A Candle in Front of the Savior

The voice of Archbishop Anastasios

Archbishop Anastasios has a white beard and moustache. His hair is silver. His glasses have tortoise-shell frames with gold stems and thick lenses, though what you notice most of all is the twinkle in his welcoming brown eyes. His words are often echoed by hand gestures. While he never seems to hurry, he leads a busy life, as I was to see at close range during many days of travel at his side or visiting him at his office at the archdiocesan headquarters in Tirana. He rarely glances at his watch, but when he does it is not so much to know the hour as to signal that it’s time for the next thing he has to do.

When Archbishop Anastasios flew to Tirana from Athens on July 16, 1991, he was arriving in what had until recently been the world’s most militant atheist state. The 440 clergy that had served the Orthodox Church 60 years earlier had been reduced to 22, all old and frail, some close to death.

While Archbishop Anastasios could recall occasionally citing Albania as providing one of the most extreme examples of religious persecution since the age of Diocletian, it had never crossed his mind that Albania might one day become his home and that he would become responsible for leading a Church that most of the world regarded as not only oppressed but extinct.

Born November 4, 1929, in Piraeus, Greece, it was by no means certain Anastasios Yannoulatos would become more than a nominal Christian. He grew up in a period when life seemed mainly shaped by secular ideologies, wars, politics and economics, with many of his peers regarding the Orthodox Church as little more than a decorative social vestige of the past.

When he was six, an army-backed dictatorship lead by General Ioannis Metaxas was established in Greece. Metaxas liked the titles “First Peasant,” “First Worker” and “National Father.” He led a fascist regime, though one independently minded and non-racist, resisting alliances with its counterparts in Germany and Italy. From bases in Albania, Italy invaded Greece in 1940. Anastasios was ten. While Italian forces were quickly pushed back into Albania, the following year the German army arrived in force. Greeks found themselves subject to a harsh tripartite German, Italian, and Bulgarian occupation, with civil war breaking out between factions of the resistance — the royalist right versus the Marxist left — even before occupation troops began to withdraw late in 1944. Anastasios was nearly 20 when civil conflict in Greece finally ended, the United States having weighed in on the side of democratic forces.

“I have many memories of the Second World War and the civil war in Greece that followed,” he told me. “This made me ask: Where is freedom and love? Many found their direction in the Communist movement, but I could not imagine that freedom and love could result from the Communist Party or any other party. Very early in my life there was a longing for something authentic. During the war we had no school — we were more free. I read a lot, so many books! Not all of them helped my faith — Marx, Freud, Feuerbach. But there was a turning point. I can remember as if it were yesterday kneeling on the roof of our home, saying, ‘Do you exist or not? Is it true there is a God of love? Show your love. Give me a sign.’

“When you say such a prayer, the answer comes. It does not come with angels singing but you realize God is there, in front of you and what He says is ‘I ask for you — not something from you.’ You understand in such a moment what is important is not to give but to be given.

“That prayer was when I was a teenager. You can see why I have such a respect for teenagers. It can be a time when you ask the most important questions and are willing to hear the answer that is without words. Love and respect is shown to young people not in words but in the way you approach them, how you see them. It is the same with very old people in difficult times, people who are suffering.”

In his teens Anastasios studied at a gymnasium in Athens. His main strength was in mathematics, but he had excellent grades in all his subjects. He graduated first in the school. “A certain path in life seemed obvious to everyone, but within myself there was a sense of being called toward the Church, not something everyone I knew sympathized with! At a critical moment, wrestling with the question what is essential, I turned toward freedom and love. It was a turn toward Christ, in whom I saw the only answer.”

Finally he applied for the Theological Faculty of Athens University. “It was, of course, the age of technology. My decision to become a theology student was a scandal. What a waste! This is what many of my friends and teachers thought at the time.”

While studying theology, he found himself drawn into Orthodox youth activities through which opportunities arose to meet young Orthodox Christians from other countries, an experience which made him realize that Christianity was far larger than Greece.

After being drafted into the Greek army for a term, where he served as a communications officer, he returned to academic life, now going further with developing communication skills — homiletics and journalism. At the same time youth work continued, which always included religious education. He began training other catechists, finally writing text books for a three-year program of religious education for youth. More than a quarter century and eight editions later, the books remained a standard in Greek Sunday schools.

I asked him about sources of inspiration in his childhood.

“As a young person I had been deeply moved by stories of Father Damian, a Catholic priest who served lepers in Hawaii, and also Albert Schweitzer. I asked myself whatever happened to our missionary tradition in the Orthodox Church? Where were the Orthodox missionaries? What are we doing to share our faith with others? What are we doing to reach all those people who have never heard the Gospel? I realized that indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. How had it happened that a Church called to baptize the nations was so indifferent to the nations? Saint Paul brought the Gospel to Greeks. Who were we bringing it to?”

It was a pivotal question that would shape the rest of his life.

In 1959 he founded a quarterly bi-lingual (Greek and English) magazine, Porefthendes (Go Ye), devoted to the study of the history, theology, methods and spirit of Orthodox mission. “With all my talk about mission, I was regarded at first as very romantic, but gradually people began to understand that a Church is not apostolic if it is not involved in mission activity. Apostolic means to be like the apostles, every one of whom was a missionary.” The journal lasted only a decade but its existence occasioned the resurrection of the mission tradition in the contemporary Orthodox Church.

In 1961, thanks to decisions made at the fifth assembly of Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement, a center also named Porefthendes was established in Athens with Anastasios as director. This in turn involved him in international ecumenical meetings on mission, events often organized by the World Council of Churches. Anastasios became a member of the WCC’s Working Committee on Mission Studies. He has since held a number of WCC leadership positions.

It was the desire to serve the Church as a missionary that finally brought him to ordination as a priest. “When I was 33, at Christmas time, I went to a remote monastic skete on the island of Patmos. This is a period of the year when there are few if any tourists. You experience absolute silence and isolation. During this time I again considered returning to missionary activity. The question formed in my mind: What about the dangers you will face? Then came the response: “Is God enough for you? If God is enough for you, go! If not, stay where you are.” Then a second question followed: “If God is not enough for you, then in what God do you believe?”

“In the evening of the day I was ordained a priest in May 1964, I flew to Uganda, which I had thought about so often and with such longing. I thought Africa would be my home for the remainder of my life, but malaria ended that dream. It was the malaria of the Great Lakes, which can attack the brain. The first symptom was loss of balance. Then I had a fever of 40 degrees. It was my first experience of being close to death. I remember the phrase that formed in my thoughts when I thought I would die: ‘My Lord, you know that I tried to love you.’ Then I slept — and the next day I felt well! But this was only a providential remission. There was a second attack when I went to Geneva to attend a mission conference. Fortunately doctors there were able to identify the illness and knew how to treat it. But I had a complete breakdown of health. When I was well enough to leave the hospital they said I must forget about returning to Africa.

This was like a second mortal wound for me. Friends said to me. ‘You don’t have to be a missionary — you can inspire others to be missionaries through your teaching.’ But it had always been clear to me that what you say you must also do — how could I teach what I wasn’t living?”

In the end Anastasios returned to his scholarly studies, but did not forget Africa. He received the prestigious “Alexander von Humboldt” scholarship and pursued post graduate studies at the Universities of Hamburg and Marburg, Germany from 1965-69. He specialized in the History of Religion, but also studied ethnology, missiology, and Africanology, with a main interest in studying African symbolism from the Orthodox perspective. His dissertation was entitled, The Spirits Mbandwa and the Frame of their Cult: A Research on the African Religion of Western Uganda.

In 1969, the WCC called Archimandrite Anastasios to accept a position created for him in the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism as the “Secretary for Research and Relation with the Orthodox Churches.”

By 1972 he was elected by the Faculty of Theology of Athens University as associate professor of the History of Religions. The same year, in recognition of the importance of his academic work, with his emphasis on mission, he was ordained Bishop of Androussa, with a special responsibility to be the general director of Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece. Four years later he became full professor.

Throughout the decade of the 1970s, he published four original studies on African religions, emphasizing the special respect we owe to the African past, and the necessity to properly understand it for any Orthodox witness among the Africans. He also made a special effort among his students to instill a sincere love and respect for the African people, and to understand the worldwide responsibility for an Orthodox witness. (Today, a number of these former students, including His Beatitude, Patriarch Petros, presently serve as Metropolitans under the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Africa.)

During this decade, he also became the first scholar in Greece to publish a general survey of Islam, a book in which he strongly advocated inter-religious dialogue, especially between Orthodoxy and Islam.

At the same period, he was involved in the ecumenical movement, serving as a member of the WCC’s theological working group on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies (1975-83). He later became the first Orthodox moderator of the Commission for Mission and Evangelism (1984-91), presiding over the San Antonio World Mission Conference in 1989.

In 1981, the Orthodox Church in East Africa was in a state of division and severe crisis. Patriarch Nicholas of Alexandria asked Bishop Anastasios for help restore the local African Church and become the acting archbishop of East Africa. In order to fulfill this task, he received permission from the University of Athens to restrict his academic work to one semester per year, and used the other semester, plus his vacation time, to live and work in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

After a fruitful decade in Africa, he could begin to contemplate eventually returning to the University of Athens and devoting himself to teaching and writing. Instead something altogether unimagined intervened in his life: neither Africa nor Athens but Albania.

In January 1991, one month after the government in Tirana had allowed the formation of non-Communist political parties, the Ecumenical Patriarchate took the initiative to re-establish the Church of Albania. Two months after his 61st birthday, Anastasios received a telephone call from the patriarchate in Constantinople asking if he would be willing to go to Albania as Exarch to see what if anything was left of the Orthodox Church. It was at the time intended not as a permanent assignment, only a reconnaissance effort to see if and how the local Church could be revived. It would require, however, a substantial interruption of his work in Africa.

After a time of prayer, he said yes, though it would take six months before the reluctant authorities in Tirana finally issued a visa, and that was only for one month. “The Communist times were over, but not completely. Attitudes formed in the course of many years of propaganda do not change quickly. However, once in the country, my visa was extended.”

Anastasios showed me several photos taken the day he arrived in Tirana. “It was a wonderful experience stepping off the airplane and being received by the people who had come to welcome me. It was a bright summer day, but the light seemed mainly to come from faces rather than the sun. Such joy!”

Delaying his arrival at an official reception arranged by Albania’s president, Anastasios’ first action was to visit Tirana’s temporary cathedral, though still in a devastated condition with a large hole in the roof. The old cathedral on the city’s main square had been demolished years before to make way for a hotel. The one church in Tirana that was beginning to serve as a place of public worship had been a gymnasium since 1967. Though the Easter season was past, on his arrival Anastasios gave everyone present the Paschal greeting, “Christ is risen!”, lit a candle and embraced local believers. “Everyone was weeping,” he remembers, “and I was not an exception.”

It was a far from easy life for Anastasios and those working with him. “When I first came to Tirana, I stayed in a hotel the first month. There was no other possibility. After that I was able to rent a small house with two floors, two rooms on each floor. I had a small office and bedroom above and a kitchen and meeting room below. There was a lack of water, lack of heat, lack of electricity. For me the cold was the most difficult. This was our Archdiocese at that time. I recall how surprised the government was that I had no bodyguards. It amazed them that I wasn’t interested in such ‘security’!”

He quickly discovered that in this corner of Europe a degree of poverty existed which he had not encountered before. “Of course there was great poverty in East Africa, but at least most people there had their own garden. Here that isn’t the case. Like so many Albanians, my diet that summer in Albania was chiefly watermelon, bread, tomatoes and oil.”

He had no idea when he stepped off the plane in Tirana that July day he had arrived at what would be his home for the rest of his life. “My mission as Exarch was only to discover what if anything of the local Church had survived the decades of extreme repression and to see if there were suitable candidates for consecration as bishops who had survived. Only later was I asked by authorities of the Patriarchate if I would be willing to accept election as Archbishop of Albania. After a period of reflection and prayer, I was open, depending on three conditions. The first was that it must be clear that this was the wish of the Orthodox in Albania. Second, that this was the desire of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Third, that the Albanian authorities would accept this decision. Otherwise the situation of the Church would only be made more difficult. My answer was much less than yes! I was like Jonah looking for a path of escape! But inside my prayer was, ‘Your will be done.’

