Reflection on the 20th Anniversary
Albania: a 2,000 year old Church
Once again in its first generation
My first impression of Albania when I arrived four years ago was: "What is happening here is an absolute miracle!" The Orthodox Church had in one generation - 23 years of extreme persecution – officially ceased to exist. And now, in the next generation – 20 short years – had been restored to life and vitality. Twenty years after the restoration of religious freedom in Albania, the Church and the entire country have been raised up, renewed and restored, not to their previous state before communism, but to a new life with hope in the future, and yet faced with the challenges every new community and Church experiences. Today, I am continually struck by the thought that the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania is a 2,000 year old Church that is once again in its first generation.
In order to understand the miracle of what is taking place in Albania, we must look with the perspective of hindsight; almost like Moses, hiding in the cleft of a rock, beholding the reflection of the glory of God after it has passed by. When we hear numbers like: 1,600 churches destroyed, 400 priests and clergy imprisoned; or words like: labor camps, secret police, fear and intimidation, and atheism they cannot begin to convey the cruelty, malice, inhumanity and years of desolation that the people of Albania endured; even as just hearing about rapid growth and renewal in Albania cannot convey the vibrancy, the joy, the zeal and Grace of the Holy Spirit at work here.
When trying to explain a miracle, something that is impossible for man, but "with God all things are possible”, (Mat. 19:26), the only explanation we can give is that it has been accomplished by the “hand of God”. That God has worked through many hands and hearts of faithful in Albania and really, all over the world is part of this miracle. During these past 20 years many have offered their hands and their hearts to Christ and His Church in Albania; but none more completely and with such purpose as His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios. Through his extraordinary gifts, love, commitment, efforts, and tears he has proclaimed the living presence of Christ in Albania and continues to be a “light shining in the darkness” for the faithful in Albania and the whole world.
It is a blessing to be part of this miracle and to work with this truly extraordinary missionary, His Beatitude, Archbishop Anastasios. But just to say that he is a missionary is to understate his vision, zeal and the breadth of his profound understanding of the theology, history and mission of the Church and his vocation as a Disciple of Christ. He is a theologian, a Professor Emeritus of Church History and World Religions at the University of Athens; he is an ecumenist, working tirelessly for Christian unity as President of the World Council of Churches and for peace in the world as Vice President of Religions for Peace; he is the Archbishop of Albania, and he is the foremost Orthodox missionary today.
His Beatitude has been instrumental for the past 50 years "in the revival in contemporary Orthodoxy of the ideal of external mission." He has worked to reignite the missionary spark in the Orthodox Churches throughout the world, challenging the boundaries of the hearts and minds of those who see mission in terms of geography, rather than as the very essence and reason for being of a Church that calls itself the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” and the successor to the first Apostles.
It is truly remarkable to see what the Grace of the Holy Spirit has been able to accomplish in Albania. But even as God has a plan for our salvation, so His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios had a plan for the Albanian mission. He had just spent 30 years refining his understanding of the Apostolic mission. The challenge of restoring and rebuilding the Orthodox Church in Albania, from what was literally “ground zero”, provided the opportunity to lay a solid foundation based upon Apostolic missionary principles.
I believe that the entire Orthodox and Christian world can learn much from the lessons of Albania, and the mission principles Archbishop Anastasios has applied here. However, it is not enough to simply read his books or see beautiful churches and hear stories from the past. One needs to experience the present apostolic spirit and vitality of mission in Albania in order to truly appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit and the consequent rich and fruitful harvest. Just as the early Apostolic mission itself was not just a theological vision, or an intellectual exercise, but founded upon the good works that are accomplished through Divine Grace, and transform our lives and our world; so it is with Albania. The missionary spirit here seeks to reach out and share the “love of Christ” with others through youth ministries, soup kitchens, educational activities, health care and social ministries that fill the lives of the faithful, building them up through Divine Grace and good works into the Body of Christ.
After our Lord’s Resurrection, He instructed His disciples “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mat. 28:18-20). This passage, known as the “Great Commission”, establishes the foundation and purpose of the Church. By implementing the “immediate goals of mission" which His Beatitude explains in his article, "The Purpose and Motive of Mission": (1) preaching the Gospel, (2) establishing the local eucharistic community and (3) developing authentic Christian life, we see that the “Great Commission’ has been interwoven into all the ministries of the Church.
1. Proclaiming the Gospel
Proclaiming the good news of God’s love involves more than just reading or speaking about God’s word; it means to incarnate Christ into the reality of people’s lives. Proclaiming the Gospel means to bring the “good news” of God’s presence and light into all the dark corners of sorrow and suffering in the world.
