A visit to Albania today reminds the traveler of the worst of modernity and the fall of man, but also inspires hope.
In 1945, when the communists seized power in Albania, the Church began to be persecuted with a ferocity not seen since the first centuries of Christianity. The despot Enver Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first atheist state in 1967. All religions were banned, churches and mosques were destroyed, and clergy, who had been ministering in appalling conditions, were rounded up and sent to camps. Hoxha had a particular hatred for the Catholic Church, which he viewed as a foreign influence and an alternative center of loyalty for the people. Consequently, the Church suffered the most severe strictures; any Catholic practice had to be conducted secretly. If discovered, Catholics faced imprisonment or death. The Catholic Cathedral in Shkodra, the center of Catholicism in Albania, was turned into a gymnasium, and other churches were bulldozed and eliminated.
China is often called the world’s first “total surveillance State,” but Albania was the prototype. Hoxha ordered thousands of concrete bunkers built all over the country in case of invasion. Paranoia was the leitmotif of the regime. The Sigurimi, the secret police, were experts at bugging homes—it is estimated that every third citizen in Albania during this time spent time in a labor camp or was interviewed by the secret police.
The words of Christ in the Gospel, warning that children would betray their parents, and parents their children, became a reality in these decades of intense persecution. If children saw any sign of religious activity or affiliation—a Bible, an icon—they would inform the authorities. The most barbaric and demonic tortures were devised: Priests were drowned in latrines, and a young religious novice, Maria Tucci, died after being tied in a sack with a wild animal.
In 1991, when the horror finally ended with the fall of the communist regime, something truly remarkable occurred. A Church emerged. It turned out that a few priests had survived and maintained a secret seminary. The people—who had somehow kept the faith, baptizing their children and saying the rosary—reclaimed the buildings which had been churches. In Shkodra they actually mounted an armed guard to protect the cathedral because they were fearful the communists would return. The Mass was said in public for the first time in decades (it was the “Mass of ages,” as the Second Vatican Council had passed by the atheist state without notice). Stories emerged of the martyrs and the living martyrs, the men and women who had suffered so much to preserve the faith through the long years of oppression.
On a recent trip to Albania, I met one of these heroes of the faith: Fr. Gjergi Simoni, who suffered ten years in prison for “writing literature against the regime.” He survived one of the harshest labor camps in Albania, where he was fed only bread and soup. Simoni was one of the secret seminarians, and became the first priest ordained in Albania after the fall of communism. His brother, also a priest, was imprisoned for sixteen years, and was one of the three bishops ordained by St. John Paul II on his visit to Albania in 1993. When I asked Fr. Simoni how he had survived, he pointed up and said, “through the grace of God.”
Now, in 2019, visitors can witness the remarkable resurrection of the Albanian Church from the ashes. According to the Apostolic Nuncio to Albania, Archbishop Charles Brown, the faith of the people is strong, the entire infrastructure of the Church has been largely rebuilt, and Mass attendance is high—though there is still a priest shortage. On Easter Sunday this year, I was in Shkodra Cathedral (the former gymnasium) at a Mass attended by four thousand people. On Holy Saturday, families brought food to the cathedral to be blessed for their Easter meal, with priests conducting blessings every hour. The ancient traditions have survived, and the most oppressive forces of modernity have failed to defeat something far stronger than the rule of the Party.
Chesterton once wrote that the task of the Church in modernity is to “save all the life and liberty that can be saved, to resist the downward drag of the world, and to wait for better days.” In carrying out this task we would do well to look to the example of the longsuffering Albanian Church.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, a 501c3 charity helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.