“The Orthodox people were indeed pressing me to stay. They made it clear day after day. And how could I refuse them? How could I say I had a different plan for the rest of my life? Remaining in Albania would mean putting aside all the ideas I had about what I would be doing with the remainder of my life — a peaceful retirement in Greece, giving occasional lectures at the university and writing books. I had collected a vast amount of material on the history of religion in various countries and had a scholarly desire to elaborate and publish all that material. I knew that if I stayed I would have to give my undivided attention to Albania. All other plans and interests would have to be put completely aside.”

“On June 24, 1992, following the proposal of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate unanimously elected me as head of the Orthodox Church of Albania. After overcoming serious difficulties, I accepted the appointment by giving the “Great Message” on July 12. The enthronement occurred on August 2, in the presence of all the clergy and lay leaders of Albania. In fact I was not so much accepting a throne — that sounds rather comfortable! — but embracing the Cross.

“Remarkably, the Berisha government had acceded to my election, but between their acceptance and the event itself around a month later, there was a renewed government-backed attack on the Church and on me personally.

“It was a time of constant crisis. Every day there was a critical decision. My constant prayer in those days was, ‘Illumine me Lord to know your will, give me humility to accept your will, and give me strength to obey and take the consequences’.”

The situation was to grow more critical. He was often the target of severe criticism and false reports in the Albanian press– a “verbal crucifixion,” in the words of one of the archbishop’s co-workers. A law was almost passed that would have forced any non-Albanian bishop to leave the country. His life has been repeatedly threatened. It is one of many Albanian miracles that he is still alive and well.

“The fact that I was Greek, not Albanian, was a daily theme in hostile press articles, speeches in Parliament and television reports. The message was very simple: If you are a Greek, you must be a spy. How else could an Albanian whose mind was shaped in the Hoxha period think? A mind entirely formed by an atheistic culture? Each person was seen exclusively in social-economic terms. You cannot imagine that a man in his sixties could be coming here because of love! Therefore, we cannot complain about such people. Their way of thinking is not their fault. It is an algebraic logic in which numbers exist below zero. But how to respond to hatred? Here you learn that often the best dialogue is in silence — it is love without arguments. Only remember you cannot love without cost, neither Christ nor anyone.”

The decisive attempt to remove the Archbishop was made in the Autumn of 1994. The intended means was the proposed insertion of a special paragraph in the new draft of the state Constitution. “At a certain point, when our situation seemed absolutely hopeless, I was packed and ready to depart the following morning, only trying to prepare others to carry on in my place while I did whatever was possible living outside Albania. It seemed to me and many people nothing less than a miracle that the new constitution was rejected in the national referendum in November 1994. This was not the result anyone expected!”

Another serious problem for the local church, that created numerous disputes, troubles and pain for several years, was the re-establishment of the Holy Synod.

“This issue was finally settled in July 1998, following persistent negotiations by representatives from the Ecumenical Patriarchate (especially Metropolitans Evangelos of Perges and Meliton of Philadelphia), the Church of Albania, and the Albanian authorities. In the end, Metropolitan Ignatius from Greece took his see in Berat, and two Albanians were chosen, Archimandrite John Pelushi as Metropolitan of Korça, and Fr. Kosma Qirio as Bishop of Apollonia. This solved a crucial problem for the proper functioning of an autocephalous Church.

“For the first seven hard years, I had to struggle alone as bishop, surrounded only by a General Ecclesiastical Council composed of thirteen clergy and lay members. Demanding needs in all dioceses and parishes were pressing. From this point onwards, I would continue the uphill road in communion with precious brothers. A Holy Synod, in which we are being, thinking and acting in His name, is a real divine gift and a spiritual security.”

His difficulties were not simply of a political nature. One of the hardest challenges was to overcome divisions within the Church. “There used to be great division within the Church. Our people come from various ethnic backgrounds. Our first goal was to create unity among Orthodox Christians. After so much persecution, we could no longer allow division. I recall in Korça saying, ‘Do you think the forest is more beautiful if there is only one kind of tree?’ All the various trees must grow freely under the rays of the sun.’ The key to proper development is love and freedom.”

One element in the process of breaking down borders inside the Church had to do with how the Church refers to itself.

“We do not call ourselves the Albanian Orthodox Church, but the Orthodox Church of Albania. In fact, we look upon ourselves as the Orthodox Church in Albania. We are part of the world Church. The Orthodox Church is not a federation of churches; the one Orthodox Church fully exists in particular places. We are going toward the kingdom of God together. No one can be an island, not even Britain, not even huge China. You cannot be isolated. On the other hand we point out that we are autocephalous, a word that means self-standing. We govern ourselves — our autocephalous status was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1937. But we had to resume Church life after a long interruption, a process in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate played a vital role. The Orthodox in Albania are grateful to Patriarch Bartholomew for his continuous interest during these critical years.”

He struggled personally to give an example through the use of the Albanian language. “It has been important for me not only to learn Albanian but to take care that whenever I say something I say it not just in a way that can be understood but say it well. I must carefully pronounce each word and phrase. The first words I learned were, ‘Krishti u ngjall, Zoti eshte me ne, lavdi Zotit!’ — ‘Christ is risen, God is with us, Glory to God!’ It has been very important to use Albanian even in situations where the majority speak Greek, as is the case in many towns and villages in the south. I recall in Saranda, very close to the Greek border and in sight of the Greek island of Corfu, we had our first public prayer in the open air near the shore. It was suggested it could be done entirely in Greek — almost everyone would understand. But I said that even if only two persons need Albanian, we shall have Albanian.”

One of the most pressing tasks for Archbishop Anastasios was directing the effort to provide places for worship in a country in which churches had been methodically destroyed or turned to secular functions. His most visible achievements are all the churches erected or restored since his arrival. By the middle of 2001, 80 new churches have been build, 70 churches restored from ruin, more than 140 repaired, and five monasteries brought back to life.

In addition, more than twenty large buildings have been erected or renovated to house the theological academy in Durres, the office of the archdiocese in Tirana and diocesan centers and bishops’ residencies in Korça, Berat and Gjirokaster, the Holy Cross High School in Gjirokaster, a diagnostic center in Tirana, dispensaries, guest houses, schools, and the complex “Nazareth” housing the candle factory, printing house, icon atelier, restoration workshop and other church service facilities.

He recalled a recent visit to a place where local people come to pray even though not a single wall of the church that once stood there survives.

“Often you see with the Albanian people how a church still exists in a certain place even when you see only scattered fragments. It is amazing how people will treat a church as a church no matter how ruined it is — no matter what had been done to the building, no matter what else it was — it remains a church, it remains connected to the holy. Even in the times when it was dangerous, people went to places where churches once stood to pray and light candles.

“Many times in the first months the Liturgy was conducted out of doors as no indoor place of worship was available, but preferably in a place where a church formerly existed. Of course this was only possible when the weather cooperated.

“In the very beginning we had no alternative but to put up a number of prefabricated temporary churches in various locations, but in the years since then the churches are permanent structures built mainly of stone each with its own character. In some cases these are restored, often from a state of ruin, while others are built from the foundations up. Our goal has been not simply to put up adequate buildings but to make beautiful churches. Through the architecture of the church buildings we try to say something not only about the present but the future. It is work coordinated by the technical office, under the direction of Father Theologos, an Athonite monk who studied architecture, together with a staff of local, skilled collaborators. We have spent millions of dollars on church construction and restoration. The majority of these funds are donations from people in other countries, including some of my former students who have done well in their work and are able to be generous or who are active in trusts and foundations that can assist us. Sometimes I say I am an international beggar! We are a poor Church, but very rich in friends. And we are deeply grateful for all of them.”

The Church is, however, not rich in friends within the government.

“Rarely have the political authorities been quick to return confiscated church property in those cases where churches hadn’t been completely destroyed, or even land with church ruins on it. This is a problem that impedes us in many locations to this very day. Sometimes the only practical solution is to buy back what was stolen from us.”

Church building often involves more than just a structure for worship. “When we build or restore a church or monastery, often we also have to rebuild the road. I was once asked what gift I would like — I think they meant an icon. I said, ‘I would like a bulldozer.’ They were surprised! ‘But what can you do with a bulldozer?’ ‘We can make roads in the remote areas so that we make more humane the life of our people.”

“With all our construction projects, the Church has become a significant factor in the economic development of Albania. We are one of Albania’s most serious investors and job creators.”

There is not only the on-going task of providing church buildings where needed but helping those drawn to the church to learn to pray together after a long exile from church life in a rigidly secular society.

“Sometimes it was very difficult to conduct the Liturgy. Often people came more to watch than pray. It was like having the Liturgy in a place where cars are being repaired or where a football game was going on. Often it was impossible to have silence. Many times I was severe. I refused to go further with the Liturgy until the people were silent. I didn’t mean the children. Let them chatter like birds. But let the rest of the people pay attention to the service and not carry on as if they were in the market.”

At a Liturgy in a remote mountain village, in a cemetery church which had survived the Hoxha years by serving as a weapon depot, I saw how readily Archbishop Anastasios adapted himself to the enthusiasm of children, not only the noises they make but their eagerness to be close to him. One child approached him for a blessing and immediately all the children wanted the same thing. With so many children present, this meant a delay in the start of the service, but that was no problem.

Related to the task of restoring the physical church and the understanding of what it means to pray together is the reformation of understanding the co-responsibility of each person in the Church for the life of the Church.

“We have three basic principles that I speak of again and again. The first is local leadership, next local language, and finally local finance. It is only on the last that we have had to compromise. The profound poverty of Albania has required help from outside to rebuild the churches and to undertake projects to relieve suffering. But even in this area we never undertake a project without financial sacrifice from Albanians as well. In order to receive God’s blessing, we have to offer what we have. Only zero cannot be blessed. With only two fish and five loaves, Christ fed 5,000 — but there had to be gift of what little people had.

“One of the most memorable gifts I received for the diaconal work of the Church came from two elderly women whose brother was killed during the Second World War in southern Albania. For fifty-five years these women carefully saved money to be used in some good way in memory of their brother. Fifty-five years! When I met them they presented all the money they had saved — also some flowers. I used the money for our girls’ high school near Gjirokaster and in the same village put the flowers they gave me at the base of a memorial for those who died in the war.”

Another immediate task was to do all that was possible to relieve suffering in Europe’s poorest country. The Church began to set up clinics in major population centers. There are programs to assist the disabled, a women’s rural health program, an agriculture developmental program, work with prisoners and the homeless, free cafeterias, and emergency assistance to the destitute. Most of this work is carried out through the Diaconal Agapes (Service of Love), a Church department set up by Archbishop Anastasios in 1992 and first led by Father Martin Ritsi [who now heads the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in the US], later by Penny Deligiannis, and now by an Albanian, Nina Gramo Perdhiku. These projects were never intended simply to benefit Orthodox Christians alone but any person in need, no matter what his or her faith — or lack of faith.

“We keep working to improve the standards of health care,” said Archbishop Anastasios. “The Annunciation Clinic here in Tirana now meets the highest European standards. People come from all over the country to use it.”

Another model project is a dental clinic housed in a large white van that travels from town to town. While accompanying Archbishop Anastasios on a visit to the Monastery of Ardenica, we happened to encounter the mobile clinic parked in the field of a nearby village. The archbishop decided not only to stop and greet the many local children waiting in line outside the van but to test the dental chair himself and invite the dentist to inspect his teeth under the bright light. The children watched with delight. Archbishop Anastasios quickly became a beloved uncle.

While his official title is Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, Anastasios has occasionally been called the Archbishop of Tirana and All Atheists. It isn’t a title he objects to. “I am everyone’s archbishop. For us each person is a brother or sister. The Church is not just for itself. It is for all the people. As we say at the altar during each Liturgy, it is done ‘on behalf of all and for all. Also we pray ‘for those who hate us and for those who love us.’ Thus we cannot have enemies. How could we? If others want to see us as enemies, it is their choice, but we do not consider others as enemies. We refuse to punish those who punished us. Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. The message is clear. Our salvation depends upon respect for the other, respect for otherness. This is the deep meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan — we see not how someone is my neighbor but how someone becomes a neighbor. It is a process. We also see in the parable how we are rescued by the other. What is the theological understanding of the other? It is trying to see how the radiation of the Son of God occurs in this or that place, in this or that culture. This is much more than mere diplomacy. We must keep our authenticity as Christians while seeing how the rays of the Son of Righteousness pass through another person, another culture. Only then can we bring something special.”

