Diary – Albania – Part1

One of the most extraordinary experiences of my life was my visit to Mother Teresa’s sisters (the Missionaries of Charity) in Tirana in place of Fr. Ian Petit who was dying.

ARRIVAL July 1 1996

With my bag clinking with £60 worth of vitamins provided by our poor fund, Barry Stainthorpes’ approach to Tesco and Mrs. Pettigrew of Tollerton’s generosity with Fr. Ian’s books and cassettes for ballast we touched down in Tirana dead on time, the runway was bumpy and there was just tiny  area of apron where the aircraft stood. As we taxied all the Albanians abroad stood up to unload the lockers and the stewardesses were caught napping and nearly went hairless getting everyone to sit down until the aircraft had stopped. It was difficult to tell who the other passengers were, some were business men, some Albanians going home, an American a Swiss. As I walked for the aircraft I passed just to see if I had to collect my case from the hold of the aircraft or whether it would be brought in by trolley – it went in by trolley. We walked 100 yards from the apron to the arrivals building along an avenue of trees and flowers. As we passed the other two aircraft, parked as in a car park, the engine cowling was open, perhaps maintenance(!), but probably cooling – the sun was hot and the air very warm – lower 80s I thought. There was a four line scrum in the terminus room. The foreigners (spelt foreing) had to pay a  $5 tax which I had been notified of so I had the notes ready – some paid $10 (Kuwaitis.etc) I got to the desk after 15 minutes and the chap looked at my passport and entry ticket then with a pencil and carbon paper put my name and tax paid in duplicate. I took the tickets and went to collect my case from pile in another room.. Outside there was a large crowd and 2 Missionaries of Charity came forward to seize my baggage and put it into the minibus. The main road out was barely two lane, much mended and once away from the single airport building in total countryside – there were no commercial buildings of any sort around (When I later took off, I noticed that the airfield was also a military one, and beyond the terminal building were helicopters, aircraft and tents for troops. We passed on to a main road , the houses were pleasantly built with red tiles and straight forward sloping roofs. We passed a well planned white walled Iranian factory, a new mosque and some of the 700,000 pill box like skeps which were built by Hodsha regime in case of nuclear attack. What a waste, what a sign of fear of invasion, what a way to keep a country down, what a strange way to put people to work.

THE MISSIONARIES OF CHARITY – TIRANA

The community had assembled and had had a seminar on Veritatis Splendor before I arrived. There were some 12 sisters all of them superiors of communities in the Balkan area (there are some 32 MCs in Albania in some 5 different towns.) I discovered that I was expected to give 3 talks a day, so I made it 1 talk – 1 scripture sharing, and 1 period for ministry. and one homily at Mass.

I was invited to say Mass for them, as I had not had a chance to celebrate during the day so I used it for an opening conference and explained why I was there and not Fr. Ian. The music was organised by a very talented sister and covered the newer hymns. In the small chapel, the sisters sat, knelt on the floor. The house had just been finished and the sisters had only been in a week but outside the fence was a 7 storey tenement block and smaller houses .the space around the house had small dwellings and there seemed to be constant building noises. The area was just behind the main street in which I lived, but its roads were completely broken up and the atmosphere of dilapidation was  everywhere.

A Dutch co-worker,Harry, breezed in and introduced himself he had a sister who is a Benedictine nun in Holland. The sisters would not have me eat with them so I had a little room on the ground floor next to a waiting room, which was adjoining the chapel.

The kitchen was dark cavernous with no central table, a large stove (perhaps gas) and some old cupboards. This house had just been refurbished and occupied a week before I arrived, it was freshly painted and very bare – my room had a bed, a table and two  chairs. The lavatory was new but would not flush because water was only available in morning and evening so there was a bucket of water standing by for the necessary . The door frames were new and well made as were the doors which modern and functional handles. The floors were terrazo style or concrete very bare. There was a little covered veranda with no view except a vast multi storey apartment block plastered with balconies some sporting satellite dishes. Many people seem to have acquired a TV – one channel was available during the communist regime. Supper was an Albania pastry with tomatoes, peach, cucumber, bread which was thick and white, and some slightly off butter. a cooked vegetable and coffee in Gold blend jar which was not the Gold blend which we buy in Easingwold – like Chilean Nescafe there seems to be a different taste for other countries – more bland. though the texture is the same dried, consistency which we associate with GB here, powdered milk and hot water in a thermos.

