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Albania is a country of contradictions, at the gates of Europe and close to the Eastern World. On one side the people want to open up to the world yet they still are very closed in themselves. A strong individualism is ruling, mainly caused by a lack of trust in others that is expressed in more or less profound forms of violence; hence the importance of building genuine relationships, closeness and fraternity. With the way we are and do we try to help them grow in autonomy and responsibility, to be builders of their own history. We expect nothing and it is clear that our service should begin with hearts acting out of deep motivations and with free generosity. Maybe this is already a way through which, after finding the other (man) they can hopefully find the Other (God). Perhaps we are still on the time to prepare the land for farming, not even in the planting.
Family, considered a great value, and peace between the many ethnic and religious differences are some of the values that tell us it is possible to walk, though with difficulty, confident in He who won everything. Meanwhile, faith, hope and a lot of patience, because planting time will come.

Cristina Casado Ocejo

If you want to deepen


(Cristina Casado)

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.
I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh
and give you a heart of flesh” (Ez 36:26)

Thinking about the mission of the Josephites in Albania and echoing their and my own experience over the years, this text, chapter 36 of the prophet Ezekiel, continued to impress me:

3 Thus says the Lord GOD: because you have been ridiculed and hounded on all sides for becoming a possession for the remaining nations and have become a byword and a popular jeer, 4 therefore, mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord GOD: Thus says the Lord GOD to the mountains and hills, to the ravines and valleys, to the desolate ruins and abandoned cities, plundered and mocked by the nations remaining around you: [ … ]

22 Therefore say to the house of Israel: Thus says the Lord GOD: Not for your sake do I act, house of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name, which you desecrated among the nations to which you came. 23 But I will show the holiness of my great name, desecrated among the nations, in whose midst you desecrated it. Then the nations shall know that I am the LORD—oracle of the Lord GOD—when through you I show my holiness before their very eyes. 24 I will take you away from among the nations, gather you from all the lands, and bring you back to your own soil. 25 I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them. 28 You will live in the land I gave to your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.

When the first missionaries arrived in Albania, surely they found a devastated land, not only economically impoverished but, and above all, spiritually. But at the same time a land so thirsty, craving to open up and give way to something new.

And their desire has been and continues to be to help the Albanian land, its people, to rediscover their hearts, recognize them, look at them with affection, see their wounds, possibly cure them and, with all their scars, get to make room for the Lord and become fertile ground.
It is not, however, an easy task. Nobody said it should be so. It is a long process and you have to get on the way… And so, in this way, we went from beginning to know each other, “the initial infatuation”…, to share a little more in depth.

Albania is certainly a land of contradictions: you either love or hate it… it does not usually arouse intermediate feelings or indifference.

It is a contradiction in its being in Europe and having, at the same time, many elements of Eastern cultures. Its Christian roots with its strong impregnation from customs and beliefs of Islam. It is as if this country is close and sometimes far.

Their satellite dishes, their desire to be outward and their ability to learn other languages draw your attention; however in practice they coexist with a tendency to isolation, to look at themselves, and some caution to confront the outside. National pride goes with little true self esteem as a people.

And so our educational and evangelizing work is done in this context. Educational because it is first of all the person who is to be formed, grow, build up. Evangelizing because it favours the encounter with the Risen Jesus which they could not experience previously. What comes first, what second, to educating or evangelizing? Surely they are things to be done simultaneously, although at different times you have to focus more on one and leave behind the other and vice versa… Perhaps what matters is to know that in any situation or action… ours is educating by evangelizing… and… evangelizing by educating.

In both cases, one of the challenges faced is the prevailing individualism. Nothing new, unfortunately, compared with so many other places. Perhaps here the key to understand this attitude is in the fact that it comes as an opposite and escapist answer to the forced collectivism of communism times. There is need to recreate the idea of common good, desire it and believe that this “common” is truly the most precious of goods.

Linked to this is one of the deepest wounds to heal: loss of confidence in the other, permanent doubt that sometimes acts as defensive protection, contempt, aggression, and all of this leads to the difficulty in cooperating and doing things together.

Here it becomes particularly important to build relationships, sincere, close, trustful and friendly relationships. This is possibly one of the most important points of our testimony and where more is asked of us: what puts us more on the ropes, since it is certainly a clear, sometimes painful test of giving freely, without expecting anything in return. There is no place to expect rewards for our sacrifices: either we are cheerful giver or “s’ka” as Albanians say, it is no good.

But if we really trust the other and let him have this experience of being recognized, he will possibly earn self-confidence and in turn give confidence to others. It will not be automatic, nor imminent, it is a challenge, but might be a first “faith experience”… then to believe in the One you do not see.

The people of Albania must recreate their identity, and possibly another challenge is to accompany them in this process. How to do it? When we get to a place we try to give what we have, what we are, sharing our experiences and giving them our vision of the world, what we think is good, what we believe it should be, the “tools” that were useful for us. But yet the call is to go one step further: the ability to let ourselves be challenged by the other, to listen to him, to know his issues and his ways of doing, to discuss is required… so that later, “with all the available material,” he can be able to pick it out and develop “his own script”, he can really be the protagonist, the builder of his own story. Not to make a big play, but to live authentically.

Often in our presence here, we find difficult to envisage the best way to help people grow in autonomy, responsibility and honesty, without continuing to feed the belief that everything is given, everything is controlled from outside, but having them understanding that personal and continuous engagement and effort is required.

Educating the heart in Albania is also educating and growing in the way of staying in touch and managing feelings and passions, because it is not “now or never,” “all or nothing”, “black or white…” There are so many moments, nuances, shades of gray and yet a little more, especially there is a large rainbow with many vivid colours. There is hope beyond the heavy gray cloud of pessimism that sometimes covers us and by which we get enveloped.

It is a matter, though, of creating the conditions to see the rainbow… On For the role we are playing, “we are working on it…”

Educating means to stimulate creativity, desire for improvement, planning. To give the due value to their strong sense of honour and the importance of family (so lost elsewhere). It is learning to respect the diversity of others and tolerate difference of opinion. And learning not to lose hope or joy even if you have to start again over every so often; having the illusion of sowing without really knowing how much good wheat will come up among the weeds.

In this sense, one of the strongest challenges is just sowing the Word, evangelisation in its classic meaning. When you have had an experience that put on the fore what is material, concrete, without a foundation of values, when you have profaned the name of God, as the prophet Ezekiel says… and you had not been able to open to the transcendent… the thing is not easy.

Rather than sowing, it is to move and clear the land to prepare it for seeding.

However there is an important fact and it is a great solidarity among believers (for the common denominator of persecution), a peaceful coexistence of different religions, worthy of keeping.

We have to start from the base: what is to be a Christian, how it applies to everyday life, the path of the Sacraments, but at the same time we have to create and strengthen Christian communities in which to live and share this faith.

Often you do not see any improvement, and not even the “solution”. But if we truly believe that the Risen Lord conquered death and evil, then?

Albania educates the hearts of those who came here: testing our being, our patience, our faith… it teaches us many things. If St L. Murialdo let himself be transformed, “educated” by God’s love, hopefully may we not only make it our own, but be instruments of this life-changing Love for others.

And hopefully we will be able, with our heart of flesh, to help mend the “broken heart” of the Albanians and say together: “Lord, here are your people, you are our God.”

Cristina Casado

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