I noticed while traveling with him how each day he gives an example of love of non-Orthodox neighbors. To give but one instance, when we visited the Ardenica monastery, one of the very few religious centers to survive the Hoxha period with little damage (it had become a tourist hotel).

There was a group on Albanian tourists visiting when we arrived one of whom approached the Archbishop. “I am not baptized,” he said. “I am a Moslem. But will you bless me?” The man received not only an ardent blessing but was reminded by the archbishop that he was a bearer of the image of God.

Educational work was another key area of concern, first of all to prepare both men and women for service in the Church. “We are struggling with the problem of the shortage of priests. The young generation was raised in an atheistic climate, and after that came the capitalist dream, which made many decide to go to other countries. The scent of money is very powerful. Gradually some people realize money does not bring happiness, that happiness can only come from something deeper.

“To develop local leaders, in 1992 we immediately started a seminary, renting a hotel in Durres. What a place it was! Much of the time it had no heat, no electricity, no running water. But we were able to overcome the difficulties for several years, until our own seminary building was ready in October 1996. It was suggested we send our seminarians to study in Greece and America, but decided their formation should be here. In order to have a new forest, you plant the trees where they will grow, not somewhere else. Since the seminary was opened, there have been 120 ordinations.

“It is not easy finding promising candidates. In the Communist time many efforts were made to ridicule the clergy as an uneducated lower class, if not evil people, and still there are people who defame the clergy, though it has become more and more difficult to imagine priests as uneducated. But finding suitable candidates and giving them a good theological education is hard, tiring work.

“In earlier times the priest was at the center of village and town life — teacher, healer, judge, reconciler, a person who could call things by their true names. We hope in the future something of this tradition can be restored. Not to offend politicians, but the priest is a permanent silent leader.

“We need serious young people, capable of leadership, who will realize that being a priest is not a second of third choice and that it is a vocation that can make an enormous difference, no less significant than a physician or engineer.

“As you will have noticed, there are not only men but also women at the seminary, about a third of the enrollment. It used to be the vocation of women was mainly in the home, but now they have a public life and the Church must use their gifts. Women exercise another form of church service. There are many women who have graduated from the seminary and who are playing an important role in the activities of the Church in Albania — diaconal works of mercy, teachers, administration, mission activity, and so forth. We would have achieved much less without them.”

In addition to the seminary, schools have been started to meet other needs. A post-secondary “Institute for Professional Training” was recently opened in Tirana. In Gjirokaster for several years there has been a high school for boys and one for girls in a nearby town. Twelve kindergartens have been opened in various towns and cities. There are summer camps and many youth programs.

“Our first priority is children. We have opened many kindergartens, nurseries and schools. Our only regret is that we cannot help more young people. We do what we can with the staff and space we can afford.”

Archbishop Anastasios points out that education is far more than books to read and facts to memorize. The goal must be to help shape people who are not only capable intellectually or skilled in certain specializations, but motivated by respect and love rather than greed and fear. As he says: “God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power. Those who fear God fear nothing else.”

But Albania is still a country in which fear and greed shape many people’s lives.

“To get results we need people — holy people — people who don’t change things but change themselves. The Church has the power to create people capable of love and sacrifice, people above vendettas, people capable of forgiveness. Reconciliation is not easy. It needs help from the Church. Forgiveness and reconciliation are an essential part of the Christian life, especially during Lent. It gives us the power to forgive the other. More forgiveness, more community!

“The young generation was educated with systematic Communist propaganda. It was a culture of fear. Look at all the many bunkers littering the country that were built in the Communist era. Each one is like a large skull. When you see many of them near each other, it is like a cemetery of exposed bones. In the Hoxha period, the creation of enemies was essential to maintaining the discipline of the people. It was a diabolic method, the formation of a culture of fear. Fear, once learned, is hard to unlearn. Many people still are paralyzed by fear.

“Now they are subject to another propaganda — the idea that status in society equals having money. The new system says that the more money you have, the more important you are. But without love and sacrifice, people become wild animals. Today, without religious communities, there is no hope. Otherwise they cannot understand sacrifice motivated by love, by belief in Christ. It is a pity so many are held captive by the belief that happiness comes from money. Young people must know there is something more behind life. Now when such people look at those who are living sacrificial lives, they assume the other person is getting some secret material benefit. Often they imagine our helpers from other countries are making more money assisting us here than they would in their home country! Otherwise why would they be here? But finally they begin to see that our collaborators give up a great deal in coming to Albania — that the motive is not at all financial. In some cases this discovery gives young Albanians the motivation to stay here.

“I often ask people I meet, ‘What would you like to do?’ And often the answer is, ‘Emigrate!’ They don’t say what they want to do — only that they want to leave. At the present time there are about half a million Albanians in Greece alone, all arriving in the last decade, some going legally, many illegally. There are so many Albanians in other countries, in many cases not happy where they are, but thinking they have no alternative. Some of them are trying to help those who remain here. Of course often they are tempted to leave as so many of their friends have done. They ask me, ‘What about the future?’ Of course, I share their concern, but I emphasize, ‘Let us look at the present. Let us do our duty, only doing whatever is an expression of love of one for the other. This will shape the future.”

Still another dimension of the Church’s task is to teach forgiveness.

“This begins within the Church in the way we respond to those who denied or betrayed the Church, in the Communist period. Especially in earlier years, I was sometimes asked, what do we do when such people want to rejoin the Church after having been apostates? Our response must be to forgive and receive them back, not to turn anyone away. Following the fall of communism, the first church we opened in Berat has an inscription above the central door which says — ‘Whoever comes to me, I will not cast away.’ However difficult it is, we must be willing to forgive and forget. There can be no true forgiveness without forgetting.”

There have been several other areas of development in bringing the Church fully back to life. “We started a radio station and newspaper, both called Ngjallja — Resurrection. The newspaper is monthly, the radio station is on the air 24 hours a day. It broadcasts a mixture of spiritual programs, music, news and other programming. There is now a children’s hour. Recently an antenna was set up so that broadcasts can now reach the southern part of the country. Also we have a center just outside Tirana called Nazareth where icon painting and restoration are taught. In the same building there are also a printing house and a candle factory. The sale of candles provides local parishes with a steady source of income.”

He sees as another area of activity for the Church developing projects to foster local environmental responsibility.

“This year, we started an environmental protection program which includes training 15 post-graduate students, who have completed degrees in biology and forest or environmental engineering. They will set up programs to protect the eco-system in three areas of Albania. We are even establishing garbage management programs in two cities. Part of the vocation of the parish is to keep the village, town and city clean. We need to inspire the idea of a clean environment. Albania used to have it but it was imposed by a police state. Now it is not imposed but needs to be chosen.”

“What is necessary is that the Church should be present in all areas of life — with pilot programs in health care, education, social and relief efforts, developmental programs, culture and environmental concerns — all those things which are essential to civilization. In each area of life we must implant a spiritual dimension. Culture is more than technology! Most of all it is respect for the dignity of people. Culture requires respect for God’s creation. Where it exists, there is beauty.”

He paused to reflect on the importance of foreign volunteers in the work the Church is doing in Albania. So far they come mainly from Greece and the United States. Some come continually over a period of years, perhaps teaching in the seminary or taking key roles in church projects, others coming from time to time for specific tasks, like the architect Eva Papapetrou from Athens.

“Among our biggest blessings are the gifted people who have come to assist us, though it is not a success in every case. All who offer their services want to help, but not all who come are able to cope with the problems of daily life in Albania. It is not easy being here! We cannot romanticize it. Not everyone has the necessary patience. There are others who are full of their own ideas and too eager to import solutions. This only creates confusion. I ask people from abroad who come not to come with answers to all our problems but rather to come and see and listen and to discover first how to live when things are not working — when the water and electricity are not flowing. First they need to learn not why some people leave — that’s easy enough to understand — but why so many people stay even though they could easily emigrate. The list is too long to mention, and you already met some of them, but I feel the need to express, again and again my deep gratitude for the long-term collaborators who have stayed with us.”

One crucial dimension of life for the archbishop is helping maintain good relations between the several religious communities. During my stay there was a visit with national leaders of the Moslem community — “part of the normal rhythm of my life,” he explained, “and not only since arriving in Albania. During my long journey I have learned one must always respect the other and regard no one as an enemy. We must help each other for the sake of our communities. Tolerance is not enough — there must be respect and cooperation. If we turn our backs on each other, only atheism benefits. We also have to meet with respect those who have no belief.”

There are similar visits with Catholic bishops, clergy and lay people. Archbishop Anastasios helped welcome Mother Teresa when, in her old age, the Albanian-born nun was able to visit post-Communist Albania. It pleases him that one of the main streets in Tirana has been renamed in her honor and a postage stamp is graced with her portrait. (While visiting the Orthodox Church’s Annunciation Clinic in Tirana, I happened to meet one of the sisters from Mother Teresa’s community, the Missionary Sisters of Charity. The city’s Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals are nearly side by side.)

The Archbishop spoke about the ecumenical vision he is trying to transmit among the Orthodox in Albania.

“Beyond a Balkan, European perspective, we are trying to respectfully and lovingly embrace the whole church and the entire world that Christ himself has raised, redeemed and enlightened by His cross and resurrection. The ecumenical vision offers a special power, endurance and perspective — for every local and concrete situation. Besides this, the emphasis on the ecumenicity and catholicity of the church, and the gaze on the incarnate word of God in the Holy Spirit, offers to the Orthodox thought and conscience an open horizon with boundless majesty.”

Interfaith dialogue, he pointed out, is not simply exchanges of words.

“It helped being in the World Council of Churches’ committee for dialogue with other religions, but what we did was academic. Here you learn that often the best dialogue is in silence — it is love without arguments.”

His task, he has discovered, is not only to lead the Orthodox Church in Albania.

“You must bear in mind that Albania has had very little experience of being an independent country and even less experience of freedom. The Albanian state was created in 1912-13. Then there were 25 years of trying to build up that state in the poorest country in Europe.

“Killing here is not something rare — it easily happens that someone ‘disappears.’ There are complex rules of revenge that are still operative in many places. In such a setting it is necessary to think in larger terms, about social development as a whole, to think not in terms of decades but centuries. We must think not about luxuries but necessities and endurance. We must think what it means to be free.

“A passport does not give freedom. If God does not free us, we will have no freedom. I sometimes pray, ‘O Lord, free me from myself. Free me from fear! Let me be a free person in Christ.’ God is always a God of love and freedom. Love and freedom must come first in our lives and they lead us to God Himself. You cannot love the other if you are not free from yourself. It is not easy. It is never finished. It may happen that you are only free a small part of the time. I was free part of yesterday.”

As democracy was originally a Greek idea, perhaps it should not be surprising that a Greek bishop is not only a Christian missionary but a missionary of democracy.

“Part of my vocation here is to encourage fermentation in the society. We must ask the question how can Albania become a truly democratic society? Democracy is a complex phenomenon. It cannot be just one party which happens to be in power imposing its will. It is more than coming to power via elections. Democracy means respect for truth, respect for the other. It means not confusing words and slogans with reality. It means not thinking your violence is good, their violence is a crime. Words change but unfortunately the syntax remains as it was. We suffer from a vacuum of values and from a very rough form of capitalism — the capitalism you meet in Oliver Twist.”

Not all Albania’s calamities occurred before the end of the rigid Communism in 1991. In 1997, Albania was plunged into anarchy after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes in which many Albanians had risked and lost their life savings.

“The country was on the verge of civil war,” Archbishop Anastasios recalled. “It was a major disaster revealing all the fear and violence that had accumulated in so many people’s hearts. People who had come from other countries in most cases fled abroad or were airlifted out. During this period the Church provided emergency aid to 25,000 families and tirelessly repeated our appeal, ‘No to arms, no to violence’. We said that no act of violence can be justified by the Church.”

Ignoring the advice of many friends both in Albania and elsewhere, he refused to leave the country.

“Many had to leave but I realized I must stay and invited those to stay with me who were willing. In my own case, I am the captain of the ship. For me leaving was not an option. But the danger was very real”

He showed me a bullet that had lodged itself in the double-pane glass of his office, smashing the outer pane but being stopped by the inner pane.

