Fr Simon Jubani (pronounced: “you-bonnie”) spent much of his adult life in solitary confinement in an Albanian prison cell, where he was regularly tortured for his faith.
But he told me California was worse. “You are my Virgil,” Fr Jubani said at the end of our long weekend, referring to Dante’s guide in the Divine Comedy. “California was my Inferno.”
He spoke the words to me on a sidewalk outside of an elementary school shortly before I left him in Los Angeles to return to San Francisco.
This was the early 1990s and I had met him only a few days earlier. The National Catholic Register had hired me to accompany Fr Jubani on the last leg of a fundraising tour he was taking through America, hitting the biggest spots in the Albanian diaspora: Boston, Detroit, Chicago and now San Francisco and Los Angeles.
I began my interview before we left San Francisco. “How were you first captured by the communists?” I asked.
“Like this!” he said, pushing me against the wall and wrenching my wrist painfully up into the small of my back.
I wrote often for the Register back then, but my main source of income was the Albanian Catholic Bulletin, a deceptively named journal that published all it could get about Catholics in Albania, who the maniacally atheistic communist regime there was trying to eliminate.
We covered the terrible things dictator Enver Hoxha and the communist thugs were doing to try to purify Albania of the “opiate of the masses”, including dressing bishops as clowns to make them clean public toilets before their execution.
The way Fr Jubani told the story, he was Hoxha’s nemesis. He condemned the communists publicly, so Hoxha tortured and imprisoned him. He heard Confessions and said Mass in prison, so Hoxha had him sent him into solitary confinement.
When communism finally fell in Albania in 1990, it was in no small part due to a massive public Mass Fr Jubani celebrated during a brief release from prison which was meant to placate critics.
A year later, he stood by my side. It was hard to keep the priest focused on our interview. He would interview me, instead.
“Do you come from the monkey?” he asked.
Having returned to the faith the hard way, via atheistic scepticism, I had the answer for that one. “Well, Humani Generis says that we can certainly accept evolution, understanding God as the creator of …”
He cut me off. “No!” he said, poking me hard in the chest. “You came from Adam and Eve. It is Darwin – it is only Darwin – it is Darwin who comes from the monkey!” It was a strange, emphatic, fierce joke.
Our trip from San Francisco to Hollywood had a plot to it. Unlike Dante’s Inferno, it began with a note of hope.
“California!” Fr Jubani shouted, gesturing to the window of our plane at the foliage of the state, which looks landscaped even when it’s not. “Tom,” he said (he pronounced it “Tome”), “God spent six days making California. Then he quickly made everything else and went to his bed.”
We were to stay at a Studio City parish, whose pastor picked us up at the airport. The rooms he showed us in the rectory were as far from solitary confinement in an Albanian prison as you could get. They were richly appointed with big beds with ornate bedposts. I unloaded my stuff, and found Fr Jubani in a sitting room staring at a porcelain bust of Christ with a gold-plated crown of thorns.
Our first outing with the priest who was hosting us was at an expensive restaurant near Universal Studios. He told us and two parish guests in practised detail about the Hollywood stars who had eaten there, pointing out which ones were Catholic. We all sat in the booth as our companions perused their menus and asked the waiter detailed questions about what was what, and how it was prepared, and with what it was served.
The conversation stopped abruptly when Fr Jubani began pounding on our table. In fact, conversations stopped all around us.
“Are we animals?” he shouted. “Let us not speak the things we have in common with the animals! Do not speak of food! Speak of higher things! Religion! Politics! Philosophy!”
We ordered quickly and ate in silence.
Our next stop was Universal Studios. The priest had tickets for each of us, and showed us the movie sets for films that were entirely unknown to Fr Jubani.
Then the priest excitedly ushered us into a show. We sat in a tiered auditorium; the lights went down and actors dressed in Star Wars-esque costumes came out and, after a brief plot set-up, began a laser-gun war with space villains who looked like Klingons.
When it finally ended, Fr Jubani looked deeply disturbed by the experience. For a man who had probably only rarely seen black-and-white television sets in his native country, and perhaps had never seen a movie, the experience was overwhelming.
When a small child behind him accidentally touched him, he shouted in terror. She screamed and dissolved into tears. I looked apologetically at the child’s mother as we hurried out.
“The paradox of America!” he said, for the first of many times. “So much beauty. So much wealth. And you do this?”
Next may have been the climax of the plot of our journey: the Universal Studios Tour, a ride on a tramway through simulated sets and scenes of various films.
For some reason Fr Jubani didn’t seem to notice the shark that lunged at our tram early on. But he noticed what came next.
The tramway went through a tunnel next to a stream. Inside, the ground began to shake. The tour guide apologised, “One of our California quakes,” he explained. “Let’s just wait it out.”
The shaking got worse, not better.
The guide’s voice came back, alarmed. “Hold on, folks, this is a big one!”
Then I heard another voice competing with his: Fr Jubani, praying. I turned.
The priest was shivering as he clung to the post, muttering prayers for his life, for his soul, for his beloved homeland.
Just then a semi truck came driving along a roadway a little higher than ours. The “quake” shook it sideways and it slid down the hill into the stream, looking as if it was going to wipe us out – but merely spraying us with water instead.
When the tramway came out into the light again, there were tears in Fr Jubani’s eyes. He looked resigned in his fear.
“This is how a Christian faces death,” I remember thinking.
By the end of the ride, he understood a little better what was going on. We passed the giant head of King Kong, and Fr Jubani laughed and pointed, nudging me and shouting “Darwin! Darwin!”
The denouement of the story came at a Catholic goods megastore on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
When the priest told Fr Jubani he could buy whatever he liked for the Church back home, he began the most violent shopping frenzy I have ever seen, sweeping rosaries, holy cards and medals into his cart.
Then I saw him stopped next to a glass case of watches. He pointed down into the case at one in particular: it depicted the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Her arms weren’t moving like Mickey Mouse, thankfully, but I braced myself for an exclamation from Fr Jubani about the paradox of America, whose wealth cheapens everything.
Instead, his eyes were filled with wonder and devotion. He tapped on the glass, “I may … I may?” he said.
A store clerk took the watch out of the case and handed it to Fr Jubani.
He grabbed it and strapped it to his wrist, kissed it tenderly and whispered a prayer.
He loved it.
The paradox of America! We have so much. So much beauty, so much wealth. And what we do with it entrances the whole world.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas