It was a great adventure with God on spring break this year. Five students and two FOCUS Missionaries from UND, along with a missionary and four students from other campuses on a week-long mission trip to Albania over spring break. I was asked to serve as chaplain on this mission, and the Holy Spirit gave a clear green light in prayer. This was one of 139 mission trips that are organized this year, both domestically and abroad, by FOCUS Missions, based in Denver. Our team of 14 souls responded to this invitation from God to serve the materially and spiritually poor in this unique place with a tragic past, and were blessed and inspired by divine providence in our daily service and prayer.
Significance of Mission
The greatest aim and gift we can offer in our lives is to know Christ and to make him known. We all hear in the Gospel, “You did it to me,” as Jesus is present in the distress and disguise of the poor. While the materially and spiritually poor are to be found in any community, a mission trip focuses our hearts and minds on needs throughout the world, and expresses the reality of our unity as brothers and sisters in the human struggle. We go most in order to give Christ to others, but in meeting material and spiritual need, we encounter him, share him, and receive him in the ordinary service and time on mission. We go to serve our brothers and sisters and Christ. A large share of our mission to Albania was also to share the truth and consolation that in their struggles they are not isolated or forgotten in their place.
Needs in Albania
When I first heard about the possibility of going to Albania, I was curious to know the needs, history and concerns of the people there. I knew it was country in Eastern Europe, and I knew that St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was Albanian, but much of its cultural context remained a mystery to me.
A brief history of the country can be recounted in three major movements. First, the lands which currently make up the country of Albania most likely received the Gospel from St. Paul himself when he writes, “from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.” Illyricum was an ancient city in modern day Albania on the ancient road called the “via Egnatia” that ran from Asia minor through northern Greece, then Albania to the Adriatic sea. By the 14th century there were seventeen Catholic Dioceses in Albania. Then Islam came to Albania with the Ottoman empire in the 15th century and currently is the religious majority, especially in the south of the country. The last large movement of Albanian history occurred during the 20th century with atheistic Communism under the rule of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha’s communism was an especially harsh and brutal form of rule, and officially proclaimed Albania an atheist state. Islam, Orthodox and Catholics all suffered greatly. 740 mosques, 608 Orthodox churches and monasteries, and 157 Catholic churches were destroyed. Seeing the Soviet Union and China as soft in their ideals, Hoxha allied Albania with North Korea, expelled all foreign clergy in 1946, while hundreds of clerics were executed, tortured or imprisoned.
Communism fell in 1991, and Albania is currently a constitutional republic with a Catholic majority in the north and an Islamic majority in the south. Only one priest was alive in Albania at the time of the fall of communism .St. John Paul II came to Albania in 1993 to reestablish the hierarchy of the Church) by ordaining four bishops in one liturgy at the restored Cathedral in Shkoder. Thirty-eight Catholic martyrs were beatified on November 5, 2016.
The current culture has many positive things, and also much need. There are strong family bonds and ties, there is rarely a divorce in Albania. However, they don’t know what to do with their disabled population, often times just putting them on bed rest for years. The sisters we worked with take these disabled individuals, teach them how to walk, and care for them. Some of them develop to be quite the helpers in their community.
Without any clergy or religious for decades, both the young and old in Albania have had no one to teach them the faith. So our Bible studies with university students was great in sharing the riches of the Catholic faith with a new generation who are aware of their Catholic identity, but are eager to know the deeper treasures contained in Catholic teaching.
Ultimately, is it God and his providence which led our group to travel to Albania to serve, but there is a practical process to how we arrived at this particular mission. With FOCUS missionaries on campus, we have a great opportunity to serve with FOCUS Missions, a particular branch of FOCUS that specializes in organizing both domestic and foreign mission trips over Christmas break, spring break, and the summer months. In the current school year they have plans for 139 mission trips in total. They have relationships with religious orders and groups all over the world, often bringing multiple groups year to year. While FOCUS Missions has served in Albania in the past, this year’s trip, serving with the Servadoras sisters, was a new invitation to consider a couple of mission apostolates that these religious have identified and work with day to day. In the fall of 2018, this mission was open, and our FOCUS Missionaries, along with a past FOCUS Team Director, chose this trip as a special mission to invite UND students as a group to serve together. So, on a late Saturday night, we found ourselves in Houston on a Turkish Air 737 bound for Istanbul on the way to Tirana, Albania.
The daily works of mercy we carried out in Albania were both corporeal and spiritual. In the morning, we assisted three sisters of the Religious Family of the Incarnate Word, more popularly known as the Servadoras, in their work at the Mercy Home for the disabled near the Kisha Katolike Santa Chiara (Catholic Church of St. Clare) in Fushe-Kruje. After morning Mass and a 30-minute drive each morning from the capital city of Tirana, these sisters greeted us and had plenty of work for us. Mother Maria Sagrada del Verbo and Sister Maria de la Evangelizacion were eager to commence many projects. All the Servadoras are named after a title of Mary, sometimes in many different languages, titles and devotions. Upon arrival, about half of our group would help the sisters wake up, bathe, and feed the thirteen residents, then assist them with a walk or other recreation in the morning. The other half of the group would assist the sisters with various home-improvement projects, such as helping to prepare their basement for new paint after water damage from a recent flood and cleaning out an outdoor storage shed full of furniture, soda, and many other tools for their apostolate that had a rodent infestation over the winter. This project we affectionately named the “soda shed” for how much Coke and Fanta they had stored there. Out group would then prepare lunch for the residents of the home and help prepare them for their afternoon siesta. Then the two sisters and our group would eat our own lunch before going back to the capital city of Tirana for the evening.
