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Adventures in Albania

April 6, 2013

On February 7th I wrote the first post on this site in over four years. I mentioned that in addition to new posts, during the break I would try to write a few “catch-up” pieces from different experiences over the last couple of years. To that I end I wrote two pieces on my pilgrimage to the Holy Land this past Christmas; one with general thoughts, and another post recounting two specific stories.

Of course on February 7th I had no idea what was coming on February 11th and the seven weeks between then and now. So most of the postings since then have been focused on my experiences during those historic days.

Now that I have another break for Easter, I’d like to do a little more “catching up,” in particular I’d like to share some reflections on my time in Albania last summer.

After our first academic year in Rome, we were not permitted to return home. We were however given the freedom, with diocesan and seminary approval to be adventurous and look for different opportunities. As a result 67 men in my class were spread out all over the world. To my knowledge we had guys in at least (I’m sure I’ll forget some) the following countries, England, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Poland, Israel (Holy Land), Ukraine, Taiwan, Tanzania, India, Hong Kong, and of course Albania. This all led to some amazing table conversations when we all got back.

For the sake of time what I’ve done below is cut and past different parts of various reflections, reports, e-mails etc. that I wrote when I returned to Rome. Thus it won’t flow as a single narrative, but hopefully it paints a picture of my life in Albania and the lessons I learned.

Ringing the bell to let everyone know we had arrived.

Ringing the bell to let everyone know we had arrived.

A quick overview: When I was in the flatlands, I helped in the health clinic, primarily relying on my experience working at a pharmacy when I was in high school. In the mountains we were assigned three “villages” or sides of mountain ridges. We rotated between the three doing Catechesis Mon.-Sat. On Sundays we celebrated Mass at all three. Due to the lack of quality or lack altogether of roads we would take a jeep as far as we could go and then hike the rest of the way before ringing a bell to let everyone know we’d arrived. Then everyone on that ridge would make their way to the field where we met.

In response to a question asking for a description of our living situation, I wrote the following:

Dajç as viewed from my bedroom window.

Dajç as viewed from my bedroom window.

Dajç, Lezha, Albania: This was a rural farming community where I stayed with the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I was here upon arrival in Albania before heading to the mountains for the missionary experience as well as after the mountain experience for another week. I stayed in the convent, in the guest wing. Both times I stayed at the convent there were four sisters present, though there was a change with two of the sisters between the first and second time I stayed with them.

The mountain ridge of Qibik, Albania.

The mountain ridge of Qibik, Albania.

Qibik, Albania: This is where I stayed during the missionary experience in the mountains. Here we stayed in a restaurant-hotel run by a family who also lived in the same structure. Our community was comprised of myself, two Albanian junior sisters of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who study at the Pontifical Lateran University, an Albanian seminarian in 4th theology studying at the national seminary in Albania, and an Albanian priest, ordained in 2002.

This hotel had part-time running water and part-time electricity, both would come on and off throughout the day and night. For showering and washing our clothes we had two trash buckets which we slowly filled with water, when it was running. We had one common room where we prayed, ate, and spent our community time. There were also separate rooms for the seminarians, nuns, and priest. These living quarters proved to be very formative for me, as it was a good opportunity to learn simplicity and poverty through actually living simplicity and poverty.

All five of us together.

All five of us together.

As for our community we were separated by a maximum of 13 years in age. I felt that we were able to establish a great community attitude and strong morale. With two nuns, two seminarians, and a priest we were well balanced. Our community time, whether it be at meals, traveling by foot or in the car, or during our time together in the evenings was one filled with a healthy balance of serious reflection and joy. There was certainly a great amount of laughter amongst us, particularly in the evenings as we relaxed after a long days work. In fact we would laugh so hard that one time one of the patrons in the restaurant below our rooms asked the waitress what was going on up above, to which she responded, “oh those are just some really joyful people laughing.” In addition to our obvious joy, we also took time in the car or afternoon to reflect on how the days activities had gone, and what could be done to improve. We also did a good job motivating each other to keep working as the work was very tiring. Given that four of us are students there were also several intellectually stimulating conversations about various theological topics and our experiences in our respective universities. All of these experience contributed to a very positive sense of community.

When asked, “What did you learn about the people and about the nature of diocesan ministry?” I responded:

Though my work was with a diocesan priest and seminarian, the nature of our ministry was missionary. That being said there were certain aspects of the experience that could be found in a diocesan setting.

One such example took place when we were sitting in our community on a Friday evening when we were called downstairs to the restaurant because there was a man who wanted to see us, his father was dying and he wanted the priest to come and perform last rites. We immediately prepared the necessary items and took off down the mountain to his house. In this experience I had to learn to comfort and aid the family as they were suffering a great loss.

Later, when it came time for the funeral of this same man I learned to be more adaptable. We planned on celebrating a funeral Mass for this same man, however when we arrived at the cemetery chapel, we saw that not only had the people removed the pews to create more room for everyone to stand, they had also removed the altar. Since we could not celebrate Mass we had to quickly change plans and celebrate a burial outside of Mass.

The most profound lesson I learned about diocesan ministry is the role of the priest amongst his people, his flock. The people in the mountains do not have a resident priest, which is why we went for the month of July. This meant that when we did show up, many were very happy to see us, they also had a very heathy respect for us and especially our words. The lesson that I drew out of this reaction, which is somewhat different than the reaction of people to priests in the United States is the importance of the priest to be amongst his people. We drove 3.5 hours into the mountains so that we could be among the people. This experience taught me, even with a different language and culture, it is important to amongst the people.