Was taken down to the Sons of the Immaculate Conception. (An Italian order into   healthcare and education for the poor, funded by Luigi Montit who was a contemporary of Don Bosco). They lived down the main street off which was the MC house. It was a dual carriageway street with a good surface and continuous traffic (till 0200- 0530).

SONS OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION

There were street sellers of fruit and veg, household equipment, mops, glasses, plates, also paintings and other items – all imported but evidence of a growing entrepreneurial spirit. There was a small boy behind an upturned carton with 10 bananas on it – (also imported) but costing 10 lek. The House of the FIC (Figli Im Con) had a pharmacy attached.  Behind the sliding gateway there was a modern square built house with very high quality design and furnishing. The floors were spotless, there were floor coverings under the covered walkways. An ambulance and a landrover and minivan were parked inside the driveway. Up two flights of stairs was the community accommodation – wide passages with 3 Sons – one argentinean priest, (away), Fr. Luke (a student of bio ethics aged in his  30s from Kerala and working on a doctorate), and Br. who was earthy, Italian and liked his food. Their kitchen was well equipped an spotless (they had an Albanian maid) and their common room had a spectacular veranda overlooking the street and the city – it was a three storey house. In the street were frequent horse carts of a very simple peasant design You could see the newly built Jesuit Church of the Sacred Heart which doubles as a pro-cathedral . (It was one of only two churches in the city, thought there is a site for building a Cathedral) Opposite was an Orthodox Church and centre. A bus graveyard was close by. There was satellite TV and the room served as a dining room. My bedroom had a shower, bidet etc ensuite and with those excellent continental tap worked by raising a lever and swinging it. The bedroom was barely furnished with a double bunk and single bed. A hat stand served for hanging space and a food trolley for a table.

The chapel was a first class room built of high quality wood, wood block floor but rather more an assembly room than a devotional space. Rather oblong, the door and altar were opposite on the long sides of the room with box type seat which opened for hymn books etc. There was room on seats round the wall for some 20 people. The altar was wooden and simple with oil lamp for candle, electric flicker for sanctuary lamp. and inset tabernacle. The most striking thing were three murals. One of the collapse of the Communist state, symbolised as a ship with Jesus looking on holding a cross, another was of the visit of the Pope in 1992 with Mother Theresa and the FIC looking towards a crowd of Albanians in modern and traditional dress. I was not sure how much the murals were specific in their detail to individual events, but thought not.

Fr. Luke proved to be an excellent companion who told me a lot about life in Albania. He had been in Rome and knew an English Benedictine called Nicholas. The road was noisy and about 1200 the roaring began. I later heard that this was from the drunks going home – they made a tremendous noise just like dogs barking – and had it not been for Luke telling me that this was what caused the noise, I would never have been able to tell the difference. I found that pigeons coo in Tirana the same ways as in Easingwold, the flies are the same too. (not many of them – no insect problem at all)

Tuesday 2nd. On the way to the MCs for breakfast I got lost and could not finds the turning off for the house, but since I was in clericals (I decided to wear a black shirt and white plastic all the time I was there, I considered taking habit, but woollen habits in that heat, it was nearly always in the 80s, did not seem practical) and as I looked around an Italian lady came up and introduced herself – she could not understand my Spanish nor I her Italian but when I said Mother Teresa all problems disappeared and she took me to the house which was in fact quite close.

THE THEME OF THE RETREAT

My plan for the retreat focused on the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, Ian had been asked to give a retreat on the renewal of Charisms I discovered that the sisters had had some experience of the charisms in other retreats. A number of different experiences were mentioned all positive, though it was pointed out that there has been some superiors who forbad the praying over for healing. My themes were Jesus and the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, The personal experience of the Holy Spirit, Healing through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit and community, the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist , the Holy Spirit and the future of the Church.

The day began at 9.00 with my major talk (40-50 mins) this was followed at 11.00 by Mass. At 3.o’clock we had the 7 step meditation and sharing of Scripture using the letter to the Ephesians. and at 5 o’clock the time of ministry. (Dedication to Jesus, Prayer for the Baptism of the Spirit, prayer for Inner Healing, Prayer for the Healing of the Family tree.

