For the Catholics of Albania, the past year has been remarkable. In December 2015 came the news of the death of Archbishop Rrok Mirdita of Tirana, the principal figure in the restoration of Catholicism after communism. He had been ordained by St John Paul II in April 1993 during the pope’s visit to a nation that had suffered by far the most severe religious persecution of any country in modern times.
Then this year, on September 4, Pope Francis canonised Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an ethnic Albanian. She had been born in Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia, in 1910, two years before the emergence of the modern state of Albania after 500 years of Ottoman rule.
Another significant event was the nomination as a cardinal of Fr Ernest Troshani Simoni, an 88-year-old priest who spent 28 years in labour camps. Pope Francis was moved to tears when the two men met in Tirana in 2014. Fr Simoni will receive his red hat on November 19.
Finally, last Saturday Vatican Cardinal Angelo Amato beatified 38 martyrs of the communist era in Shkodër Cathedral.
Albania is the size of Wales, with a population of nearly three million. Albanians living in neighbouring countries and worldwide number roughly eight million. There are about 30,000 in Britain.
Albania was one of the oldest Christian civilisations, but on account of the Turkish occupation it is now the only majority Muslim country in Europe, with a minority of Catholics, predominantly in the north, and Orthodox, chiefly in the south.
The communist regimes of Enver Hoxha (1945-1985) and Ramiz Alia (1985-1991) ensured Albania’s isolation from the rest of the world. The communists launched a severe religious persecution which intensified in 1967 when Albania was declared to be the world’s first atheist state. Churches and mosques were either destroyed or given over to secular use. The Cathedral of St Stephen in Shkodër, consecrated in 1867, was turned into a sports hall. Parents had to baptise their children secretly and the use of Christian names was banned.
The newly beatified Albanian martyrs were mostly priests (many of them Franciscans). But they also included two laymen, a seminarian and an aspirant Franciscan Sister. Some of the martyrs were humiliated in show trials before they were put to death. Others were summarily executed or died in prison. Torture and executions were conducted on a massive scale at the former Franciscan college in Shkodër, just one of many communist prisons in the city. The college is now a museum to the suffering of Albanians during the Hoxha years and some of the cells bear portraits of the victims adorned with crucifixes, rosaries and candles. The torture chamber has been preserved and it was there, in what had once been their school and seminary, that some of the priest-martyrs were brutally interrogated.
After religious freedom was restored at Christmas 1990, Italy took particular responsibility for re-establishing Catholicism in Albania. But today the clergy and Religious include a growing number of Albanians. The seminary in Shkodër, which serves the whole country, has about 25 students.
Albanian Catholics in Britain and Belgium are served by Fr Gary Walsh, a Canadian priest who has worked among Albanians in Greece and Albania itself, and whose command of the language is astonishing. Mass is celebrated weekly in Albanian in London and monthly in Brussels.
My own interest in Albania began in the 1970s, when I listened to Radio Tirana’s propaganda broadcasts in English. Then, in the 1990s, I heard about the terrible persecution the faithful had endured from a fellow priest who had visited post-communist Albania.
In 2000 I was a concelebrant at a Mass with Archbishop Mirdita in London. I took Albanian refugees living in the Essex parish in which I was serving to the Mass. The archbishop then came to Brentwood to meet Albanians in the diocese (the then Bishop of Brentwood, Bishop Thomas McMahon, had visited Tirana in 1999). When I served in the London Borough of Newham, I came to know many Albanian families.
When I made my first visit to Albania in 2015, I decided that I would try to learn the language. It’s the hardest I have ever attempted. Last July I celebrated my first liturgy in Albanian, officiating at a wedding in Shkodër Cathedral. I was told that I was the first English priest to do so there, and I replied that I might well be the last given my poor command of the language.
We must hope that the Albanian martyrs will become known around the world and particularly among British Catholics, who have their own history of martyrdom. Many of the martyrs went to their deaths with these words on their lips: Rroftë Krishti Mbret! – “Long live Christ the King!” May the faith continue to grow in this once atheist land.