Visits from abroad are rare in this country which remained very isolated, until the end of the 1980s, under a very hard communist regime, where all religious practice was completely forbidden. As a result, the visitor is welcomed more warmly and often hears the question: “How do you like our country? What do you think of Albania?” What strikes one most is the people’s welcome, but the country, situated between the sea in the west and the mountains in the east, also charms one by the beauty of its nature.
With the passing of years, changes in the infrastructure are easily apparent. However, life is full of great difficulties for the people, especially in the mountainous regions which cover 70% of the country’s surface, due to frequent electricity cuts, but also to the lack of schools and hospitals. The roads are often in very poor condition and the priests who go to far distant villages must often spend hours on the way, sometimes having to travel on foot or riding on a donkey or mule. As a result of this situation, many families are leaving their house and land to settle around the cities, such as Tirana and Durrёs. In this harbour town, we were able to visit a young religious sister who has settled into a very old storage place amongst huts and simple houses, to give catechism classes to the young ones and help them with schooling. As there is no church, Mass is celebrated in the open-air, even when it rains. The sister told us of the importance of a really simple prayer for these young people who are living through changes that are often very speedy, and who risk being unable to cope ‘internally’.
It is encouraging to see children and teenagers who often participate voluntarily in church activities, such as those at Hot I Ri, a village in the north of the country, where around 140 young people aged between 15 and 20, from across the region, met together for a prayer with the songs of Taizé. This was followed by a meeting based on the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. This monthly prayer has been happening since January. In other places, such as Mamurras, Durrёs, Sukth, Tirana or Shkodёr, the young people meet weekly for a time of prayer.
At the monastery of Shen Vlash, which today houses the Academy of Theology of the Orthodox Church, we also met Imzot Andoni, a young Albanian bishop, together with several teachers and students.
I noticed many changes since my last stay two years ago. The main roads, so important for the development of the country, are improving and you can see new buildings everywhere. I was told that most of these buildings belong to people who have gone to live abroad, often in Italy, because work opportunities in Albania are few. In spite of this exodus, that affects large numbers the young people, a sign of hope can also be seen in the fact that they have gone off with the intention of building a future within the country.
A priest invited me to come in his village to pray with the young people of his parish. Two months ago a girl who had once visited Taizé told him that she would like to pray together with her friends with the songs from Taizé. So since then every Saturday afternoon there has been a group of young people who came together in the church for a very simple prayer. This afternoon there were forty of them, between 14 and 19 years old.
An Albanian sister who accompanies young people in difficulty told me: Our young people need the experience of a prayer that is very simple. After the communist period, many of them have grown up far from the faith. But a simple prayer enables them to have the experience of a communion with God and the others, and this in turn helps them to commit themselves in the life of the parish, and the village…
I was also able to meet several church leaders during my visit. There was a very beautiful meeting with His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios. For him, work for and with young people has great priority in his ministry in the Orthodox Church. Right after the meeting in Zagreb, two of us from Taizé attended the episcopal ordination of Mgr Lucjan Avgustini, as Bishop of the Diocese of Sapped, in a mountainous area close to the border with Kosovo. For several years, he has come to Taizé every summer for two weeks with a group of young people from his former parish in Shkodër. Now, it was beautiful to hear him invite the community to come and live in Albania!