“It was strange to see a bullet that had been halted like that! I’ve kept it there as a souvenir of those times in which we were tested, when each day could have been our last. In those days I was sleeping on the office floor in a corner below the windows.”

Carefully pulling the curtain further back, he drew my attention to a grey pigeon tending a single egg in a flower pot. “A bullet and an egg!” he commented. “Perfect symbols of Albania at the crossroads.”

“We must in every situation choose life and refuse the temptation to hate and harm others,” he said. “Many times, not only in 1997, I have repeated the message, ‘The oil of religion should be used to soothe and heal the wounds of others, not to ignite the fires of hatred’.”

Expanding on the theme of healing, he commented on the Gospel story in which Christ heals a paralytic who was lowered by friends through a hole in the roof when a crowd blocked the way.

“Notice that Christ heals the man not because of his faith but their faith. It is a revealing phrase, ‘seeing their faith.’ Faith is collaboration: thinking together, praying together, acting together. The Church is not the place of my prayer but of our prayer. We pray together and are responsible for each other. Paralysis is not only a physical condition. Some people are paralyzed in their inability to love, to believe in God, to forgive, to collaborate. To move from only doing this for my own benefit to acting in a way that benefits the community — this is being healed of paralysis. Then we become responsible for each other. Christ’s healing goes to the depth of life, to our need for forgiveness. Healing is another word for peace — Christ is the one who heals our brokenness.”

Another time of testing came in 1999, when NATO attacked Yugoslavia, bombing many targets in Serbia and Kosovo.

“Half a million Kosovar refugees fled to Albania in that period. The Church could not turn its back on them. While the majority of refugees were quickly taken into Albanian homes, we took responsibility for 32,000 people, and are still operating the last refugee camp in the country. It didn’t matter to us that few if any of the refugees were Christian. For some time we stopped classes at the seminary so all the students could participate in emergency work with the refugees.” I knew from photos that the archbishop was not only sending others to help but was also doing so himself, unloading boxes of food and medicine. “In this period, perhaps it became clearer to our critics that the Church is not here only for itself but for everyone.”

The Archbishop recalled how, at that time, some of the seminary students were initially afraid, worried some of the refugees might be hostile to Orthodox Christians, even if they were there to help.

“I said we must go in the middle of the crisis and see the face of Christ in those who suffer. There was one student who asked, ‘But will the cross I am wearing provoke some?’ I said to him that it was enough to wear the cross in his heart. More important than speeches about Orthodoxy are Orthodox actions. Obey the God of love, don’t be afraid. Don’t let fear become an idol. It is impossible to do theology without involvement.”

Late in my stay in Albania, sitting next to him one night as we drove along a narrow, winding mountain road, I asked if he could tell me about the prayer life that sustains him. After a long silence, he began to answer my question.

“The roots must remain hidden. There is a Trinitarian emphasis in my short repetitive prayers. I start with the verse in the Book of Revelation, ‘O Lord, who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty, Glory to Thee.’ Then I continue with the Jesus Prayer — ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ And I finish with the invocation, ‘O Holy Spirit, give me your fruit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23].’ Notice that Paul says ‘fruit’ — not ‘fruits.’ Communion with the Holy Spirit gives birth to all these qualities.

“The experience of St. Paul in his apostolic endeavors remains a basic refuge and inspiration, while my prayer for my people and me culminates in his prayer — Ephesians 3:14-21. There is a special music in the Greek text that I don’t hear in translations, but the meaning is always clear. Our life is to be a ray of the Holy Spirit, to be used by Him. It is not our own activity that is important but what He does through us.

“Prayer summarizes a longing. The problem is that so often we become ego-centered, lacking humility. Thus it is good to pray, ‘Oh Lord, deliver me from myself and give me to Yourself!’ — a cry of the heart. It is similar to the prayer, ‘Lord, I believe, please help my unbelief.’ Often it is necessary to pray for forgiveness.

“Many times in my life there is no time for long prayers, only time to quickly go into what I call the ‘hut of prayer’ — very short prayers that I know by heart or to make a very simple request — ‘Show me how to love!’ Or, when you have to make a decision, ‘Lord, help me make the right estimation and come to the right judgment, to make the right action.’ Then there is the very simple prayer, ‘Your will be done.’ I have also learned, in Albania, what it means to be a foreigner, to come from a country many regard with suspicion. This, however, can help one become more humble. It helps one pray with more intensity, ‘Use me according to Your will.’ Often I pray, ‘Lord, illumine me so that I know your will, give me the humility to accept your will, and the strength to do your will.’ I go back to these simple prayers again and again.

“Many times the Psalms are my refuge. You realize that in the spontaneous arising of certain phrases from the Psalms you are hearing God speak to you. Perhaps you are reciting the psalm, ‘My soul, why are you so downcast…’ And then another phrase from the Psalms arises which is a response. It is an ancient Christian tradition that a bishop should know many psalms by heart. The Psalms provide a spiritual refuge. In each situation there is a psalm that can help you, in those critical moments when you have no place of retreat. Perhaps you remember the words, ‘Unless the Lord guards the house, they who guard it labor in vain.’ You are reminded that your own efforts are not decisive. You also come to understand that your own suffering is a sharing in His suffering. It is a theme St. Paul sometimes writes about. You come to understand that the resurrection is not after the Cross but in the Cross.

“Often in prayer we have no time to think what each word means. But prayer is not an analytical activity. It is in our intention, in our longing. You know you are far away from the ideal and you reach out in prayer. God does not need a detailed report about our efforts. Sometimes the only prayer that is possible is the prayer of silence, silence and cries of the heart asking the Holy Spirit to dwell in us.

“I have a secret corner, a tiny chapel next to my apartment, a place for thinking, praying, appealing for strength, for overcoming frustration, so that I can try to understand God’s will, and then find the humility and strength to obey.”

Archbishop Anastasios also spoke about what he called “Theotokos spirituality.”

“Theotokos simply means Mother of God or God bearer. This is Mary, Christ’s mother. Think of her! She became the first and best disciple and sets the perfect example for anyone who is trying to follow her Divine Son. There are three main elements in her witness. She said to the archangel, ‘Be it done to me according to your word.’ God’s will, not my own! She gives us this example and through it Christ enters our lives. She also said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’ We are asked to center our lives on the Lord, not ourselves. And she says, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ We learn from her another type of freedom — the freedom to be free of your own plans. We realize He becomes present in our lives, as he became present in hers, through obedience. It is the obedience of love, a gift of the Holy Spirit. In her silence, in her capacity to quietly consider events in her heart, we also learn much about prayer — face-to-face conversations with God in silence. Contemplating the Mother of God is a great help and is itself a form of prayer.”

The day I left Albania, there was time for one last conversation with the archbishop before Father Luke Veronis took me to the airport. I reminded him that he had been reluctant at first to make his home in Albania. This made him laugh. “People look at the difficulties of life here and say to me, ‘How can you stand it? It is so ugly!’ But for me it is so beautiful! It is God’s blessing to be here — not the blessing I imagined but the one I received.

“My origins are not with the humble people, but I learn from them to become more simple, more true, more honest, more ready to forgive and let go of past injuries. Humility is not an achievement but a development, a contiguous dynamism in our life. So often you meet here in Albania persons who absorb every word, every gesture. Their faces are like a thirsty land ready to absorb every single drop of rain. It is a surprising providence to be sent to serve such people, people you never knew, never expected to meet, and yet who receive you with such confidence. Thank God I was sent to live among such people, to be helped by them.”

“People sometimes ask me about my expectations, but I don’t know about the future! You can only do your job with love and humility. I am not the savior of Albania, only a candle in front of the icon of the Savior.”

The word most often used to describe the church in Albania is resurrection — ngjallja. Everywhere you turn in the Church, the word or one of its icons awaits you. The church’s seminary is dedicated to the resurrection. The church newspaper is called Resurrection. Many churches have been given the same name.

During my final visit with the archbishop before returning home, Archbishop Anastasios took me to the small chapel — his “hut of prayer” next to his apartment on the top floor of the Metropolia — and gave me a newly painted Resurrection icon.

“Let this remind you of Albania. The original model for this version of the icon comes from an ancient church in Istanbul, Chora. You have noticed the emphasis we have on resurrection. The power of the resurrection is linked to bearing and sharing suffering. The theme is Christ conquering death. You see Christ standing on the destroyed gates of hell while pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs. Adam and Eve represent the entire human race in which each woman is a daughter of Eve, each man a son of Adam, and all linked to each other in Christ. The icon also mirrors the experience of the Church in Albania. It too has been pulled out of the tomb. It is also an icon for the biblical text, ‘Unless the wheat falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth new life’.”

He showed me the reverse side of the bishop’s pendant he wears. There was a simple engraving of the cross surrounded by two shafts of wheat — the same symbol I had noted on his stationery. “The image represents this Gospel text — Christ is the wheat that has been buried. His dying gives birth to the resurrection. People sometimes think of the cross as a death symbol, or as a stop along the way to the resurrection, a dark doorway leading toward the light. But the resurrection is not beyond the cross. It is in the cross.”

Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches. Do not reprint without the author’s permission.

A Long Honeymoon

Father Luke and Faith Veronis

Father Luke Veronis arrived in Albania in January 1994. He and Faith married the following August, a few months before his ordination. Both had been drawn to a mission vocation at a time when there were few Orthodox missionaries. Like so many others collaborating with Archbishop Anastasios, their first encounter with Orthodox mission work had been in East Africa. Both grew up in a Greek Orthodox parish in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Luke’s father is pastor. Archbishop Anastasios ordained Luke to the priesthood soon after his arrival in Tirana. He is now co-rector of the Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy near Durres, Orthodox chaplain at the University of Tirana, one of the spiritual advisor for the youth movement of the Church, an assistant to Archbishop Anastasios, and often serves at the cathedral. Faith has been active with the Church’s pre-school program, catechism department, English language program, youth ministries, an abandoned babies program, and the women’s groups with its many projects of service to people in need. Both speak fluent Albanian. They have two children, Paul and Theodora.

“My husband often jokes that he took me to Albania for our honeymoon,” Faith told me, “and seven years later we’re still here! Not many people have a honeymoon that long.”

“My life changed during my last year of university,” Father Luke told me. “It was then that I went to East Africa on a short-term mission for the first time. God touched me in a dramatic way through the people of Kenya, the faith and love I witnessed while I was there, and the example of several missionaries, especially Archbishop Anastasios. That experience led me to change my life’s direction from being a math teacher to studying theology and committing my life to serve in the mission field. My later studies at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and then Fuller’s School of World Mission opened my eyes to understand this call in a deeper way. Twenty-six percent of the world’s people have never even heard the Gospel. What are we doing about this? I realized indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. This is what made us ask Archbishop Anastasios if we could help in Albania.

“Faith and I have been fortunate. I won’t say that we haven’t had to face difficulties — lack of water and electricity shortages, mud everywhere in the winter and dust in the summer, political crises in Albania every few years — but the blessings have far outweighed any negative experience. We truly feel as if Albania has been our special home these past seven years.

“Now we have a nice apartment on the ground floor with a garden, but before this we lived in a cold-water flat five flights up. But the location was good, only a 15-minute walk to the cathedral. Of course the roads I had to walk along weren’t in great shape — I would sometimes arrive at the church in a very muddy state! — but at least the church wasn’t far away.”

“We have had some times of testing in the seven years since we arrived. The death of a parent, two miscarriages, being evacuated by the U.S. Marines in 1997 when the country fell into total anarchy and having to be apart from Luke for several months,” said Faith. “But these are so small compared to what others face. At the time the Kosovo War broke out, I was involved in an abandoned babies program at the local maternity hospital. I saw firsthand the plight of pregnant refugees and their newborns. These women had nothing when they arrived at the hospitals. I responded by gathering clothing from friends. Then, our Church began offering clothing and supplies, as well as necessary medical and emergency assistance. By the end, we helped more than 300 women and babies. Some of my visits turned into special friendships, which even continue today. From these women, I witnessed another side of motherhood — a painful, uncertain, yet courageous side. I will never forget these women.

“Paul was born in 1998 and then last year we were blessed with Theodora. I was carrying here during the time of the Kosovo War.

Motherhood deepened my bonds with many women from our church. I have developed a great respect for the Albanian mother — she is strong, sacrificial, protective, loving and caring.