These mornings at the home for the disabled were the heart of our mission for material poverty. Many of these women at the home, young and old, were sequestered at their homes, often on bed rest, without sun or exercise. The Albanians want to keep them alive, respect them as family, many families assume they can’t do anything. I often asked how the disabled were treated by the communist government pre-1991, but it was hard to really know. Serving the disabled, clothing them with dignity though washing them, feeding them, giving them exercise, playing games, and seeing how they could contribute to the home through whatever work they were able to carry out was a real work of mercy. It was an encounter of sharing God’s love with them in simple and patient ways, and seeing our own need for God in their need. On Friday, when praying the stations of the cross, the words from Jean Vanier on the tenth station pierced our hearts, “Jesus, grant us the courage and the strength to clothe those who are naked, stripped of their dignity, to cover them with the raiment of our respect.”
In the evenings, we assisted two sisters, Mother Maria de las Kandelas and Sister Maria Mater Incarnati at the Sant’Angela Merici convent in the heart of Tirana. Here the Servadoras run a home for Catholic women attending various universities. After our team took time for an evening holy hour with the Lord in prayer, we had time as a group for some conversation and sharing from the day, and then we would split up into small groups with the university women from Albania for Bible studies and then supper. This was the heart of our mission for spiritual poverty. Many of the young women know they are Catholic, but there have been so few priests, religious and teachers initiate them into the ways of faith. We ended the day with night prayer and hit our room gratefully tired.
There was a third group of Servadores we spent time with our last day in Albania, a group of four contemplative sisters who prayed for a number of intentions, the Church in Albania, the clergy, the other Servadoras sisters, and a special intention assigned to just their monastery by their superiors. These sisters were Mother Mariam al Bishara, Sister Maria de la Humildad, Sister Maire Chroí Íosa, and Sister Maria Macaria. While most of the Servadoras are from Argentina, Sister Maire Chroí Íosa was a 2012 graduate of the University of St. Thomas, a native of Forest Lake, MN, which was an amazing local connection half the way around the world. They invited us to pray ‘None’ with them, one of the midday hours of the Liturgy of the Hours, then Stations of the Cross, and an afternoon tea and snack called merienda, where we gratefully drank the Coke and Fanta from the ‘soda shed’. They were very generous in answering many questions from our group. Their witness to the primacy of grace in the midst of a mission land made a big impact on all of us.
Life on Mission
In addition to the main work of the mission, there are a number of other experiences which add, and sometimes are hidden graces and opportunities which are unexpected. One morning, we joined the Apostolic Nuncio, an official ambassador from the Pope, who serves as link from the Vatican to the local Church and civil authorities, for Mass and conversation about the history and culture of Albania. Archbishop Charles Brown, a native of New York, was gracious in his time and hospitality as he shared a number of edifying stories, facts and history of the people of Albania, who he now serves. He recounted some of the tragic history of the country, as well as the gifts present in Albanian culture, including a very strong marriage and family life.
There were are couple of other cultural experiences that helped us to understand the people of Albania we were there to serve. One was the centuries old fort of Skanderbeg, a 15th century hero figure, from whose coat of arms the Albanians take the black double headed eagle which is prominent on their red flag. We also had a chance one day to visit the city and Cathedral of Shkodër, an important place in the north of Albania, where a higher concentration of Catholics live. This city was the home of the “Site of Witness and Memory”, a museum recounting the sufferings of people of faith under the communist rule of the mid-20th century. The Cathedral of Shkodër had been turned into a sports arena, and was rededicated after the revolution in 1991. St. Pope John Paul II visited this Cathedral in 1993 to ordain three Bishops to reestablish the Catholic hierarchy in 1993.
It was also a fitting experience of the simplicity and penance of Lent, with the gift of experiencing inconvenience and discomforts that invited us to depend on God even more, and enabled us to share even more of his life. Sharing of testimonies of faith and relationship with Jesus amongst the mission team, and daily recollection of high and low moments with encounters of God, all enriched our time together. Exceptional talks to prepare and debrief provided a solid foundation and unpacking of an intense experience, allowing the spirit of mission to overflow into our lives as we return home.
Life on mission is a true gift. Taking the Lord at his word, embarking into the unknown with faith and trust, relying on providence from day to day, solidarity with the suffering past and present, sharing in the unity of faith and charity with men and women in a far off place, among so many other graces, make the time and effort to go on mission completely worth it. I think we return with gratitude with what we were able to share in Albania, however big or small, it does not matter, God will cause the growth. We also return with hearts of courage and strength for our mission on campus and our own , with even more attentiveness to the needs of the materially and spiritually poor in our midst. This focused and intense time of mission on spring break has left us with a renewed and deepened desire to seek out the presence of the Lord Jesus who longs to receive our presence, time, love and mercy as he invites us to inherit his kingdom, “You did it for me.”
 Matthew 25:40, c.f. St. Teresa of Calcutta, “National Prayer Breakfast”, February 3, 1994.
 Romans 15:19
 Jean Vanier, The Way of the Cross: Standing by the Crucified Today, Magnificat, 2018.