An Irishman appeared in the evening – he was doing some catechetical work in the country and he said how powerful and inspiring was the emerging faith of the people.. His friend was an Albanian c.20 had been baptised a Catholic by his grandparents, but since it was not certain, he had been done again at the age of 16. He said that when he was young, no one had gathered anywhere to pray or celebrate Mass for the 40 years. He also said that the elections were not free and that the UN wee investigating. He told me that lorry loads of goods were harder to enter the country because the govt. wanted to encourage home grown industries

Wednesday 3rd. July Pat Stamp came to Mass on her way back to Alton Hants where she organises lorries to bring clothes to the villages. Pat had been a teacher and now with early retirement she finds herself working for Albania. She loads up lorries. She told me of the work of an ex Westminster Cathedral, ex Harrovian called Harry who taught the children music and had a real gift of translation for English to Albanian hymns.

I heard that the MCs had bought a house from the Govt but then it had been claimed by old families with title deeds going back to Turkish time. They had to move out of it, and thus we were in the newly done up house for the retreat. It was so new that the telephone was still in the old house , so two sisters had to live there to keep it going. The sisters will not give bribes to get their permissions etc. so their endeavours take rather a long time to get through the bureaucracy.

The sisters have an excellent organist among them, and we take our shoes off when we enter the chapel. This is the first time I have been involved in this and one of the sisters produced a pair of sandals for me to wear in the house.

I gave the sisters half an hour each to come and see me if they wanted to. One told me of the retreat where a Philipinno priest prayed over the and the whole community rested in the Spirit. But then a superior said that this praying over should stop, and the sister wondered how a human being could thwart the work of God. She had herself experienced a great grace in the retreat, and found herself praying in tongues without knowing what she was doing until she read a book on the Renewal of the Charisms and Baptism in the Holy Spirit. I asked this sister and another to join me in praying over the sisters when they came for ministry. We always finished this session with a holy hour which ended the day.

When I got back to the FIC, I had a long talk with Fr. Luke. He said that most of the things you can buy in Albania were imported because the people did not want to work. He said this was caused by 40 years of the Communist system where people did not get much to work and so did not work much. Their work attention span was very short – they always wanted rests. When the Italians came to build the FIC house it was very difficult to get Albanians to help. – you had to make it really work their while to overcome their lethargy. I ask how they lived – many he said were abroad and sent money home. And they were use do living on very little. They had no incentive to improve their life – their buildings and roads are in very poor shape – there is a complete lack of standards of living and pride in anything material. The new houses and the properly done up ones are all owned by foreigners. However since Italy and Greece are close their imports reflect the high standard of the EC. On of the roadside are wheely litter bins, brushes, cup, glasses and other home utensils of EC standard.

As I wandered through the city the shops are often cafes, boutiques, shoes dresses. This is in my area, the centre of the capital city.. A restaurant with dark glass and air conditioning is just up the street, also a big shop with high grade machine tools for small businesses or DIY, but behind the main road, the side streets are dilapidated, the roads very rough and un-made up.

Luke said the young were very attentive when they were to get presents, but were very dismissive and even cross when there were no handouts.

Thursday The theme was on prayer and the Holy spirit. I had my sheets on prayer groups and shared prayer to distributed and found that the sisters did have a photocopier in one of the houses. My talks tend to last about 50 minutes.but no one protests or seems to fall asleep – this is a bit difficult sitting on the floor !!

THE TOWN

Friday 5th. At 7.15 I went left out of the house up to the Centre of the town. This was main crossroads with a huge central space. The Southern road, with Italian style monumental buildings which contained ministries, went swooping down an incline and up to another monumental building – very much a planned city centre – perhaps Italian designed, and in the tradition of Rome or the Paris of the 3rd Empire. The Northern road went to the railway station, and the Western road was the one which had the FIC on. At one side was the stature of Skanderbeg, the national hero who. had led the country against the invading Turks about 1450 and the Christians regard him as the saviour of the nation – children are brought up to respect and admire him, as I gained from Francesco (see below). There were two merry-go-rounds, and a dodgem ring at the Centre and they seemed to be well filled with children.. There were kiosks of food, and everywhere families and children enjoying the cooler evening strolling, old men with lined and characterful faces sat on low stone walls and watched the world go by. There was a sunken garden with fountain and seats, trees and flowerbeds. Where the roads meet is a huge open space – no roundabout – cars move slowly through it and there are designs on the road to direct traffic – the road is well cared for and the designs in different coloured stones. To cross you just set out and avoid cars. The cars are either Mercs (pinched from Europe !) and old bangers with exhaust fumes. Boyos show off in them and there is a certain lack-a-daisical air to the driving. I went down a parallel street to my own, and noticed a library, travel agent,sweetshops but no books shops. There was a shop or two with small compact gold style jewellery, a clothes shop with rather ugly dummies and plain clothes. I proceded carefully avoiding manholes only half covered. and holes and uneven pavements smiling at young men with bundles of Lek who want dollars. I passed an embassy road which was well protected by police and huge lumps of concrete. Obviously in the past there had been very strict control of this area – there were pleasant houses behind their high walls and iron gates( reminded me of Santiago Chile,) but people moved freely through the area. I waved at the police and they saluted back.