“For us, being missionaries hasn’t been a great sacrifice. The hardest aspect for us is simply being far from our families. Yet I remind myself that such sacrifices can never compare with the crosses borne by early missionaries.

“Some people think that we sacrifice our children by living in Albania. True, our children do not have all the material possessions that many American children have, but they live in a unique setting, learning about life in a developing country, appreciating a new culture, and being surrounded by an abundantly loving Albanian and missionary community. I appreciate the simplicity of life here. It reminds me of my mother’s stories of village life in Greece. Such forced asceticism makes it easier to lead a spiritual life — with less distractions and temptations.”

“Visitors who come here are sometimes shocked about what they refer to as Albania’s ‘low standard of living’,” Fr. Luke said. “The Albanians may be poor in economic terms but in certain ways they are richer than people living in wealthy societies. I don’t know if you will ever be among people who are more hospitable. When refugees were flooding into Albania from Kosovo, an Albanian family with three rooms might take in as many eight or even twelve refugees. Roughly half the refugees were received into Albanian homes.

“I have learned so much from Albanians about courage and perseverance in the face of persecution and also what it means to live a eucharistic life. I recall a 98-year-old woman who heard there was a priest who would be celebrating the Liturgy. Despite her age, she fasted for two days so that she could receive communion for the first time in 30 years. It happened that we saw her coming to the church. She fell down and could not continue. We told her to return to her house and said we would bring communion to her after the Liturgy. I will never forget the joyful tears with which she received communion. She died within a year.

“Especially younger Albanians are ready to believe in God and are open to the Gospel. I have witnessed so many conversions. In my seven years as a priest, I have presided at more than a thousand baptisms, almost all young people and adults — sometimes thirty at a time. Every sort of person from every ethnic background and every condition of life, including beggars. In one case, we got to know a group of beggars when our youth arranged a special lunch for people begging outside our church. Through this outreach, we came to know them as friends, people we knew by name. We began visiting their homes and eventually performed some of our most moving baptisms with them.

“Although the Kosovo War was a terrible tragedy for many people, in fact it was a unique opportunity for our Church. The students at the Academy learned to see these mostly Muslim refugees as Christ in disguise. We visited their camps, volunteered help, gave aid to thousands housed in the village around the seminary. Our students began with fear and uncertainty toward Kosovars, but they discovered love and joy in newfound relationships. Some very special relationships formed. There was one Muslim family that was so grateful for the help the Orthodox Church gave that a week after returning to Kosovo, the father, Ramadan, came back to Tirana to give me an oil painting as a sign of gratitude for all the church had done for him. He said, ‘Through your work, I have come to understand what a Christian truly is.

“Another Moslem family of refugees allowed their daughters to go to the Orthodox summer camp so that they could be away from the refugee camp. These girls were afraid the first day of camp when they saw campers making the sign of the Cross. They had never interacted much with Christians and had a biased view against Orthodox from their experience in Kosovo. After two weeks, these girls cried as they departed. They told their parents, ‘We have never met people like this before.” Their father even told me, ‘Our contact with you have given us hope for the future of humanity. Muslims and Christians, even Albanians and Serbs, can live together, if people practice a faith like we witnessed here.”

I asked what is at the heart of being a missionary.

“To follow God means going where God calls you, no matter what the sacrifice, and that’s where you will find the greatest peace. This is what’s lacking in our comfortable western Christianity. We don’t like the Gospel message, ‘Sacrifice everything!’ we should never forget that the majority of saints lived lives of struggle, persecution, and self-denial, not of comfort and a pursuit of pleasure and happiness.

“Not everyone drawn to missionary service is able to adjust to culture shock, but for us it hasn’t been difficult. It has been a challenge, an adventure, full of blessings. What you need is humility and love. We can’t have the attitude that we are the savior, ready to help the poor people. Instead, we must see ourselves as co-sojourners in the walk of life. Let us go hand in hand, helping one another. Therefore, we must have a readiness to learn from the others. You need a readiness to adapt, respect for the people, a willingness to accept everything good in the culture. If your house burns down, you adapt. If you get robbed, you adapt.”

Indeed, while I was in Tirana, Father Luke was robbed by a pickpocket and his house was badly damaged in a fire caused by a defective transformer.

“Albania is not just where we live. It is home to us. What would be difficult for us would not be staying here but leaving.

“We have been asked to help at the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in Florida and are thinking about whether this is God’s will. We love Albania and its people. They are an integral part of our family. It’s a hard decision. Faith and I worry that if we go back to America the temptation will be so strong to simply adapt to the consumer life. The pressures are so powerful. Are we strong enough? We want to return only when we believe that we are strong enough to live a life based on our understanding of the Gospel, no matter how different or crazy it may appear to others. In some ways, it is easier to be a Christian in Albania.”

Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches. Do not reprint without the author’s permission.

'Only With Love'

by Jim Forest

While in Tirana several years ago to research a book on the Orthodox Church in Albania, one of the remarkable people I met was Raimonda Shqeva. Since 1995 she has worked full-time with the Service of Love Women’s Group, which has its office in a small building adjacent to the Annunciation Cathedral in Tirana. Here is a chapter from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania that concerns Raimonda and her work.

A woman in her late thirties, Raimonda Shqeva has black hair and large brown eyes that communicate immense sensitivity. She immediately made me a cup of coffee. As I drank it, she showed me photos of some of the group’s activities: women bringing clothes and money to orphans in Elbasan, assisting at the summer girls’ camp at the Monastery of St. John Vladimir, visiting people at an old age home who have no family to assist them.

“Here we are with street children and beggars. We found about 40 children who had no parents. Now they have a place to live and a family. And here is a photo of a group baptism – 27 people!”

I asked what led her to the Church and to such activity.

“I grew up in a believing family. I remember my childhood with deep emotion – the carefulness of my father who believed so much in Jesus even in those very hard times. It was not in his nature to be silent about his faith but he had to tell me it was best not to speak to others about our faith. In 1967, when I was seven, all the churches were closed – not even one was left open. Thank God, I can remember the church before it was closed.

“When I was little, my father would tell me Bible stories but without explaining they were from the Bible. Time after time he told me the story of the Prodigal Son, always with so much love.

“I remember once asking my father about God, ‘This Father of all the world that you talk about – where does he live?’ My father was not an educated man and could not give clever answers, but he loved Jesus very much. I remember how red his face got when I asked my question, the anger he felt that I was thinking in such a way about God. ‘You must not ask such a question,’ he told me. ‘It is a mystery. No one knows where God lives. Only when you think about God, ask yourself, “Can you make yourself? Can you build something without work? How can things exist by themselves.” ‘ He spoke with conviction and feeling, in a simple way. I will never forget what he said! I hope I can pass on to my son and daughter, Spiro and Maria, the same fire in the heart. They are 11 and 9 years old.

Pauline Russell and Raimonda Shqeva at the Soup Kitchen in Tirana

“My father loved the Virgin Mary and always celebrated the Dormition on the 15th of August. He would explain, ‘This is the mother of all creation. We must pray especially to her because she can speak for us.’

“There were many promises I made to him about what I would do, how I would live. Sadly I did not keep all these promises. Now I try to keep them.

“When the Church reopened, I was 30 years old. By then my father had died but I had the fire of the loving God in my heart. I felt as if someone was pushing me forward, to some height. I dedicated myself to the Christian life.

“My husband is also a strong Christian. He never objects to the time I spend in church or involved in church projects – and it takes a lot of time!

“In 1994 I began my journey into diaconal service through involvement in the catechism program that was led by a nun from Athens, Sister Galini. She started this in 1992. This gave us confidence to bring the Gospel to others who don’t know it. Maybe they came from Orthodox families but they never heard the Gospel or only tiny fragments. We also began going to asylums for the blind, to people with other disabilities, to the very old, to prisoners.

“This is how our women’s group began. In the first year there were only seven of us, all very strong believers – now we are 25. Part of our work is cooking free meals and assisting needy and sick persons. We have special activities for Christmas and Easter. Also we organize special excursions to places like the Monastery of St. John Vladimir – the one with a church that was burned in the German time and which the government still refuses to return but where a few other buildings have been returned. We had a trip there not long ago for a group of blind people. We provide catechism lessons in several towns and villages to help people better understand the mysteries – the sacraments. You know there are many people who make the sign of the cross and kiss icons but don’t really understand the meaning of the cross or the meaning of icons. We also explain confession – how it is a way to clean yourself of sins. We explain the power of holy communion. We want people to see that it is possible to change the heart from a place of darkness to a place of light, to receive power from Christ so that you can follow his teaching.

“When Mother Theresa came to Tirana, I went to meet her and received her blessing. I am glad to be Orthodox and I believe the truth is in the Orthodox Church, but I respect all Christians. I don’t look down on anyone. It is a blessing to know Christians from other churches – some of them are very inspiring.

“Sometimes they are surprised I am Orthodox and ask me questions like why do we have icons? I tell them if you keep a photo of your father or mother or your children, you can also have an image of Jesus and his mother or those who followed him even to martyrdom. Sometimes I am asked why we Orthodox fast and I try to explain how this gives us strength to struggle against temptations and evil spirits. As Jesus said, there are some demons that can only be defeated through prayer and fasting. Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays helps us remember the betrayal and suffering of Jesus.

“It is sometimes hard to learn not to hate, not to attack – you can convert only with love. We must be very careful of each other and never use force. If someone cannot hear us, then let us pray for him. We each go at our own speed. Archbishop Anastasios has taught us that each person is an icon of God. We must not judge others! We must help anyone in need no matter what.”

I asked what problems the women faced in their charitable work.

“A big problem for us is deciding how much to help a particular person or family. You can help too much, so that the person lives entirely from charity and takes no initiative, but you can also help too little. We don’t want people to become completely passive, but there are people who are so damaged that sometimes there is very little they can do for themselves. Not everyone is capable of having a job. Sometimes we spend hours discussing a particular person’s situation and how much help we should give. My own tendency is that it is better to give too much than too little. My father taught me never to judge someone who begs, never to think he may just be pretending. Just be a Christian and try to live the Gospel. When people say we give too much, I think that at the Last Judgement no one will be condemned for giving too much or for forgiving too much.”

The Resurrection of the Church in Albania is published by the World Council of Churches. Information about ordering a copy is on the web.

Freedom

The voice of Metropolitan John Pelushi

My first encounter with Metropolitan John was at the seminary, an impressive complex of new stone buildings on a hilltop a short distance inland from the port city of Durres. Though his main responsibilities are in Korça, he comes to teach at the seminary as often as he can manage the six-hour journey. For several years he had been the seminary’s director before his other responsibilities became too heavy. He has translated a number of books into Albanian including On the Holy Spirit by Saint Basil, The Orthodox Faith (a four-volume catechism by Father Thomas Hopko), and a collection of writings by and about Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain. Currently he is at work on an introduction to dogmatic theology, the first volume of which is now ready for publication. Two more are awaited. Born the first of January, 1956, he looks even younger than he is with his dense black hair and beard. His English is fluent. No translator was needed. He had studied for several years at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School near Boston in the United States.

I asked how he had been able to study in the USA.

“I went there thanks to a scholarship established by Albanians in America in memory of Bishop Fan Noli. During this period, when I heard that Archbishop Anastasios had arrived in Albania, I contacted him. He was very receptive, encouraging me to return to Albania in order to meet him. I was very impressed with his person and his devotion for the cause of the Church in Albania. During this meeting, I even happened to be present at his enthronement on August 2, 1992.

“The following year, after graduating from Holy Cross with a Master’s of Theological Studies, I returned to Albania and the Archbishop appointed me to teach theology at the seminary, as well as serve in other capacities within the Church. He ordained me as a deacon on February 27, 1994, then as a priest on December 4 the same year. In 1995 I received a scholarship from him and returned to the United States to pursue further studies. When I returned in 1996, I was appointed as director of the seminary as well as elevated as an archimandrite on November 19th. On July 18, 1998, I was elected as Metropolitan of Korça and enthroned two days later.”

I mentioned how impressed I was with the architecture and stone construction of the various buildings crowning the hill where we met.

