Every second Saturday of the month, 4 pm - Divine Liturgy in English of Sunday - Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, Duke Street, London W1K 5BQ. Followed by refreshments.
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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Pilgrimage to Albania and Macedonia - 1967

Fr John Salter writes in Chrysostom, Pascha 2010:
In the summer of 1967 I was in the Croatian town of Dubrovnik. Yugoslavia was still intact as the Union of the Southern Slavs, and Communism was   in power. In the hotel foyer I spotted a notice advertising a visit to Albania, a country which had fascinated me since my boyhood reading of   “The Voyage of the Gyro Car” and my meeting some years later with Auberon Herbert, whose father known as ‘The Man who was Greenmantle’ had been offered the Albanian throne, and his friend Maria-Selma Zavalani and Albanian Catholic who had accompanied the exiled King Zog and Queen Geraldine to London.
    Thus it was that I caught a ‘bus at 5.30 in the morning from the city gates of Dubrovnik to the second city of Albania, Schodra. In Schodra I discovered that the dictator, Enver Hoxha, had declared that Albania was the first atheist state. As a sign of the embracing of atheism the Franciscan friars, who had been active in Catholic churches throughout the Balkans and in Skodra itself had been locked in their basilica and burnt alive. The ruins were still smouldering when I arrived. That Christmas of 1967, Pope Paul VI announced on Vatican Radio that the Catholic Church in Albania had peace – the peace of the grave. It looked as though atheism had triumphed as similar atrocities were perpetrated against the Orthodox Church and the Moslems.
    In September I was able to join the annual pilgrimage of the Anglican and Eastern Churches’ Association, which was to Albania and Macedonia, and having heard of the great revival in the Churches of Albania I was eager to see the work that had been done by particularly Archbishop Anastasios ( appropriately named ‘Resurrection’) a Greek  sent from Kenya by the Ecumenical Patriarch, who had taken over responsibility for the Orthodox in Albania.
   Albania, although only three and a half hours flight from London, had been isolated from the rest of the world, except Mao’s China, but was now opening up after the collapse of Communism; so it was with some excitement and expectancy that I arrived in the capital, Tirana.
   On my first day in Tirana I made my way into the central square, where my hotel was situated, and noticed a preponderance of Mercedes and some attractive looking hotels, including the Sheraton.  There was now a King Zog and a Mother Theresa boulevard competing with Skandebeg boulevard. The saintly nun had been born in Macedonia, but was of Albanian blood, and was recently re-claimed by the Albanian government as one of their own, having been ostracized by the Enver Hoxha regime.
    An interesting and pacific sight was that of ‘The Bell of Peace’ which had been constructed following the 1997 riots, when many bullets had been fired, the casings being collected by one of the few remaining Catholic priests to be fashioned into the  bell. Near at hand was the new Catholic cathedral of St. Paul, whom according to Albanian legends visited here on his way to Rome. Surrounding the cathedral were blocks of flats painted in the sort of style one might see in Mexico – an outpouring of colour and vitality. Purple and cobalt blue, orange and jade green, canary yellow and bright pink had been daubed across the soviet style grey walls, when the new Mayor of Tirana asked the youth of the city to cheer the place up. ‘Have fun’ he had said and they certainly had!
    After the visual stimulation of the student paintwork to enter the Catholic cathedral was to enter a space of utter tranquility. The walls were purest white with the Blessed Sacrament on the left of the high altar, behind which was the Bishop’s throne backed with some elegant and interesting heraldry. The only other decoration was a sort of icon of Mother Theresa constructed with shells.
     On the opposite side of the narrow stream was the Orthodox cathedral, a brand new building and the largest church in Albania.
    I made my way to the mosque opposite my hotel in the central square of Tirana. This, like the Catholic and Orthodox churches, had been closed during the Enver Hoxha reign of terror. I was told that during this period the male head of a  Moslem household at the hour of prayer would say to his wife and family; “ I am going to take the air in the garden”, in case the family betrayed him to the authorities. Orthodox parents would lock up their icons and get them out of their hiding places when the children had gone to bed. Catholics did the same with crucifixes, which were banned as were coat hangers which looked like crosses!
