under the constitution. It was a great gesture of trustfulness to me and I hope that nearly 22 years of my pastoral work in Albania prove that I did not disappoint the Pope’s trustfulness. It was a special day for me because I had been consecrated by the saint, in the company of 3 living martyrs.
– What are relations of the Catholic Church with the Orthodox Church in Albania and the Islamic community today?
– The Albanians have been suffering together for centuries and within this long period they learnt to appreciate one another and respect religious differences. We know very well that ecumenism and interreligious dialogue have an essential significance and thanks to God, our people live spontaneously together in peace. Relations among Churches and other religious communities are friendly; we are open to cooperation with them in particular spheres and when it is necessary. The ecumenical and interreligious dialogue does not only mean a formal institutional activity, but is also a natural way of life and work of the Albanians.
– Now I would like to ask about statistic data concerning the Catholic Church in Albania 22 years after regaining freedom…
– We have 5 dioceses and 1 apostolic administration. The Episcopate consists of 7 bishops. Many convents function in the whole country, dealing with formation of Albanian sisters and brothers. There is an inter-diocesan seminary and from 2000, nearly every year it ordains a few priests in our dioceses. We do not still have enough local priestly vocations in order to meet pastoral needs, so we hope for generosity of many missionaries from various countries who serve to our communities with love and devotion. The Church in Albania is developing not only due to the natural birth growth which is still high, but also because every year we are happy to welcome new adult Christians, ‘born in baptism’.
– Pope Francis chose Albania in order to make his first pilgrimage in Europe, besides Italy. What are expectations of the Albanian Church connected with the papal visit?
– Pope Francis said that he was going to visit Albania in order to strengthen us in faith. He wants to help us to appreciate the value of the Church suffering in the past and share a treasure of friendly relations among our various religious traditions with others. Our first feeling is joy about the meeting with St. Peter’s successor in our country. We want to meet him and hear his testimony of the Gospel which attracts many people’s hearts to God all over the world. In one word – pope Francis is coming to bring the Gospel and this is needed and awaited by our Church and the society.