“If you had seen this hilltop a decade ago, you could not have imagined that it would soon be a church, monastery and theological school. It had been an important monastery, a place of pilgrimage, in the past, but in 1967 everything was destroyed. Only a fragment of one building survived — part of two walls but no roof — and a few trees. You could not even discern the shape of the former church, though secretly people continued to climb the hill at night in order to pray. It was recognized as a sacred place. All that you see here has been built through the continuous effort of the Archbishop.

“My life in some ways is like this hilltop. I was converted to Christianity in 1975 during my last year at high school after a friend — an underground Orthodox Christian — loaned me a copy of the New Testament in French. He said it was to help me learn French, but he was really an evangelist.

“Part of my journey to faith was through reading. There were many religious books in the main library in Tirana. Luckily I knew the librarian and was able to borrow them discreetly — books by Orthodox, Catholic, Moslem and Jewish authors — to me it didn’t matter. Anyone who believed in God was somehow my ally, just as for the state anyone who believed in God was an enemy. The state was at war God, nothing less.

“The next step was becoming part of a small underground church group. It was such a different time! Not only you but your whole family could pay dearly if you were found praying with another person. Yet it was such a great joy! At last came the day when Father Kosmas baptized me. Until then I was called Fatmir (which means, “good luck”). In baptism I received the name John, after John the Theologian.

“It’s amazing. When he was made a bishop, I — so much younger, his spiritual child, one of the people he had baptized — was one of the consecrating bishops! It was in 1979 that he baptized me — a dangerous time to do such a thing. There have been Albanian priests executed for that. It was in the cellar of his house. His son stood outside on guard, watching. Now he is a priest, Fr. Ilia.

“Our small community used to meet mostly at the home of the Cico sisters in Korça, though we only had liturgy and communion rarely. Some used to take Holy Communion once a year and some others four or five times a year. Once we managed to go to Father Kosmas’s village where there was a liturgy in the middle of the night.

“We had to be very cautious. The years 1974-81 were the worst period for believers, though the anti-religious repression had started in a serious way in 1967. The atheist campaign intensified in 1974 after a so-called secret group was ‘found’ — these supposed ‘enemies of the state’ gave the government the occasion to launch a campaign of terror.

“When I left school I got a job organizing occupational therapy at a psychiatric clinic — very good cover for me! What better task for a follower of Christ than care of the sick? In fact the ‘insane’ were sometimes not insane — a family member would declare a person insane to prevent him being arrested and condemned.

“I know so many people who went to prison. My father was in jail in 1944 — ‘an enemy of the state.’ Many times they nearly arrested me. Once the secret police were going to raid my office — someone told them I had a Bible — but the director of the clinic was able to stop them. He had sympathy for me — and because he was a cousin of the director of the secret police he could protect me.

“We have so many people in our country who have suffered persecution and now must try to prevent the persecuted from becoming persecutors. This is why learning to forgive is so important in our country. In the Kanon of Lek — a medieval text that remains a monument in our culture — it is written, ‘If you forgive, it is an act of courage.’ I am happy to say that last year a committee in the north of the country, with Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim representatives, were able to get 800 families to agree to reconciliation. There was a big event in Lezha to mark this achievement.

“It was important that the three main religious communities took part in this effort. The religions in Albania must co-exist. We don’t meet enough but at least we have contact on each other’s feast days. If you know someone, it is hard to fight him! In our small country we already have so many divisions, we don’t need any more.

“I come from a Bektashi family, a form of Shia Islam, actually a kind of crypto-Christianity, a form of Islam not far from open Christianity. Bektashis have a kind of baptism, a kind of communion, even three ranks of clergy just as we have. They venerate saints. They use icons. They drink wine. Clearly some of their roots are Christian. However there are also many Gnostic elements, including belief in reincarnation. Less than two centuries ago, after several centuries of Orthodox Christianity, my region became Bektashi so that they wouldn’t have to pay the tax that Christians were forced to pay in the Ottoman Empire, yet keep many Christian elements and maybe ease their conscience a bit. But they are somewhat suspect in the view of some other Moslems. Today, many of them are coming back to the Church.

“People often say they are this or that religion because of their name. If you have a certain name, you are Muslim, another name you are a Christian. But in fact you may be a nothing or an atheist. We have many atheists with Christian names, many with Moslem names! We have so many nothings — especially people between 40 and 60. A lost generation. It is very hard for them. They have nothing.

“The church concentrates its efforts on the young but it can happen that the young rescue their parents and even grandparents. I was told the strange story of a grandfather who became Orthodox because his grandchild said it was a pity he didn’t pray and cross himself before he ate his food. ‘They won’t let me eat unless I make the sign of the cross!’ the grandfather told me. He finally decided not only to make the sign of the cross but to be baptized!”

Our next meeting was in Korça, first in his office, a room that also held the core of his substantial library, later over the table as his guest for a Lenten meal. I expressed my surprise at the huge church that was under construction on the western edge of the city’s main square. It was not simply impressive and ideally located, but a work of art that inspires prayer.

“This church was built while I was teaching at the seminary. Through Archbishop Anastasios’ initiative, we finally received land in the center of the city — but it was not easy. We had previously accepted another plot of land, not nearly as well located, but the government took it away from us after some controversy. Following much prayer and effort by many, we received the best possible piece of land in the city — right in the center, next to city hall. For us, this was a miracle. We could not have asked for a better place to build our cathedral.”

I asked about the building where we were meeting, both the administrative center of the diocese and, in several rooms on the top floor, his residence.

“It was built by the church in the pre-Communist time and was used in the same way. Then in the Hoxha years it became the local Communist Party training center! Now it has been returned to us — there is no more Communist Party. This also was restored by the Archbishop.

“We have a great deal to do here. There are now 200 churches in this diocese — a very heavy administrative load. On the other hand, there were 400 churches in the diocese before 1967. Being a bishop is not easy. You have to make a lot of decisions, you need a lot of prayer. Thank God there are some stupid — or perhaps crazy — people willing to be bishops. Bishops today must no longer live like princes. We are no longer living in the Byzantine Empire. We must be close to the people. An episkopos must be someone who guides, not a ruler.”

I asked if he hadn’t been tempted to stay in the United States after his studies were completed. The large Albanian community there would have certainly found a parish for him.

“It was suggested to me a number of times. I have other family members who moved to the US, but I decided to come back to Albania. This is my country. This is the Church that really needs me. Here I can make a difference. Yes, it is difficult here, but where is it not difficult? I was baptized here and had my first communion here. There were many good friends there who thought I was crazy to return, and there are people here who think the same — even people who say I am a CIA spy or that I get a lot of money by being a bishop. Otherwise why would I have come back? They cannot imagine any motive but financial gain.

“But what can we offer to the world as Orthodox Christians? Not money, but the spirit of sacrifice. We must teach the people the responsibility that comes with freedom — the Albanian word is liria. Such an important word!

“In a recent sermon I tried to explain that the Lord’s commandments are not the enemy of freedom — I compared the commandments to the barriers on mountain roads which help prevent cars from falling off cliffs. Now we are in the process of understanding that freedom is not mass debauchery. Freedom is not just to do as you please with no thought of consequences, no care for others. It is not a life free of love. The Prodigal Son thought he would become free and ended up as a slave. Without transformation and asceticism, freedom is not possible.

“Instead of a culture of freedom, we are in a culture of addictions. We find many people more and more addicted. Everything becomes uniform. Here in Albania it used to be done by force while in the west it was done voluntarily. Now we are following the western style. We think we achieve freedom by money.”

He went on to speak about obstacles to the spiritual life.

“The great sin is fear of the other. In a state of fear, everyone seems to be a threat. There are many symptoms of fear among Christians. The real meaning of the English word ‘gospel’ is good news, but one can find those who are more attracted to the Bad News Gospel. You can find religious circles more interested in the anti-Christ than in Christ, more interested in the number 666 than the Holy Trinity. This is a fear-driven, bad news orientation. Where such a mentality thrives, the Christian contribution to society is meager. Where faith, hope and love flourish, transformation occurs. Faith changes life. If life doesn’t change, clearly there is no faith. Saint John Chrysostom, preaching to perhaps 400 people in Antioch, told them, ‘If all of you were Christians, there would be no more pagans in the world.’ If you want to understand how Christianity spread so rapidly in the early centuries, it was because Christians were Christian.

“Sadly, in our time, we have lost the idea of the holy. Pagans at least understood the holy. They had a sense of the sacred. We have lost this capacity. This is our tragedy because more than ever the world needs the light of Christ, the genuine light.”

I asked how the Church in Albania communicates the faith to others? Metropolitan John laughed.

“We try everything! If you have a suggestion, we will try that too. This is why the Church is doing so many things that are valuable and useful in themselves but not essential, you might think, to the life of the Church. For example we are now preparing to offer an English course for young people in the region of Prespa. It is not an essential task of the Church to teach languages but this is another way of trying to make contact with young people who have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and cannot imagine pushing open the door of the Church. Of course this sometimes irritates people in the government. They wonder what the church has to do with school. Their idea is that we should only stand at the altar.

“It is not that we are trying to manipulate others into belief through this or that project. What we are trying to do is help young people see certain possibilities, certain paths. Our task is to guard their freedom so that they can choose their own path. In general they want to be told what to do. This is the fear of freedom. But they imagine they are free and that the Church is an enemy of their freedom.”

I noticed on a bookshelf several collections of stories and saying of the early monks, the Desert Fathers.

“For me these men and women of the desert have been a constant source of inspiration. For example there is the story of an elder and his young disciple going to Alexandria to preach. They shopped. They walked about. Finally the elder said to the younger monk, ‘Let’s return to our cells.’ The disciple said, ‘But weren’t we going to preach?’ And the elder said, ‘But we preached all day long — how we walked, how we spoke, how we ate. What more could we say?’

“Then there is the story of the theologian who went to St. Anthony the Great. He asked about the meaning of a certain text. Anthony said, ‘What is your opinion?’ The theologian gave a very detailed answer. Then Anthony asked another monk, ‘Abba Joseph, what is your opinion?’ He responded, ‘I don’t know.’ To this Anthony replied, ‘Blessed are you, Abba Joseph, you have understood because you said I don’t know.’

“The words ‘I don’t know’ are wonderful! This is why in the Orthodox Church we refer to any sacrament with the Greek word mysterion — mystery. We do this because there is the danger of putting boundaries to God. It is the academic danger: to pretend — to imagine — that you know. In reality the more you know, the more you don’t know.

“It is not through scientific investigation that you know another person. It is only through love. Only love can discover something unique. If you don’t love, you cannot discover the person. Love is a state of being. Love is a sacrament of being. The moment you feel a need to explain, love is gone.

“A problem we face is the cult of individualism. The Church doesn’t exist to make individuals but persons. An individual is someone in a state of separation, someone out of communion. A person is unique but at the same time exists in relationship with others. You cannot divide him from the whole. A person is a being who can never be repeated yet whose being includes others — without the other, the person does not exist. Without communion there is no being.”

I asked if he could imagine if, after all these years of destruction of faith, that Albania could become a religious society.

“I am not a staretz [spiritual elder, often a person who can foretell events yet to happen] — I cannot see the future. We must do what we can and not be overly attached to achieving results.”

I wondered if monastic life had been a hard choice for him.

“I didn’t see becoming a monk as a choice. It was for me what I must do — not to be better than others! — but because no other life seemed to fit me. I never encourage young people to embrace a celibate life. You do this only if you find that you have no other choice. But a celibate vocation is only possible if you live an ascetic life. This is why we have no TV in the house. Even if you are strong, it’s better not to put yourself in the path of temptation. When an ascetic discipline is missing, there is the problem of extreme loneliness suffered by many celibates. If you are full of the love of the Holy Spirit, you do not need other kinds of love.”

He told me a story of a community of exceptionally holy monks who, unfortunately, were also terrible singers.

“They sounded like a chorus of crows. But a gifted singer happened to visit. The monks were so impressed by his fine voice that they wouldn’t let him leave. He would sing the services so that heaven would no longer have to suffer from their awful singing. Days and days passed. Each service was beautifully sung by the professional singer. But one night an angel appeared in a dream to one of the monks and asked why they no longer heard the monks’ prayers. What had happened? The monk said the angel was a mistaken — ‘There is now a wonderful singer offering the prayers so much better than we can!’ ‘All the same,’ said the angel, ‘we hear nothing in heaven.’ The monk told the brothers his dream. Afterward the monks resumed their singing.