I then tried to cut across to my street and found myself lost. It was a very ramshackle area – rather than dilapidated – it had some good housing but the roads were earth, very bad to drive on and there was an air of disorder and lack of planning but with flats and modern concrete blocks about. There were children playing, including the string game which seems to be universal (two children have a long circle of string round their knees while a third jumps and skips between the lines). There was general good humour, and I asked a grandfather with his granddaughter to show me the way to the Pharmacies, and he knew exactly where I meant and took me into the street which abuts the one I lived in. Up that street came a boyo with a powerful motorbike showing off to the folks.

Some stories from the Sisters.

One sister came from Puke (pronounced Puk-a) It is a town of 5,000 people with some 20,000 in the villages and district round about. The people went there in the Turkish times , to live a catacomb faith and the communists keep them there. There used to be work in the mines but this has long since stopped because the equipment had fallen into disrepair and rusted as the Russians and Chinese who installed it were driven out of the country for compromising with the capitalists. Thee are some good Catholics in Puke – engineers and doctors who help but the people know nothing of their faith except that they are Catholics or Moslems (Puke is in the North which is the Catholic part, the Orthodox are in the South close to Greece). They know that Baptism is important for children, but their attention diminishes quickly when they are told more about the faith. In the assembly for confirmation, there were 150 cards issued to those who had applied and had had some instruction, but when the others saw what was happening they came forward too and there was chaos. The sister did not go into details but just said the some people lost their patience ! The passing on of the faith from grandparents was broken when you could be shot for making the sign of the cross, and a careless word from the children could involve prison. Around Puke there are no roads and the women do most of the work. (In Tirana this is improving but this women’s lot is the same over all Albania) only women work in the fields. When the sisters came to Puke and asked the Mayor for a house, he said,” I need bread for my people and you ask for a house” – but he gave them one, and now is delighted with their work. This is partly because the lack of expectation of any reward and working entirely for the people and not for themselves is so unheard of in Albania that the sisters are witnesses to a remarkable degree. The sisters go into the villages where there are no roads and where there is snow from Nov to March – people have no shoes, or proper clothes, they live a marginal existence. The fields are tiny, and in the rain times the paths are impassable. Some catechists came from Europe and discovered how careful they have to be when talking because they come here in their vacation, while the people fight every day to live, and can easily resent the advent of foreigners. They are offended by levity – bathing in the river, or even getting the children to clap at Mass . – once when this happened the people took their children away from the service and went home. The sisters saw some girls being sold into prostitution and they took them in – they were from broken homes, but there was criticism from the people at the sisters action. The sisters have to visit, catechise, help the priest – but one priest was a schizophrenic and gave up, another had mental problems. They now have an 84 year old Jesuit who is one of the two who came alive through the communist period .

Another sister came and told me that she had been to Charismatic Renewal retreats and these had been very blessed occasions for the sisters, but there was no encouragement of the charism in the Society. Another sister having read Fr. Ian’s book on the Mass (he had sent tapes and books to make up for his absence) was so delighted with the clarity and simplicity of the statement and wanted copies for her sisters. (all the sisters in the MC speak English so they can go all over the world and still be in MC communities. Sister C is Albania, her grandfather was strong in the faith and kept the vestments and taught his children. He was betrayed by a neighbour and nearly died, but he survived and became a strong figure in the Church. There are many who suffered, some came out bitter, some do not talk about their experience. Fr. Zeff OFM wrote his story which is now being translated – when you read it, it is difficult to know how he survived. Sister remarked that many are converting but they must learn that it will involve suffering. She did not go to secondary school because her family were known to be religious – and she reflected that she probably would not have become a sister had she gone on with her education.