By Jim Forest
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, the port city on the west side of Athens,
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 Joan 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. [use photo of the man receiving a blessing]
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. [use photo of him by the window with the embedded bullet]
“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.”
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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.”
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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.”
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This is a chapter from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland. ISBN 2-8254-1359-3.
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