I spent five months living with Bishop George Frendo OP in Tirana Albania last year. Travelling to Albania felt like entering a time machine to the beginning of the church, not because the country was never evangelized but because of the atheistic dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, a few decades ago.
In the 1976 constitution, Hoxha stated that “The state recognizes no religion whatever and supports atheist propaganda for the purpose of inculcating the scientific materialist world outlook in people” convincing people to recognize from their own experience the futility of religion and the harm it does to a socialist society. During these years, 34 religious and 4 lay people were martyred, and everything religious, including churches, were destroyed or else converted into gyms, schools and hospitals. With the death of the dictator in 1985 communism started collapsing.
In October 1993 Father George Frendo OP visited Albania, where the misery the people felt after 50 years of communism was still tangible. Through his contacts, he was convinced that he should return there, and in 1995 the Maltese province decided to open a Mission that since then has been going strong. In a few years, the country experienced two extremes. In a paradoxical way, in Albania, the collapse of communism opened the way for individualism and consumerism. However it was more than this – besides simply helping the poor and the needy, the Catholic Church has been trying to develop a new mentality; that of the Gospel.
Nowadays, every year hundreds of youths and adults receive Baptism after careful preparation. Last year in the cathedral of Tirana 120 catechumens were Baptized on Easter day..This is the fruit of a church that suffered many persecutions because it never compromised with the regime that reigned with an iron fist in an anti-human and atheist way, and has nonetheless always helped everyone – Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim.
God alone knows the number of persons who have knocked on the door of Fr Frendo’s house, asking for the imam (himself), who through simple gestures of love, has helped so many find the God that was taken away from them. I am very grateful for the time I spent in Albania with Fr Frendo and with the Albanian community. It is reassuring to know that such tremendous love and hope exists in this country. As Pope Francis said during his visit to Albania, “This is a young people, very young! And where there is youth, there is hope. Listen to God, worship him and love one another as a people, as brothers and sisters.”