“I am like one of these monks with an awful voice, but it is the only voice I have and I must use it as best I can.”

He commented that one of the problems for priests in the modern world is a tendency to be embarrassed by the priestly vocation.

“We have to take care that in our desire to be close to people we try to become so like them that they hardly see us. The priest has to be visible, though taking care not to obstruct Christ’s presence.”

I asked about people and events that had shaped his life.

“I think this can be divided in two periods, first when religion was forbidden, and then when the church regained its freedom. In the first period, one of the most important persons for me was a man named Petro Zhei. I met him through providence. He was a translator but, more than that, he was a genius, an erudite man with a deep experience in the spiritual life. I was about 18 years old when a friend introduced us. He was 25 years older than I was. Despite the difference in age and experience, we had many deep conversations. The exchanges with him opened so many doors within me.

“In school I went through a very deep spiritual crisis. It brought on a kind of melancholy — depression — the feeling I was losing my childhood. I was reading books about psychology and philosophy that were really killing childhood. What finally saved my childhood was the Gospel. Reading it, I felt again a childlike happiness. I rediscovered something. Thank you, Gospel, for saving my childhood. Thank you for giving me back real joy. You can become an expert but it is of no value if you lose the joy. The Gospel so moved me whenever I read it. Even the memory of it moved me. As a child I had always loved adventure books — the Gospel was the fulfillment of this love. This was the ultimate adventure book. Perhaps someday I can find time to write about the theology of adventure stories and fairy tales.

In the second period, the one who most influenced me was Archbishop Anastasios. It happens both he and Petro Zhei were born in the same year. Often it’s not enough to have a clear idea and dedication, a spirit of sacrifice. We also need models to see our ideals actualized. The Archbishop was such an example for me. Through him I was able to see a concrete example of how to combine our dedication to God and man.

Our conversation shifted toward Church response to the poor, the homeless and the sick.

“There is no Christian community where there is no service of love. If we fail to respond to those who suffer, we turn our back on Christ. I will not be congratulated by God for writing a fine book about theology. I will be asked: ‘What about that poor old woman you ignored?’

“This is why we opened the ‘Service of Love’ free restaurant just across the street, to give one example. You can see it out the window. This was opened two times a week in 1995, through the initiative of the Archbishop. We have expanded it now to five meals a week. Normally we have forty to eighty people for lunch. All this is done by volunteers, a mixture of young and old, four or five in each group. Next we want to start a home for the elderly — people who are often completely alone. We are already helping old people in their homes or apartments, for example an old woman who had surgery and had no one to care for her. But they give us more than we give them. At the same time, we cannot romanticize the service of love. Often people with needs are somewhat mentally disturbed. They may curse you, curse the Church, even threaten you.

“There is the spiritual danger of seeing people as if they were carvings — it is a break in communion. The closer you get to another person, the more you understand this could be you. Everything can become a sacrament, the mystery of God’s presence.

“We look for many ways to help — we can never say we have finished. A week ago Sunday the Gospel of the Last Judgement was read during the liturgy — ‘What you did to the least person, you did to me.’ In my sermon I asked for volunteers to help us expand our Service of Love program — after the liturgy there were 28 volunteers, many of them young people. This means we can do more.

“You will not be saved by doctrine if you don’t practice it. If you believe in the power of medicine but only keep it in bottles, it will not save you. Saint Gregory the Theologian said that the knowledge of God starts with obeying the commandments; if you begin the journey you will experience the mysteries — the sacraments. Like Moses, we are granted an oblique view of God. This is a quest that surpasses every fairy tale, every legend.

“One of the things we learn in any project of service is that we cannot do it alone. Christ said he will be present whenever there are at least two or three gathered in his name — one is not enough.

“From such work we also learn gratitude. This is essential. The deep meaning of the word Eucharist is thanksgiving. Complaining is the disease of our time. Our sin is not being grateful. I visited recently an 83-year-old woman who had been blind since she was three. I have never met anyone as grateful as she is, someone so thankful. Whenever you met the Cico sisters, you would notice that each time they mentioned Christ, their faces were illuminated. Such gratitude! They have lived in the other world — they have enjoyed it and we experience their joy. This kept them alive. But in our present world if you don’t complain you are regarded as an idiot.”

I was reminded of the words a French Catholic poet, Leon Bloy, who said that joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.

“Yes! One Christmas I went to a cave in the mountains near here, a place many people were afraid to go to because of superstitions about ghosts. I built a small a fire and prayed. In that cave I was so full of joy! People who have not had such an experience cannot imagine. Joy? Joy in a cold cave in the middle of winter? They will think you are crazy. But I felt a great joy, and within me overflowed a deep prayer. This joy overwhelmed me for days — I could hardly work.”

Our conversation returned to the Hoxha years, when one would be very lucky to be regarded as crazy rather than criminal.

“Those years of persecution were hard but helpful. You certainly didn’t get a medal for being religious! In 1948 the head of our Orthodox, Archbishop Kristofor, was arrested and confined to the church of St. Prokopios in Tirana. Four years later, it was reported in the press that the bishop he had been found dead, but it is generally assumed he was poisoned. He died a martyr’s death.

“Another bishop, Irineos, had the courage to refuse to ordain as bishop a person nominated by the government and for this was exiled to the Ardenica monastery. Bishop Irineos was from Skodra in the north of Albania. He studied theology in Paris and Belgrade.

Irineos never wanted to be a bishop or even to be ordained as a deacon or priest, but accepted it during the Italian occupation of Albania to prevent a Uniate bishop being imposed on us. The Italians had intended to put a Uniate in the Synod as soon as there was a vacancy. After a week of prayer, Irineu accepted the proposal though he was a layman at the time. He was quickly ordained deacon, then priest, then bishop, all in one week! He served as bishop in Kosovo and part of Macedonia. Bishop Irineu was arrested and exiled to the Ardenica Monastery where he died in 1973.

“Religious life was something dangerous for many years. But in those days I felt strongly that you cannot live without religion. Such a life is a mutilated life. Now we have the impression that we can live without religion or that religion can be a hobby. We lived through a time of collective madness. You were condemned for any form of religion — it was a war against the idea of the holy, the idea of God.

“Yet to tell the truth, I often felt sorry for the persecutors — and still feel sorry for them. Really, they were the victims. They became sub-human. I don’t know how they feel now, but they have been badly damaged. Hell is life apart from God — it begins in this life. If we don’t become familiar with God in this life, how will we do it in the next?”

I mentioned that some of those who once persecuted religion are not only alive and well but still in government.

“Our sad history in the Balkans — so many invasions and occupations and acts of cruelty — taught people not to trust. Here there has always been war. It is regarded as normal. We who are Christians have to stop these endless cycles of hatred.”

Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches; do not reprint without the author’s permission.

Out of the Darkness

The voice of Marika Cico

Despite the extreme religious repression that reigned in Albania for so many years, thousands of people lived a carefully-hidden religious life. A few even dared to organize hidden churches, among them two sisters living in Korça, the principal city in the southeast of Albania. One of the sisters is still alive — Marika Cico (pronounced Tsitso), 95 years old when I met her. The Cico home — an old house behind a small courtyard in the center of Korça — was the location of many secret liturgies, baptisms, chrismations, confessions and marriages. These events normally happened late at night in a back room in which religious activity would least likely be noticed.

The trip from Tirana to Korça (19 km from the Greek border) was an unforgettable, at times nerve-wracking, experience, providing my first substantial encounter both with Albania’s mountains and the devastated condition of Albania’s roads. Though occasionally we encountered European-financed road improvement projects that provide a glimpse of a future day when travel will not be such a trial, for drivers at present travel in Albania is an endless search for that elusive part of the road that is least pitted.

But we had our rewards. There were amazing — also terrifying — vistas from narrow mountain ridges of unfolding valleys and other, still more dramatic peaks in the distance. Occasionally we looked down abrupt drops not just on one side of the road but both. It was along the narrow, winding route between Tirana and Elbasan that a young priest, Father Sotiri, his wife Marianna and one of their two sons was killed when their car plunged over the unguarded ledge of a cliff. (Remarkably, their other son survived the accident and is now living at the seminary near Durres.)

Later, driving along the edge of Lake Ochrid toward Pogradec, we stopped at a small restaurant, Shen Naumi, and ate freshly grilled koran, a fish for which Lake Ochrid has been famous since ancient times. A local fisherman had caught only three koran that morning.

It was in the late afternoon, after a first short visit with Metropolitan John, that my translator, John Lena, and I rang the bell of the Cico house.

Opening the door, Marika Cico crossed herself before leading us inside, bringing us into the kitchen. She was wearing a back dress and cap, in mourning not for a deceased husband — she never married — but for her dear sister Demetra who died in 1996. Yet there was no trace of sorrow or mourning in her face. Nearly blind, her wide eyes were made all the wider by the thickness of her glasses. She knew John already, clearly regarded him as a near relative, and assumed the very best of me as well. As it happened, there were two other visitors in the house, Frangji Kosti, a sister-in-law, and her niece, Anne Fiku.

“It is a blessing you came!” she said as we sat down at the kitchen table. She made her sign of the cross once again, then rested her hand on mine.

“First I wanted to thank God for two people, my parents. I thank God who made my mother and father faithful and who gave us a religious education. Our mother was very religious and gave all of us this joy. Mother always wanted a church here dedicated to Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin, and now it is being built in the center of the city! It is a miracle. We suffered but God held us up high.

“Whatever we suffered we always remained happy because we had God. When we were little girls, my mother often read to us — she read the Gospels, not the newspapers. The important things in our lives were parents, Gospel, Church. We all suffered — Turks, King Zog, wars, many trials, Communists, property taken away — but God was always with us in our suffering.”

She sent Franji to bring a photo of her mother so we could see her face. As it happened, she and her sister Demetra were on either side of their mother in the photo.

“Also I thank God for my sister.” Again she crosses herself. “Until she died, she had the Gospel in her hand day and night. She was a woman of great wisdom and strength. She was able to strengthen me and many others.”

I mentioned to her the admiration Archbishop Anastasios has for her and her late sister.

“There is no bishop like this anywhere. He is a new saint God has sent to Albania. When he arrived, we were so happy we flew! He saved Orthodoxy in Albania. He brought us out of darkness. He has done so much for us — built churches, given us priests, helped people who were suffering. When refugees came from Kosovo, he helped them. The government wanted to kick him out but he is still with us! We could hardly believe it when we heard a bishop was coming here. My nephew said, ‘Make yourself ready. The bishop is coming.’ We three sisters — myself, Demetra and Berta, our sister in Christ — went to meet him. Then we were introduced to him! He embraced us with tears.” Again she crossed herself. “And when he saw we had health problems — eyes, heart, throat — he sent us to Athens for healing.”

Her niece Anne interrupted to pour tea, but Marika hardly paused.

“I must tell you more about my mother. When I was little, I had a very poor memory. I couldn’t remember any of the things I was supposed to learn in school though I tried and tried. I started crying. My mother heard me, came and gave me a blessing. ‘Why are you crying?’ she asked. When I told her, she said to go to the church and ask the Virgin Mary to help me remember things. I did as she said. I went to the church, prayed before the icon of the Mother of God, took courage — and my memory became better! After that I stopped in the church every morning. Of course in those days the church still existed and the doors were always open. You could pray day and night.

“But in 1967 they came and told us that the church would be closed. My sister heard it first — she was a chanter in the church. Now there would be no churches to sing in! They told us to get rid of the icons, so we hid them all right here — behind curtains, in drawers. Later they searched, but God made them blind and they didn’t find them! Then a theologian we knew brought us a statue of Jesus the Italians that left in Korça. We hid this also, right in the closet behind some clothing. Again they searched and even then they didn’t find it! God closed their eyes. God did not allow them to see what was under their noses. Because they were frightened, other people brought icons to us and we hid these as well.”

I asked how it was possible that liturgies were celebrated in their house.

“It happened that a friend from Vlora came and told us about a faithful priest, Father Kosmas [Qirjo], and asked if we would like to meet him. We learned it was his custom once a week to wake at midnight, walk to another house, sometimes as much as 10 km away, to read from the Bible with others and to celebrate a secret liturgy. The windows were covered with blankets and the candle put under rather than on the table.

