For 40 years Albania had a Constitution which explicitly prohibited religious practice. When the Berlin Wall fell and democracy became a possibility, there was much to be done. And so it was for the Church, which had to evangelize virtually from nothing. “Parish priest, builder, Director of Caritas, secretary of the Bishop, secretary of the Episcopal Conference – everything had to be done, what they were asking for and what the reality called for. It was very intense but very lovely work.”
Given the Holy Father’s forthcoming visit to that country on September 21, this is how Monsignor Segundo Tejado, Spanish priest and at present Under-Secretary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, described to ZENIT his years in Albania and the initial work of the Church after so many years of oppression.
In 1993, after working in Rome, Father Tejado went to Albania to help in the total reconstruction of the Church. He had no specific responsibility because the Archbishop of Tirana had asked for a priest to help with all that had to be done. A year after his arrival, he was appointed director of Caritas-Albania.
He held this post for eight years, living all the crises of those years: the financial crisis of ’97, and the social and political crises — all of this in part as a consequence of the change from Communism to a democratic society. While there, he also endured the war of Kosovo, in which Serbian troops expelled many Koso-Albanians to Macedonia and especially to Albania.
In this circumstance, Caritas had much work to do. “It was a total undertaking,” recalls Monsignor Tejado, because so many structures had to be reconstructed as virtually everything had been destroyed in 40 years: churches, convents. Above all, the ecclesial community had to be reconstructed. They were 40 years without instruction, virtually without Sacraments. Albania was the only country with a Constitution that prohibited any form of religious manifestation, making it an offense by law. There were priests who died for having baptized a child in Tirana.
Monsignor Tejado also talks about the priests he met when they were already very elderly. When the Berlin Wall fell they were released from prison. In this connection, he says that “it was an enormous gift to know these persons who had suffered so much for their faith, for being priests or for saying that they were Christians.”
ZENIT: How did the Church in Albania develop from the time you arrived until you left?
Monsignor Tejado: She came a very long and very good way. The great merit of the first Bishops of Albania appointed by John Paul II in 1993 was that they had to do everything from zero — to reconstruct a minimum to be able to begin to work. And it wasn’t easy because there was no local clergy. Now there are young Albanians there, who are the ones who must take their Church in their hands and carry her forward.
It was a time of kairos. Communism did not destroy the roots of the natural religious sentiment, unlike the process of secularization which is able to uproot religiosity and then it’s very difficult to speak of God to secularized people. I realized that it was easy to talk of the Gospel in Albania; there was a very fresh reception of the Gospel, because we must remember that Albanians, whether Muslims, Catholics or Orthodox, are so because of their families; nevertheless, after 40 years of Communism, the Albanian people were profoundly atheist – a people that did not know God.
It’s also necessary to keep in mind that Albania looks to the West historically and culturally, although it was a country that belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Albania has modernized very rapidly. The process of change from Communism to a more open and democratic society has been very swift. This has created many problems, especially at the inter-generational level. One could perceive great tension between the old traditions and the flood of the new world that was arriving.
The Church adapted to the new reality. Now the churches are more or less reconstructed, and the Church tries to be what she must be: salt, light and leaven.
ZENIT: What did John Paul II’s visit to Albania in 1993 imply?
Monsignor Tejada: I arrived after, but there was still an echo. It was something fantastic, a sign of hope for a people who had come out of so many years of oppression. John Paul II’s visit was like something that came down from heaven. That a Pope should go there was something enormous. All the people, Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics – all went out onto the streets, as will be the case with Francis. Albania is a very hospitable nation, and when the people give their heart they really do so.
ZENIT: Can we understand Pope Francis’ forthcoming visit in the perspective of going out to the fringes?
Monsignor Tejada: Of course, it’s the Pope’s style. However, be careful, it’s the style of every Christian. A Christian does not act according to the logic of power, of economics or convenience. In this sense, the Pope is a very primordial person. He has been invited and he has said: “Yes, I must go there” – to the smallest country, the one that has the least inhabitants, which has less economically speaking. This is the Christian logic. Jesus chose the little ones. He did not surround himself with powerful people to then receive a recompense. He didn’t have that logic.
The Pope has talked about inter-religious dialogue, something that is very interesting in Albania. It’s true that they is only one ethnic group and that creates a very important basic unity. There is a constant dialogue in Albania between religious beliefs; it isn’t sporadic, it’s constant. Moreover, there isn’t any one that is radical.. From what I’ve seen, Albanians aren’t fundamentalists by principle.
ZENIT: What fruits do you think the Pope’s visit can bring?
Monsignor Tejado: The fruits will have to be seen afterwards. I think the first fruit will be a word to Europe, which is building on the basis of economic interests. And Europe must begin to look and to build with other criteria. And with these signs and decisions of the Pope, I believe this is the message he wishes to give. The criteria can’t be just economic or strategic. Nations are built with other riches.
ZENIT: In what way is the witness of a great Albanian woman, such as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, present in that nation?
Monsignor Tejado: Albanians are very proud to have had such a woman. I met her while I was there. And it seems paradoxical that God made such a jewel with such a small woman from such a small nation, if one looks at it from the worldly point of view. The Blessed is present everywhere; for them she is their national pride. The airport is dedicated to her, as is the most important Square of Tirana, the hospital. There is a very good feeling, and Albanians love her a lot. She had a special affection for Albania, where she returned many times and founded many convents.