Of all the stories of the resurrection of the Orthodox Church in formerly communist lands, Albania’s may be the most dramatic. Having been almost exterminated by the atheistic government, the Church of Albania has arisen, under the leadership of Archbishop Anastasios, to become a vibrant and growing member of the world Orthodox community.
Fr. Luke A. Veronis and his family served as OCMC missionaries to Albania for more than 10 years, during some of the most crucial years of this resurrection. Following are excerpts from his book “Go Forth” which shares stories of those years – stories of desperate poverty and heroism, of setbacks and triumphs, of heartbreak and miracles – and call us all to answer the Lord’s Great Commission: Go Forth!
“The heroism of missionaries and their spirit of sacrifice and love always tend to give back to the old churches a new vigor of life,” notes Archbishop Anastasios of Albania. These words summarize why I want to share stories from a decade-long journal of cross-cultural missionary work. The amazing miracle that has occurred in Albania since 1991, inspired by the Holy Spirit and under the vision and direction of Archbishop Anastasios, offers a glimpse of vitality, renewal, and vigor that will motivate and encourage our contemporary Church.
How does one proclaim the Good News of our Lord in the only country in recent history that absolutely forbade and persecuted any and every expression of religion for 24 years? The lands of Albania claim Christian heritage from the first century, yet endured the advance of Islam from the fourteenth century onward, followed by the most extreme totalitarian form of communism. Militant atheists crucified the Church and thought they had abolished it.
With the fall of communism in 1991, Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos arrived in Albania to see what, if anything, remained of this ancient Christian community. He faced the daunting task of proclaiming the Gospel and reviving a historic church while confronting the many challenges of a post-communist setting: an enduring atheistic mentality, a broken societal infrastructure, rampant poverty, prevalent corruption, and ongoing religious prejudice. Go Forth offers glimpses of how God has resurrected this Church, granting new hope to so many living in despair.
In my years in Albania, I learned that love and freedom exemplify the path of Orthodox Christian missions. We incarnate the Gospel of love, while respecting the freedom and dignity of every listener to respond as he or she feels touched by God. Authentic mission has nothing to do with coercion, trickery, or superficiality but doing all things “in love, for love, and by love.” Proclaiming the Good News implies revealing the love of God’s Kingdom in word and deed, and inviting others to join the community of faith on a journey of salvation.
This missionary journal will help all Christians understand their role in the overall drama of sacred history, and draw each person into a deeper relationship with God along the way. I believe the stories and anecdotes found here will inspire you. You may find gems of wisdom offered by “living saints” whose faith survived the horrors of communism. New believers discovering the pearl of great price will share their spiritual journeys. You will see the struggles and successes of the servants who have tried to offer a witness of God’s love under difficult conditions.
For example, there are stories about the three holy sisters from Korca – Marika, Demetra and Elizabeta – who described their house during communism as “a little underground church. Even during the most dangerous years, we would invite Fr. Kosma to come several times a year and celebrate the Divine Liturgy in a back room during the middle of the night,” explained Demetra. “We would cover the windows with thick blankets, so no one could see light from outside. We spoke in whispered voices, so as not to awaken the children. We never celebrated a liturgy with the children around, because we didn’t know if they might slip up and say something at school. One person would keep watch at the front door of the house, to warn us if anyone was coming. We felt like the early Christians worshipping in the catacombs.”
“Several times the police took us into their office and questioned us, but thank God, they never imprisoned us or physically hurt us. They weren’t sure of what we were doing, so they just tried to intimidate us. But this did not hinder our devotion to God. Even when Fr. Kosma couldn’t come, and we didn’t have a priest to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, we would do something else. I would bake the prosphoro [the holy bread used in the Eucharist], and place the bread and wine on top of our radio. Since we live so close to Greece, we could pick up a Greek station and listen to a live broadcast of the Divine Liturgy. Hoxha strictly forbade anyone to listen to foreign radio, so we realized the great risk we were taking. We would keep the volume very low and pray to God with the radio. At the end, we would eat the bread and wine as our Holy Communion.”
Resurrecting faith in post-communist Albania entails many fascinating stories, including humorous accounts about “Monasteries, Snakes and Christ’s Resurrection,” “Lobsters, Termites or Lamb’s Brain,” and “Cigarettes, Chaos and Christ is Risen.” The book describes the Church’s heroic outreach during the 1997 anarchy of Albania and the 1999 Kosovo War. One story narrates the journey of a Muslim girl’s reaction to a Church camp, where she goes from the negative attitude of “I can’t stay anywhere where they make the sign of the cross. Where I come from, the cross is associated with violence and death.” to the point of saying, “I have never experienced such love as I did at this camp. I will never forget this experience! It has given me an entirely new understanding of Christianity.”
Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, of course, represents a unique voice in the contemporary missionary movement of the Orthodox Church, as well as in worldwide Christianity. He describes himself as a candle before the icon of Christ, but he represents one of the brightest lights leading people to our Lord.
Throughout the book, we hear his charismatic personality witnessed in the midst of persecution, slander and struggle. “We have to be thankful for life and all that life brings, whether good or bad. Gratitude is a primary virtue in the Christian life,” the Archbishop shared. “We have to sacrifice and be ready to risk our lives for Christ. We don’t want to be people who simply keep the status quo. An authentic Christian is one who will give his life to Christ with selfless abandonment! A life without persecution means that the devil doesn’t take you too seriously. We also need to understand what it means to share in the life of Christ—in His Cross as well as His Resurrection. Walking with Christ means to joyfully accept the sufferings, persecutions, and struggles of life. By doing this, we not only participate in Christ’s own passion, but we unite with Him in His glorious resurrection… Despite all these struggles, I can say that I am experiencing the ‘freedom of the cross.’ One can find amazing freedom when we learn to say, ‘Your will be done.’”
Along with his words, Go Forth shares stories from throughout the life of the Archbishop. For example when the Archbishop was a young deacon back in the 1960s, he faced the serious dilemma of whether to become a missionary, or stay in his home country. Archbishop Anastasios describes this critical moment: “I remember a young cleric who was on a prolonged retreat on the island of Patmos. Sitting in front of the open sea, he faced a challenging dilemma—to stay in his beautiful European country, within an environment he loved, and in which he was loved, or to obey the final command of the Lord, ‘Go ye,’ and to depart for Africa. No guarantee was offered for this latter course and its future. Gazing from his simple, ascetic cell, the horizon of the open sea called within him, seeking a satisfactory response for this major decision in relation to the will of God.
The answer finally came in the form of a critical question: ‘Is God enough for you? If so, then go. If not, then stay where you are.’ A follow-up question, however, reinforced the first. ‘But if God is not enough for you, in which God do you believe?’ A peaceful decision followed, directing him on an innovative course into new missionary frontiers.”
The same night of his ordination, the newly ordained Fr. Anastasios flew to Africa and celebrated his first Divine Liturgy at the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Kampala, Uganda. His cross-cultural missionary journey had begun.
These are only a few of the captivating stories that will inspire all. The ultimate purpose of Go Forth is to help each reader see the wonders of God’s miracle in the mission field and be ready to say, “Here I am Lord. Send me.”