Another diocesan type of experience that I learned took place during the blessing of homes in the evenings. When we went to people’s homes to bless them, they were extremely generous. Many of the people on this mountain practiced sustenance farming, they grew what they needed, yet when we came to visit, they took from their own supply to give to us. They would offer fresh fruits and vegetables as well as homemade sausages, cheeses, and honey. They had nothing yet gave so much. At times I even felt uncomfortable taking food from them, however as the time went on I came to realize that I must learn to receive. I think I went in with the mindset of, “we are here to give this blessing” but failed to realize our need to be open to receiving. Another aspect of this receiving was to receive graciously and lovingly. In all charity, some of the people we met were better at making cheese, honey etc. than others, therefore some of the foods were not exactly tasty, enjoyable or pleasant to consume. What helped me to learn to receive graciously was the reflection on the fact that the people who had made these foods had done so with the best of their ability, and they were very proud of their work, they poured much energy and time into the making of those foods, and in many ways they poured themselves into these items. Thus what seemed like bad food became something beautiful, and if I didn’t enjoy a particular item I could offer my own minor suffering and desires as personal sacrifices, personal gifts, just has these people had given of themselves. For me eating these appetizers before the blessings of homes was a very humbling experience, which taught me that while I might want to go around and give, go around and do, sometimes God is calling us to give of ourselves through receiving from others.

Both of my experiences in the mountains as well as at the clinic helped me to understand that fundamentally ministry cannot be separated from prayer and the action of ministry cannot merely be seen on a human, material level, but rather must be seen, with “the eyes of faith,” such ministerial work must be seen also on a spiritual level. In the mountains this was felt through the realization that catechesis was not merely the act of teaching, but rather a passing down of the faith, an entering into the tradition of the Church as passed down to me and working to make that faith come alive in others who were younger, so that they might the same to others after them. This lens of faith and prayer as it comes to ministry also applies to the aforementioned description of eating food in the families of others, it became not just the act of eating but rather an entering into communion with these families. The experience of cold showers with no running water became a way of accepting a little suffering or discomfort for Christ and a way of entering into a solidarity with those to whom we were ministering.

This was by far the most profound and memorable experience of the summer. In my mind, there has not been a day yet when I have not been back to this man’s house. These words are very inadequate and most certainly don’t do the experience justice.

The most powerful individual experience of the summer was when one of the sisters and I were asked to go to a house to help a man in his early 30’s who had been severely burned. In an accident he became tangled with an electrical wire and suffered from both internal and external burning. The majority of his front side (arms, chest, stomach, legs, and feet) was covered in third degree burns, parts of his skin were charred. In particular there was a deep wound on his right side. For the most part I sat and watched as the sister began taking off his bandages and providing treatment to his wounds. As the sister cleaned his wounds with various creams, medicined etc., I could see the man writhing in pain, yet little to no noise was coming out of his mouth because his vocal chords were damaged, he was only able to speak in a very soft tone of voice. While all of this is going on, his mother was sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed. The mother was extremely distraught, emotional, and sad as she gazed upon her suffering son. In between her tears she would cry out a few phrases in Albanian, which translate to, “O Lord!” or “Thanks be to God.” I sat next to her and attempted to console her in her own pain and suffering. This lasted for an hour and a half. As I sat there soaking in this scene I found myself drawn to the scene of Christ’s crucifixion. I came to see this man as Christ suffering silently on the the Cross, and the mother, as Mary, weeping at the feet of her son. Furthermore, the man had this large gash in his side, just as the side of Christ was pierced. I was watching this sister, called an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, clean, and repair this man’s pierced side, additionally as she cured him physically, she spoke to the man about understanding his suffering in relation to the suffering of Christ, her willingness to aid this man and bring him closer to Christ was to me a great act of reparation to the Sacred Heart.

Lastly, I was asked, “WHERE WAS GOD AT WORK in this experience: in you, in other people, and in the church?” My response was as follows:

The principle means through which I saw God at work was through the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I have known these sisters for a long time, but before this experience my interactions with them were primarily either joining them in prayer or recreation. This was my first opportunity to live with and minister alongside the sisters.

A photo with the Apostles living in Dajç.

A photo with the Apostles living in Dajç.

Going into the experience, I had asked the sisters to work with them, they told me enough about the program that I felt it was something I would like to do. However, at the same time there were a certain number of unknowns with entering into a new culture, and going someplace I had never been before, and my first time in a place where I did not speak the primary language for an extended period of time. Yet, without ever meeting these individual sisters beforehand, I felt I was able to trust in them, much like I strive to trust in God. Furthermore, when incidents came up, for instance, getting my hand filled with thorns, I knew that the sisters would take care of me. These are two ways they personally helped me to grow in the way that I try to trust in God.

The clinic run by the sisters was free for patients, yet many felt the need to bring what little they had to give, mainly vegetables, milk and animals from their property. The food that the sisters received from those whom they served in the clinic was the food they ate, in other words, they relied on their work to sustain them, physically as well as spiritually. This reliance was to me a powerful witness of their assumption of poverty and solidarity with those in the village, just as Christ chose to become man among us.

Lastly, I saw God at work in this experience through the sisters by the very fact that God has given us this Church, and each of us a vocation in this Church. I was so grateful to God that he has brought me to this worldwide congregation. There is no doubt that I could see how God has worked in my relationship with this order that I was able to just show up in a foreign land with sisters I’d never met and was able to joyously and fairly seamlessly enter myself into their community because they share a common charism with all of their sisters whom I have met and know all over the world.

I hope that explains a little of my experience in Albania, if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment. I have become quite fond of this country so often misunderstood or just not known to so many others throughout the world.

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