“In 1967 he watched as his church was burned down — the Church of the Five Martyrs in the village of Bestrova, near Vlora. Afterwards, with his wife and two sons, he was sent to do forced labor on a cooperative farm. Finally they were allowed to return to their village but he had to do manual labor 14 hours a day beginning at 6 AM, often working in bare feet.

“He was very poor. His black raisa [priest’s robe] was so faded, it was almost white. He had seven children and lived in a muddy hut with only one window. It was a very poor family, but when we talked with him we realized he was an apostle. He talked with us all night long — night was the only time one could have such a conversation. We asked him what he needed and helped him and his family in every way we could. He had not been well-educated but he read the Bible by the light of the moon and God enlightened him. Like other priests in those years, he became a laborer, but he never gave up being a priest. ‘I am a priest,’ he said, ‘and I will remain in the church even if the church has no building. In my house I will dress as a priest, outside I will wear pants’.”

A cookie tin was opened and more tea poured.

“People wanted to be baptized, people wanted to be crowned [married], people wanted to confess — they would go to him in the middle of the night. He was far from here, on the other side of Albania near the Adriatic Sea. We could not easily communicate. We would send him a message — ‘Please find wool from the sheep so Frangji can make clothing for the children.’ This meant we are fasting — can you bring us Holy Communion? In the beginning there were about ten women in our group, all fasting through the week. On Thursday we would make candles and prosphora [bread for the Eucharist]. This was the day when Father Kosmas would arrive. Then on Friday night we could receive Communion!

“Five or six times a year, especially in the summer, he was able to come to Korça — to celebrate the Liturgy, baptize, bless marriages, hear confessions, and teach. One time he was stopped by the police and taken to the police station but they never looked in his bag — if they had, they would have found his vestments. God closed their eyes.”

Marika held her hand over her glasses so that I might see what God had done.

I asked how often Father Kosmas managed to come to Korça.

“When he came, the children would come very close to him. ‘Talk to us! Talk to us!’ they said. They didn’t want to leave him. They went to sleep. Our friends would arrive, coming one by one so as not to be noticed. The door was locked and the windows were closed with blankets. We slept a short time, then my sister made a table into an altar. She had everything that was needed. Father Kosmas would bring the wine. Then we did the Liturgy, celebrating until three in the morning. It was so beautiful. We were in heaven!”

Marika crossed herself three times.

“When we finished, we ate a little bread. Then one at a time, so that no one would notice, those who had come would go home. Sometimes there were baptisms, sometimes crownings. We did this regularly, contacting Father Kosmas whenever he was needed, though it was not easy to come — travel was difficult and there were always dangers.”

She told me that Father Kosmas had become the second Albanian-born bishop after the Communist time (the first was Metropolitan John of Korça, a spiritual child of Father Kosmas).

“Archbishop Anastasios wanted very much to have bishops who were born here, but when he arrived there were not even twenty priests still alive, many of them very weak, some close to death. It is the Orthodox rule that a bishop should be living a monastic rather than a married life. But in 1998 Father Kosmas and his wife embraced a celibate life, living apart so that he could serve as a bishop. Our dear Father Kosmas died on August 11, 2000, and we miss him. He lived the Liturgy every day. We were one body, this life we were living. I believe he was a saint.”

Marika paused. Tears were glistening in her eyes.

“For 23 years, from 1967 to 1990, this is how we lived. There was not one church open in all of Albania. Of course for many years before 1967 it was difficult — arrests, people exiled, even people shot — but still many churches were open.”

One of the people whom she had met before 1967 was Bishop Irineos, who was then living in exile.

“He was an educated man. He had studied in Belgrade. The Communists had taken everything from him. My sister sent me to him with olives and cheese. He was so happy when he saw me! So we sat at the table and talked and talked. I said, ‘With your blessing, please teach me something. Tell me what we should do, how we should act.’ It was because of this question that Bishop Irineos suggested to me what he called unsleeping prayer. He said there was a monastery in Yugoslavia that was in danger of being destroyed by a forest fire and that we should do unsleeping prayer to save it. I asked him, ‘What is unsleeping prayer? How can we do this? How is it possible with Communists all around?’ He said it was something we could do in turns. If you have 24 people, each person has one hour in the day — it could be 12 to 1 at night, for example. One hour, one person. When there are 12, each takes two hours. I returned to Korça and we agreed to do what he said. We did unsleeping prayer and on the sixth day the fire changed direction and the monastery was not destroyed. Even after the fire changed direction, we continued our prayer day and night for 40 days.”

She paused to sip her tea and catch her breath.

“That was the beginning — that was when churches were still open in Albania. When they were closed, many times afterward we did unsleeping prayer that the churches would reopen — and now they have! But we had to wait many years.”

I asked what actions they had undertaken in 1967.

“When the evil time came, I said, ‘Let us do unsleeping prayer again.’ We did it with twelve people and experienced a joy we had never felt before! We suffered many things, but still we were saved! One of my two brothers was sent into exile for five years in the worst village in Albania, but he survived. We also fasted. God took fear away from us! My brother said we must be careful, and we were, but we never stopped. This is how we were saved. And now, thank God, Communism has died and we are alive! And God gave us a big gift, these two bishops [Archbishop Anastasios and Metropolitan John of Korça]!”

Was their activity only in Korça, I asked.

“Sometimes we would go looking for mountain churches. There was an old villager who showed the way to one but he warned us to be careful — ‘They are listening!’ he said. We found the rocks where the church had been and we saw a woman kneeling there, praying in tears. She was frightened when she saw us but we told her not to be scared, we were also believers and we too had come to pray. In the night the old man who showed us the way let us stay in his own simple shed, an earth floor covered with hay. He said, ‘You sleep here.’ He shared his bread with us. In the morning we woke up early and said our prayers.”

A major event in the life of Korça’s hidden church was the arrival of Theofan Popa.

“Theofan Popa was a strong Christian well educated in theology and art history and employed with the Ministry of Monuments. He was able to save many churches by having them classified as monuments of culture. It was too obvious to his superiors that he was a Christian. As punishment, he was sent from Tirana to exile in Korça — but for us his arrival was a gift from God. At first he stayed in a hotel and there he asked someone he met in the hotel restaurant if there was anyone religious in the town and in this way he heard about my sister and me. We two were a choir, he was told. We came to our house and we talked for three hours. After that, we told him, ‘This is your house. Come whenever you wish. Don’t even ask.’ He was an angel to us. He was able to save many churches by having them recognized as monuments — also many icons were saved as ‘works of cultural importance’ because of him. They are still in the museum here in Korça. Had it not been for him, they would have been destroyed.”

The future bishop of Korça also found his way to the choir-of-two, the Cico sisters, and the hidden church that had formed around them.

“His name was Fatimir when we first met him — John after his baptism. He worked in a mental hospital because this was a place where he could do some good. When Father Kosmas baptized him, he said, ‘You will be like Saint John the Theologian.’ This is why he gave him the name John, and this is what happened — he became a theologian. I love him like a son.

“I remember there was an old woman in the hospital where he worked who wanted her legs washed — otherwise she would go crazy, she said. So he stayed at the end of each day to care for her. When a doctor found him staying late, he was surprised but respected the motives and gave him support afterward when support was needed. He even was ready to help him go to another country to study medicine at a time when travel abroad was almost impossible but he didn’t want to leave. He said, ‘But who will care for them? It is better to stay here. I can do more.’ And today he is Metropolitan John!”

She paused, crossed herself, and then remembered another important member of their community.

“I must not leave out our dear Papa Jani. We pray for him every day. Now he is a priest, one of the very first ordained after the time of no churches. In the hard years, he worked in a metal factory where he was able secretly to make crosses which he left in churches for visitors to find and take away.”

I asked when she could first sense the prohibition against religious life would finally end.

“Sometimes we would go in secret to roofless churches with no icons, only ruins, and pray in them. Once we did this when we had a sick nephew — we prayed and slept in a ruined church and he got better. That night there were two other people who came secretly with a candle to pray there and so discovered us. They were so frightened. The man was someone high in the government. We reassured them, ‘We are here for the same reason. You have nothing to fear.’ So we prayed together in that mountain church. The man told us that in one year the government would allow churches to be open again — we were so happy to know this! We started kissing his hand. But he said we must not tell anyone. It was a secret. I only told Father Kosmas.

“Finally [in 1990] the Communist time began to end. We were so happy, but all the churches were closed. In response to our request, the government in Korça decided we could have one church back and that we would be permitted to have the Liturgy there. The first service we prepared was for Theophany on the 6th of January in 1991. We had been preparing everything but we needed a bell! Then we found the solution, a large brass mortar used for grinding garlic! It rang perfectly.”

Franji got the mortar and together they demonstrated what a fine bell it could be in place of a real bell. Marika was beaming.

“You see how God helps us! But it was not possible for Father Kosmas to come to Korça for this event. We turned to another priest who lived near us in Korça, Father Kosta Kotnani. He had been afraid to act as a priest in the Communist time. He wanted to say yes to us but his sons were too frightened what might happen to their father if he served in public as a priest. They were not sure the danger was past. We had to pull Father Kosta out of the house. You could say we kidnapped him! Then in Korça everyone came out to take part. They heard the bell. The roads were filled. Everyone was trying to touch Father Kosta. Everyone was blessed with water, the whole city.”

“I am 95 years old and I no longer have any strength. I have little education but I have faith and love. Who knows why God has allowed me to live so long. It is a miracle. I would like to die in a monastery. I always wanted to live a monastic life but it was not possible. I can die tonight, I can die tomorrow. Blessed be God! I love you very much. God kept me alive so that I could talk to you, and I have never talked so much! God does wonders!”

Once again Marika crossed herself three times, tears spilling down her face. Then she led me by the hand into the book-lined room which had been used for liturgies so often from 1967 until 1990. We prayed silently in front of the icon corner before I took a photo of Marika, Franji and Anne.

“Now you are a person always welcome in our house,” she said as I left. “You are part of our family. God makes miracles!”

Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches; do not reprint without the author’s permission.

Coming to Visit?

Kanisstraat — our house is the third on the right

Coming from the airport? Alkmaar is about a 50-minute train trip from Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport. The train station is an integral part of the airport. Stop at the train ticket counter and buy a one-way ticket to Alkmaar. The price is about 10 euros per ticket. (While waiting for your baggage, use the bank office in the baggage hall to buy euros. It’s open day and night.)

Trains leave for Amsterdam roughly every 20 minutes starting at about 5 AM, less often in the small hours of the night.

If you happen to catch a train that stops at Amsterdam-Sloterdijk, a station on the west edge of Amsterdam, change there, go to platform 4 on the lower level of the station, and catch the train to Alkmaar. (For some trains, Alkmaar is the final destination, but most trains go further north, terminating in Den Helder.)

If your train doesn’t stop at Amsterdam-Sloterdijk, then change at Amsterdam Central Station. Trains for Alkmaar normally leave four times per hour from Amsterdam Central Station, usually from platform 7A/8a. If you catch an Intercity train, it’s a 35-minute ride from Central Station; a Sprinter train makes more stops and takes ten minutes longer. (The station before Alkmaar in Heiloo. If you miss Alkmaar, the next station is  Alkmaar Noord; in that case you’ll need to double back one stop on the next south-bound train.)

Most Dutch people speak English. If you get confused, ask for help from anyone at hand. Many people will also be willing to let you make a quick call on their mobile phone.

Once in Alkmaar: As you leave the station, cross the street and walk to the right along Stationsweg. In two minutes you’ll be at a light on a T intersection. Go to the left along Scharlo. Straight ahead you’ll get a glimpse of the Grote Kerk (the Great Church; in pre-Reformation times Alkmaar’s cathedral). Walk on 200 meters or so to the bridge, the Bergerbrug. This will take you over the Singel, the canal that surrounds the old town. Once across, walk onto the first street to your right, Geest (the Dutch word for ghost or spirit). Kanisstraat is the first street to the right — a short no-traffic lane with the Geest at one end and a park at the other. We live in house number 5.

Carrying too much? Or it’s raining? There’s a taxi stand in front of the train station. The price of the ride to our address will be roughly 10 euros.

Map of Alkmaar: the station is point A, our house is point B


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Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

tel: (31)(72) 515-4180; within Holland: (072) 515-4180
mobile: 06 – 510-11-250
Jim’s e-mail: [email protected]
Nancy’s e-mail: [email protected]
web page: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com

page updated 17 Sept 2015