In Albania, one of the first steps in proclaiming the good news of God’s love and presence was to restore the Monastery at Shen Vlash which had been the first victim of the “cultural revolution. Shen Vlash, a beloved monastery and Holy site, had served as a symbol for the communists, a “sword to pierce the heart” of the faithful, in 1967 when belief in God was outlawed and they began to destroy the churches. Therefore, when Archbishop Anastasios came to Albania, Shen Vlash became the symbol and center of the renewal effort. The Monastery was rebuilt and the “Resurrection of Christ” Theological Academy was established here. The Theological Academy is at the heart of the renewal effort of the Church, calling the youth to Christ and training the clergy and lay leaders; its restoration has at the same time brought healing to a deep wound from the dark years and proclaimed the light and love of Christ.
Proclaiming the Gospel in Albania has manifested itself in many other forms: establishing an ecclesiastical publishing company to replace all the liturgical books, Bibles and religious literature the communists burned. Building beautiful churches and rebuilding destroyed ones that, “proclaim with the eloquent silence of beauty, that God had come to dwell amongst humanity.” From radio stations that broadcast Christian programs, to developing catechetical materials for the youth, the Church has mobilized its faithful to share the good news of God’s love with all people.
2. Establishing the Local Eucharistic Community
We understand ourselves as part of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” and restoring the Orthodox Church in Albania to communion and communication with the rest of the Orthodox world is primary and begins in the “local eucharistic” community where we celebrate the liturgy and commune with Christ and are made one with the Body of Christ. Orthodox mission has always understood that the local Church, "in each country … is called to glorify God with her own voice." There is only one Orthodox Church in Albania; there are no jurisdictional divisions. The Liturgy is celebrated in the local language of the people; an indigenous clergy and Synod of Bishops guide the Church. The respect and care that has been taken in Albania to incarnate the "Logos of God into the language and customs of the country and for the sanctification of the people's characteristics, so that they may become truly themselves" is inspiring and representative of the best of Orthodox missionary efforts.
The ability to live sacramentally: to be in communion with the living God; to baptize children and to seek and save the lost and draw them into the Body of Christ; to sanctify marriages and become communities of love; to worship in humility, with repentance, confessing our sins before God are basic freedoms and rights or should be. Christians living in countries that have not experienced persecution or political oppression for their faith cannot understand what it means to lose these rights; or as in the case of Albania, what it means to be able once again to live liturgically and abide in Christ.
3. Developing an Authentic Christian Life
What is authentic Christian Life? It is a life dedicated to transforming the world into the Kingdom of God, by glorifying God through worship and good works. "The Doxology of the redeemed must also echo beyond the limits of their own community and fill the universe." In Albania this has meant sharing God’s love and reaching out to the suffering, the sick, the poor and offering them Christ's love, His unconditional love. One need only look at the tremendous social ministries that the Orthodox Church in Albania has initiated in order to see this “authentic” Christian life in action. The faithful have stepped forward to be God’s helping hand to their neighbor. The Women’s Group in Tirana runs a soup kitchen, a clothes closet for the poor, visits the shut-ins and prisons and helps, to the best of their ability, everyone who asks. The Youth Groups and University students visit the hospitals for children, seniors, the mentally ill, and orphanages sharing gifts, even if only homemade cookies or cakes to express their love. Concern and care for others are the “good works” St. Paul asks us “to be rich in” (1Tim 6:18) and this is what it means to live in Christ, to be alive in Christ.
Most Orthodox Christians in Albania are unaware of the miracle taking place around them. The rapid restoration of the Church seems normal and the persecutions of the past are distant from the new generation of Christians. The vitality of their liturgical life, the youth and spiritual commitment of their clergy and bishops are unquestioned. So it is with all who are in love, or live in love. Joy and happiness seem the normal and natural state, and it is difficult to comprehend a time when they were not present.
What challenges will the next generation face? In one generation, every Church faces the risk of extinction if they do not pass the faith on to the next generation. The experience of what has taken place in Albania should bring this message home to the Churches of America and Europe. We must not be complacent, but grateful for the freedom of religion we have and value, defend it and make good use of it. At the same time, as we are reaching out to our own next generations, we need to remember the fragile first generation Church in Albania and other parts of the world and continue to help them grow and flourish by offering spiritual and material support.
Will the Orthodox Church of Albania continue in the miracle of renewal and rapid growth? Will the hearts and minds of the young continue to be inspired to offer themselves, sacrificially, to build up the Body of Christ? Only the Lord can answer that question. But the witness of the miracle of love and renewal in Albania challenges each of us, individually and personally, to commit our hearts and lives to live in Christ and share His love with others. It challenges us to be “Christ’s hands and heart” in this world, wherever we are. The real question then is, “Will the faithful in Albania and throughout the world continue to respond in faith, with hope and love to share God’s love with others?
”Purpose and Motive of Mission”, Mission in Christ’s Way
, Brookline: HCHC; Geneva: WCC, 2010, p.62.
"The Purpose and Motive of Mission", Mission is Christ's Way,
Brookline, HCHC; Geneva, WCC, 2010, p.50.
"Orthodox Mission Past, Present and Future", Mission is Christ's Way,
Brookline, HCHC; Geneva, WCC, 2010, p. 194.