  Next to this mosque is the large museum. Here there is an interesting display of the Family Tree of King Zog and a film showing continuously the wedding of the king to the Hungarian Catholic Countess Geraldine Apponyi. The best man at their wedding seemed to be the man who eventually betrayed them – Count Ciano, a member of the Fascist government of Italy under Mussolini. Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia was a guest at the wedding. In another room there was a film of Queen Geraldine with her son King Leka and of her grandson Prince Leka, who is a member of the government. He makes a speech in the film expressing a wish to be of help to Albanians “on the ground”. On display were photographs of Frasheri and Selma Zavalani; Aubrey Herbert, who did not make it to be king; and of the priest Fan Noli, who formed a sort of temporary government before fleeing into exile in the United States. A grisly relic was the gun that shot Mussolini. It was not clear as to how the Albanians obtained this weapon.
    I tore myself away from this fascinating exhibition in order to meet fellow pilgrims at the British Embassy for drinks with Fiona McIlwham, the ambassador, who filled us in on life in Albania over white wine. A visit to the large new Orthodox cathedral followed and then we were whisked off to the nearby hills for a dinner of innumerable courses, which would have outdone even Parson Woodford.
     The nest morning after breakfast we were received at the Archbishop’s residence by Bishop Andron, the assistant bishop, the Archbishop Anastasios being at the ecumenical gathering in Krakow. Bishop Andron is a very young bishop and was formerly a Moslem, but was converted to Christianity through reading the books published by Protestant sects, which he was able to access under Enver Hoxha’s regime.  The bishop showed us a film of the progress made in the Orthodox Church since the arrival of Archbishop Anastasios. He told us that as there were only sixteen Orthodox priests, and they very old or in poor health after the purges following 1967, there were now 140. We were told that there were now monks in the Orthodox Church, but not yet proper monasteries, but a convent for nuns was about to open.  We were told that Archbishop Anastasios has under his jurisdiction both the New Calendarist Orthodox (the Orthodox number among their members in Albania - Albanians, Greeks and Montenegrins) and Old Calendarists. “What is wrong with keeping Our Lord’s Birthday twice ?” asked Bishop Andron. The bishop reminded us that the Kossovan Moslems were helped by the Albanian Orthodox when they were attacked by the Serbian Orthodox. He also pointed out that in Albania there had never been religious wars. The national hero, Skanderbeg, had kept the Ottoman Turks out of Albania and on his return from Turkey in 1443 had won a battle against a local Pasha.  He  was an interfaith figure in that his father was a Catholic, his mother Serbian Orthodox and he had converted to Islam in 1453, but had re-converted to Catholicism. The then Pope had hoped that Skanderbeg, “The Athlete of Christ” would have led a Crusade, but it never came to pass; nevertheless he kept the Turks out of that part of Europe, otherwise the Italians would be speaking Turkish today.
    We visited some of the villages near Tirana to which the Communists had brought electricity and full employment, but the villages were desperately poor as the party had unwittingly destroyed the peoples’ will to work. In factories of 20 only 5 really did any work and this led to economic collapse. Most people wanted to leave the country and there are more Albanians now abroad than there are in Albania. A great deal of the land is unworked. Money comes in from families living overseas otherwise many in Albania would starve. Like most Communist leaders Enver Hoxha was totally paranoid, and was particularly worried about foreign invaders and on the Albanian shore   of Lake Ochrid had built concrete bunkers every few yards; 700,000 of these had been planned.
     In the town of Elbasan we visited the Orthodox church, which because it was in a narrow winding street was inaccessible to the party’s bulldozers, which had succeeded in razing to the ground a large number of ancient churches, some from the Byzantine period. One church seemed to be in the hands of the Uniates and had probably been re-opened by the Italo-Albanians of Calabria or Sicily, where there are colonies several centuries old particularly in Palermo and the almost totally Albanian town some thirty miles from Palermo, Piana degli Albanesi, formerly Greci.
   In Elbasan our group was accosted by a religious fanatic of  evangelical persuasion  dressed from head to foot in white who demanded whether we were 100% certain we were going to heaven. With British sang froid we looked at our boots.
