"A Candle in
Front of the Savior"
Part 2: Call to Albania
In January 1991, one month after the government in Tirana had allowed the formation of non-Communist political parties and two months after his 61st birthday, Archbishop Anastasios received a telephone call from Patriarch Dimitrios in Istanbul asking if he would be willing to go to Albania as Exarch to see what if anything was left of the Orthodox Church? It was at the time intended not as a permanent assignment, only a reconnaissance effort to see if and how the local Church could be revived. It would require, however, a substantial interruption of his work in Africa. "My main task was to try and find someone who could become bishop, but I was unable to find a priest who was prepared and strong enough. There were only a few priests who had survived, all of them old and often not in good health."
After a night of prayer he said yes, though it would take six months before the reluctant authorities in Tirana finally issued a visa, and that was only for one month.
"The Communist times were over, but not completely. Attitudes formed in the course of many years of propaganda do not change quickly. However, once in the country, my visa was extended."
He showed me several photos taken the day he arrived in Tirana. "It was a wonderful experience stepping off the airplane and being received by the people who had come to welcome me. It was a bright summer day, but the light seemed mainly to come from faces rather than the sun. Such joy!"
Delaying his arrival at an official reception arranged by Albania's president, Anastasios' first action was to visit Tirana's temporary cathedral, though still in a devastated condition with a large hole in the roof. The old cathedral on the city's main square had been demolished years before to make way for a hotel. The one church in Tirana that was beginning to serve as a place of public worship had been a gymnasium since 1967. Though the Easter season was past, on his arrival Archbishop Anastasios gave everyone present the Paschal greeting, "Christ is risen!", lit a candle and embraced local believers. "Everyone was weeping," he remembers, "and I was not an exception."
It was a far from an easy life for Archbishop Anastasios and those working with him.
"When I first came to Tirana, I stayed in a hotel the first month. There was no other possibility. After that I was able to rent a small house with two floors, two rooms on each floor. I had a small office and bedroom above and a kitchen and meeting room below. There was a lack of water, lack of heat, lack of electricity. For me the cold was the most difficult. This was our Metropolia at that time. I recall how surprised the government was that I had no bodyguards. It amazed them that I wasn't interested in such 'security'! Like so many Albanians, my diet that summer was chiefly watermelon, bread, tomatoes and oil."
He quickly discovered that in this corner of Europe a degree of poverty existed which he had not encountered before. "Of course there was great poverty in East Africa, but at least everyone there had their own garden. Here that isn't the case. They were very poor in East Africa, but they always had food. Also schools were better there. Here they are much worse than in Africa."
He had no idea when he stepped off the plane in Tirana that July day he had arrived at what would be his home for the rest of his life.
"Please understand that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Dimitrios, had not sent me to head the Church in Albania. My mission as Exarch was only to discover what if anything of the local Church had survived the decades of extreme repression and to see if there were suitable candidates for consecration as bishops who had survived. Only later was I asked by the Patriarchate -- by now Dimitrios had fallen asleep in the Lord and been succeeded by Bartholomeos -- if I would be willing to accept election as Archbishop of Albania. After a period of reflection and prayer, I said yes, but only on three conditions. The first that it must be clear that this is what the believers in Albania want. Second, it must be not only the Patriarch's personal wish but have the support of the synod which he heads but does not direct. Finally, the Albanian government must accept this as well, otherwise the situation of the Church would only be made more difficult. My answer was much less than yes! I was like Jonah -- looking for so many paths of escape! But inside my prayer was, 'Your will be done.'
"The Orthodox people were indeed pressing me to stay. They made it clear day after day. And how could I refuse them? How could I say I had a different plan for the rest of my life? Remaining in Albania would mean putting aside all the ideas I had about what I would be doing with the remainder of my life -- a peaceful retirement in Greece, giving occasional lectures at the university and writing books. I had collected a vast amount of material on religious life in various countries and had an ambition to use all that material. I knew that, if I stayed, I would have to give my undivided attention to Albania. All other plans and interests would have to be put completely aside.
All three conditions -- even acceptance by the government -- were met.
"On July 4, 1992, I was enthroned as head of the Orthodox Church of Albania. In fact I was not so much accepting a throne -- that sounds rather comfortable -- but embracing the Cross.
"It was remarkable that the Berisha government had acceded to my enthronement. Between their acceptance and the event itself two weeks later, there was a renewed government-backed attack on the Church and on me personally. On the day of my enthronement I didn't deliver the full text of the speech I had prepared -- it was no longer timely.
"It was a time of constant crisis. Every day there was a critical decision. My constant prayer in those days was, 'Illuminate me Lord to know your will, give me humility to accept your will, and give me strength to obey and take the consequences'."
The situation was to grow more critical. He was often the target of severe criticism and false reports in the Albanian press-- a "verbal crucifixion," in the words of one of the archbishop's co-workers. A law was almost passed that would have forced any non-Albanian bishop to leave the country. His life has been repeatedly threatened. It is one of many Albanian miracles that he is still alive and well.
"The fact that I was Greek, not Albanian, was a daily theme in hostile press article, speeches in Parliament and television reports. The message was very simple: If you are a Greek, you must be a spy. How else could an Albanian whose mind was shaped in the Hoxha period think? A mind entirely formed by an atheistic culture? Each person was seen exclusively in social-economic terms. You cannot imagine that a man in his sixties could be coming here because of love! Therefore we cannot complain about such people. Their way of thinking is not their fault. It is an algebraic logic in which numbers exist below zero. But how to respond to hatred? Here you learn that often the best dialogue is in silence -- it is love without arguments. Only remember you cannot love without cost, neither Christ nor anyone.
"At a certain point, when our situation seemed absolutely hopeless, I was packed and ready to go the following morning, only trying to prepare others to carry on in my place while I did whatever was possible while living outside Albania. It seemed to me and many people nothing less than a miracle that the new constitution was rejected in the national referendum in November 1994. This was not the result anyone expected!"
THE RESURRECTION OF CHURCH IN
Voices of Orthodox Christians, WCC Publications,