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In Albania, Pope Francis Will Find a Church That is “Rising”

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Democracy is a New Concept, While Religion is a Lost One

When Pope Francis lands at Mother Teresa Airport outside Tirana, Albania, Sunday, he will find a country still getting used to the concept of democracy—and learning again what it means to believe in God. The Church is "rising," in the words of Father Carlo Lorenzo Rossetti, who has been based in Albania since 2003. But several generations grew up in a society that had tried to erase God from public and private consciousness.

Father Rossetti, a Fidei donum priest from the Diocese of Rome, directs the “Redemptoris Mater” missionary seminary and teaches theology at the interdiocesan seminary in Shkoder. He spoke recently with Aid to the Church in Need, the international Catholic charity.

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

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 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.

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

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 were 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 the dictatorship (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, over 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.

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