THE COMMUNIST REGIME IN ALBANIA HAS TRIED TO ELIMINATE RELIGION COMPLETELY. Decades later, the country continues to suffer from the massive emigration of its young citizens, for lack of opportunities. Marco Mencaglia, project director for Albania at Aid to the Church in Need International (AED), visited the country and described a young, vibrant and hopeful church.
What is the situation of the Catholic Church?
Albania is one of the five poorest countries in Europe. It has approximately three million inhabitants, 10% of whom are Catholics, divided into five dioceses and an apostolic administration. Most Catholics live in the north of the country, where they even form the majority of the population. The Church of Tirana, the capital, in the center of the country, is particularly in need. There are very few diocesan priests. Pastoral work is carried out by religious communities, with very few means of subsistence.
To this must be added the internal migration of people who come from the north of the country in search of a better future in the capital. The south, which has a very small number of Catholics, can be considered first mission territory and a starting point for a new mission. Many courageous missionaries arrived in this region to found new communities where the church was completely unknown. Although Catholics are a minority in the south, relations with the majority Muslim population are good. On the other hand, the Albanian Church has recently reinvigorated itself with the appointment of four young bishops, three of whom are under 50, who are taking up the challenges of society.
When Pope Francis visited Albania in 2014, he spoke of the country’s “excruciating suffering”. What was he referring to?
Albania was under the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to the beginning of the 20th century. During this time, the Catholic population had to take refuge in the mountains of the north, the poorest part of the country, abandoned by the government. At the beginning of the 20and century, the Church experienced a period of relative freedom. However, after World War II, the country became a communist state.
In 1967 Albania was officially declared the world’s first atheist country under Enver Hoxha. The Church was systematically persecuted and neither the structures nor the faithful were spared. Some churches have been adapted for different uses. The cathedral in Shkoder, for example, was transformed into a sports hall and the cathedral in Durres was used as a puppet theatre. This persecution was almost unknown internationally, but it was one of the fiercest in Europe. Details only emerged after the fall of the regime in 1991. As the Pope said during his visit to Albania in 2014, these were “decades of excruciating suffering and terrible persecution.”
This bloodthirsty regime forced many to abandon the country. The situation on the ground has changed, but emigration remains a problem. We are witnessing emigration mainly from northern Albania to other countries. Immediately after the fall of the communist regime, emigration was mainly to Italy. After that he was mainly in Germany and the UK. In the 1990s, people fled in overcrowded boats, leaving the country in search of a better future. This more recent wave of emigration is not in mass, but rather a regular trickle, especially of young people, a whole generation fleeing the difficult situation of the country, marked by delinquency, the lack of opportunities and corruption. The Church has tried to stem this flow, but it is very difficult. Many priests and missionaries are in the country to support the people, despite all the difficulties.
During your visit, was there a story that particularly caught your attention?
I remember a conversation with Sr. Loise, from Kenya, who has been part of an Italian congregation working in Albania for many years. She told us that she is in charge of the apostolate with the Gypsy community in the south of the country, a community that suffers from discrimination from the rest of the population. As part of their work, they received gypsy children in the school they run. This led the other parents to withdraw their children from school, but the sisters continued their mission nonetheless, caring for only a few gypsy children. Sister Loise explained that after two years, the gypsy children started getting very good grades. For this reason, the other Albanian families have decided to re-enroll their children in Catholic schools. We can say that it was a small victory against internal discrimination.
In the midst of so many challenges, what has ACN been able to do for the Church in Albania?
The local Church of Tirana, for example, received support from ACN to build a pastoral center for Jesuits next to the church which was once a cinema, and which has also been renovated. The center will be ready next year and will mark a historic achievement for the Church in Albania as the Jesuits resisted enormous pressure and offered to sell the land to build another skyscraper in the middle of the city.
In the capital, we are also helping with ethics education in Catholic schools and pastoral work with young people and students, to give them better prospects and convince them to stay in the country. In the north, we have supported Catholic communities in isolated places in the mountains and provided transportation for the Church. In the south, buildings are being built or renovated to help with the first phase of evangelization, in places where the Church has never been present before.
ACN’s goal is to keep the church in the north alive; assist in the evangelization of migrants and the education of young people in Tirana, and support the first evangelization in the south of the country.