What Awaits Francis in Albania?

Priest Working More Than 10 Years in the Country Explains History, Heritage, Challenges Today

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Don Carlo Lorenzo Rossetti, a Fidei donum priest from the Diocese of Rome, has been based in Albania since 2003. He is Director of the “Redemptoris Mater” missionary seminary and he also teaches theology at the interdiocesan seminary in Shkoder. He also serves as a parish priest in Balldre-Gocaj-Kakarriq (Lezhe) and as a contributor to Radio Maria Albania. He spoke September 17th with Aid to the Church in Need, the international Catholic charity, on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to Albania.

Q: How would you describe the current situation in Albania, socially, politically and economically?

Rossetti: It seems to me that Albania is like a “teenager” who suffered a difficult and painful childhood. It’s a country in a growing process.

Socially, it means a country that is trying to overcome the past, the horrible past of dictatorship, atheism and total isolation. The greatest temptation is now to give up, to renounce and to forget this country by escaping through emigration.

Politically, it is a country that is trying to learn democracy. (We have to remember that this kind of political system – that we consider normal in Western world, – never existed in this poor semi-Eastern country. Albania, after centuries long domination of severe Islamic-Osman Turkey, passed through rigid monarchy (king Zogu), Italian fascism, German Nazism, and immediately after the World War II, through one of the most inhumane communist regimes under the radical Stalinist Enver Hoxha. The reason the rule of law is not easily taking roots is also due to this difficult inheritance. The classical heritage of Greek philosophy, Roman civic culture and Biblical spirituality, which is the very foundation of human rights and modern democracy, was largely bypassed in Albanian history. Sincerely I do not think that we can manage an “implantatio democratiae” just by proposing free elections, under international supervision…

Economically, the country is growing, because the starting point was zero! The risks are corruption, exploitation, lack of workers’ rights, etc.

Q: And how would you describe the situation of the Catholic Church in your country?

Rossetti: Well the Church is rising again! You know that since the beginning of the communist regime, in 1945 the Communist Party (“Partia e Punes”) persecuted all kinds of religious denominations, but the Catholic Church was particularly hurt because of her links with foreign countries, especially Italy and the Vatican. The majority of the martyrs where executed in this period. Moreover, in 1967, religion and faith were even officially abolished from Albania with the first atheistic constitution. All churches were destroyed or transformed into sports halls or stores. My generation in Albania is religiously very uneducated. The result is that usually we have churches attended by old persons, children and teenagers, but very few middle-aged men and women. In the very first beginning of Church activity after the fall of dictatorship (I mean in the years 1991-1994) some older priests who survived captivity and torture visited a lot of villages (mainly in the North, where the Catholic presence was traditionally more conspicuous), proposing Catholic baptism without any catechism. You can easily encounter adults who claim to be Catholic, even “very Catholic”, while not knowing the basic Christian prayers. Often to be Catholic is more an ethnic or sociological issue than a spiritual or religious one. Nevertheless, the last 20 years the pastoral work has been great. Thanks to the personal intervention of St. John Paul II, a lot of congregations and new movements entered Albania and are now serving this country. Also priestly vocations have grown.

Overall, we have to say that despite those efforts, the Church and spiritual life remain in a burgeoning stage. The renewal of Vatican II has not yet had a full impact on the Albanian Church. There is a largely “clerical Church” with little or no lay participation. The cause is obviously a lack of Christian initiation.

Q: What are the hopes and expectations that the Albanian people associate with the Catholic Church?

Rossetti: In the beginning, Albanian people just looked at the Church as a big charity. Maybe there is a risk that ecclesial identity is being misunderstood. But now it seems to me that generally the majority of the population is more open to the core of the Church’s message and has a largely positive opinion of ecclesial institutions. The Church is seen like a guarantor and guardian of human dignity and, henceforth, of human rights.

Q: And what are the hopes and expectations concerning the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis?

Rossetti I would distinguish Catholic and civic expectations:

–       Catholics hope that he might strengthen all pastoral workers, giving them courage and willingness to work in unity and in communion with the universal Church.

–       Civil authorities are hoping for a greater visibility for their country, which would make it easier for Albania’s future integration into the European Community.

Q: Can you describe the role of other religions in Albania, especially Islam?

Rossetti: Traditionally the majority of Albanians (around 65%-70%) have been Muslims, and they are not at all radicals or fundamentalists. A minority of Catholics live in the north and a similar Orthodox minority is present mainly in the south. In recent years Evangelical protestants have seen impressive growth.

Generally, religions live quite well together. Even though I do not know to which degree this friendly coexistence is based on true friendship or only on common sense. Certainly, the spiritual character of Albania is not a fanatic one: the mainstream opinion is that there is a God in heaven. It is not by chance that the new democratic Constitution approved in 1998 mentions God in its preamble.

The coexistence of different religions (Sunni & Bektashian Islam, Catholic, Orthodox & Evangelical Christianity) is a buffer against secular atheism and a bastion to uphold the spiritual dimension of the human person.

Q: Is there an existing and steady dialogue between the different Christian denominations and religions in your country?

Rossetti: Yes. I am personally very involved in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. As a professor at the seminary of Shkoder I can testify to the warm friendship that exists between Catholics and Orthodox in Albania. We have regular meetings with professors and students of the Orthodox academy of Durres. We have also started meetings with Evangelicals and Muslims.

Q: Are the religions and their representatives contributing to the development of Albania?

Rossetti: They are. Catholic activity has been strong in the education and health realms: schools, hospitals. The Orthodox have founded important academic institutions and have build a wonderful cathedral in Tirana. (We must not forget that political atheism has let to the “aesthetic desolation” of Albania. I am speaking about the foolish project that covered the sweet hills of this country with around 500,000 bunkers!). There are also some Islamic schools that help promote human rights and civil integration.

Q: What are – in your view – the key challenges for the country?

Rossetti: Family; education; honesty. Albanians have to protect one of their greatest gifts: the great esteem they have for the family. But the family is precisely under a terrible attack right now. Traditional values, often founded on machismo and patriarchy, are understandably called into question by the new generation; but in the meanwhile young people suffer excruciatingly from the contemporary temptations of hedonism, materialism and individualism.

Albania has to resist the two greatest temptations of the contemporary world, i.e.: secularism and Islamic fundamentalism. In this sense, moderate religious thinking can be very useful in proposing a positive model of the family.

< p>Another enormous challenge involves education and corruption. I connect those two topics, because corruption is an endemic evil that touches all of ordinary life:  education, justice, politics and healthcare. It seems reasonable to think that corruption might be overcome not only by laws and regulations, but, more profoundly, by a renewal of education.

Q: And what are – in this context – the most important challenges for the Church?

Rossetti: We must improve Christian life through the rediscovering of the Church’s primary goal, which is to evangelize, to transmit the Good News of Jesus Christ, the New Man, who reveals the true identity of all human beings. We are sons and daughters of God, called to live in unconditional love, and destined to eternal life and joy.

As Pope Francis stresses, the Church has to concentrate her efforts on her own peculiar gift, the Gospel – the defence of the God-given dignity of man and woman and the splendid announcement of the victory over evil and death.

Q: What are the main needs of the Church?

Rossetti: Everything that helps Christian education, that helps evangelization and formation based on biblical and Catholic doctrine.


Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)

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