   The pilgrimage moved on to Korce past Moslem villages where the fast of Ramadan was being observed. In Korce we were warmly received by the Orthodox  Bishop  John at the new cathedral. He, like Bishop Andron, was a very young bishop. He told us that he had come to the Christian faith through his French studies when he had been given a copy of the Gospels in French, during the period of intense persecution. He told us of a priest friend of his father who had been executed for baptizing a baby; baptizing was a capital offence   after 1967. He spoke of the lack of joy in the world and reminded us that we were to  “enter into the joy of thy Lord”; not a kingdom of peace, but of joy.   He came from a family of eight and despite the terrible times he had lived through he knew joy in his family. He felt that a Christian should not be alone, but in a community. He told us he drank coffee with the local Moslem imans and the Catholic clergy in public at the street cafes on a regular basis as a witness to common humanity, in actions not words. Although he was a close friend of the Orthodox bishop of Ochrid across the lake in Macedonia he could not concelebrate the Divine Liturgy with him as the other Orthodox Churches  did not recognize the autocephaly or self government of the Macedonian Orthodox Church as it had been done unilaterally and not with the consent of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and other National Churches. It was a surfacing again of the old problem of Orthodoxy – Phyletism, or nationalism. Whenever the national Churches of the Orthodox world had declared  autocephaly it had always been unilaterally, but eventually the  Phanar and the Ecumenical patriarch had to accept the situation, but it often took time and in the case of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church it took a very long time to resolve.
   Bishop John said that the Albanian Churches were the  Churches of the Resurrection “We were dead, but behold we live again!”
  From Korce we made our way into the country and visited a very remote basilica as yet unrestored. In the churchyard were   marble graves stones on the tomb of the parish priest and his wife. It was a peaceful place with lovely views and one hoped the priest and his wife, owing to this isolated position, had managed to die peacefully and without violence. In the next village we met the married parish priest and were shown his church of St. Nikodim of the New Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke, an 18th century victim of the Ottoman Empire. The next day being Sunday we attended the Divine Liturgy in the new cathedral in Korce, where there was splendid singing accompanied by an organ a most unusual practice for an Orthodox church as only the Armenians among the Eastern Churches use the organ, a Latinization from Crusader times. Another village church we visited on our journey back to Macedonia was of very early date and its churchyard soon filled up with village children on our arrival and it was an ideal place to distribute old Christmas cards! This created a brawl for possession!
   There was a sad incident on Lake Ochrid when a party of tourists from Bulgaria were drowned when a boat sank. The lake was very rough and there had been an earthquake in the area. We crossed the frontier into Macedonia at 9.30 a.m. on Monday morning and our first visit was to the large monastery of St. Naum. If you pressed your ear against his tomb you could hear the dead saint’s heart beating - for sure ! There are five monks here in this delightful setting, where peacocks roam in the garden and along the lake. A monastic notice in English warns that “The Peacocks may harm your children”.
    The ancient city of Ochrid once a very important ecclesiastical centre has an 11th century basilica of St.Sophia, which in the 15th century had been converted into a mosque, but was now a church. Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, had conquered the city and in Christian times it was known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans as it boasted 365 churches, some from the 5th century. The Via Ignatia runs through the town and it was along this road in Roman times that Christianity was spread making Ochrid the epi-centre of Christianity in the Balkans. It linked Ochrid to Thessalonika and Constantinople and St. Paul travelled along it. St Clement’s basilica is one of the major sights of the area. 
    Our journey took us along the Black Drin river to the Convent of St. John. In 1945 with the advent of the Communist regime it had been turned into a stable, but in 1999 it had been restored and re-occupied by a community of nuns, who cared for girls who had fallen victim to drug addiction. The nuns make a living by vestment making and by manufacturing magnificent mitras or crowns for Orthodox bishops throughout the Balkans and beyond. They had close links with a convent in the United States, the Convent of the Nativity of the Mother of God. The nuns were very proud of their convent and rightly so for it is beautifully kept and is surrounded by very colourful gardens. It contains relics of St. George. Refreshed in the abbess’s parlour by coffee, cakes, raki and Turkish Delight we made the short distance to the  monks at the next monastery of St.John the Forerunner. This had been destroyed by the Turks, but had been rebuilt in 1743 and had a very fine iconastasis erected in 1829-1835. Here, as at the local convent, the monks take in young men who have drug addiction problems.
     Our pilgrimage came to an end as we made our way to Skopje airport for the flight to Zagreb and London.   What I had witnessed at the Franciscan church in 1967 seemed to mark the end of Christianity or any religion in Albania, but it brought home to me that God is always creative and can make dry and dead bones live. It is not by accident that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I of Constantinople had chosen an Archbishop with the name Anastasios to resurrect the Church in Albania!
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