Jesuit martyrs of Albania remembered

On 2 September the Society of Jesus commemorates the Blessed Martyrs of France and Spain. This year, the recently beatified Albanian Martyrs have been added to these in its Proper Calendar.

Thirty-eight martyrs of the communist regime in Albania were declared Blessed at a ceremony at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Shkodër, Albania, on 5 November 2016. Among them are two bishops, 21 diocesan priests, three Jesuits, seven Friars Minor, a Franciscan novice-nun, three Catholic laymen, and one seminarian.

In 1944, Albania erupted in civil war. The communist party prevailed and acted quickly and brutally. By 1946, through a series of public trials, imprisonments, executions, and mass banishments, the communists took control. Around 130 Catholic priests were executed or died through harsh conditions in labour camps, alongside thousands of lay Christians, under the new regime (1945-1991)., After the country was declared Communist in 1967, thousands of churches, mosques, Sufi shrines, and other religious monuments were either destroyed or turned over for secular use (as basketball courts, cinemas, and warehouses). Catholics make up a tenth of Albania’s population of 2.9 million (2011 census), the second largest religious group after Muslims (20%).

Pope Francis, who made a flying visit to Albania in September 2014, was deeply moved by the testimonies of survivors of the persecution. Embracing two of them, Father Ernest Simoni and Sister Marije Kaleta, the pope emphasised that God had “held” them and helped them survive all the torture and the uncertainties. Archbishop Angelo Massafra of Shkoder, President of the Albanian Bishops’ Conference, reportedly said the list of martyrs had been agreed upon after Church consultations in 1994 and 2000, adding that the process of beatification was still on for many more martyrs.

The Jesuits of the Venetian-Milan Province, Italy, first ventured into Albania in 1841 and after two unsuccessful attempts eventually established the Vice-Province of Albania. In 1859 they started the Albanian Pontifical Seminary. In 1877 they founded Xavier College, the first stable educational institution in the country. Its students would rise to eminence in various professions and provide a strong impetus to the social and spiritual progress of their people. The Society of Jesus also reached out to Albanian-speaking people in the northern mountainous zone, who felt sorely isolated. The Jesuits established there The Flying Mission, as it came to be known, for the service of faith and the promotion of justice. The three Jesuits included in the list of 38 beatified martyrs were active in the vice-province of Albania: Fr Giovanni Fausti, Fr Daniel Dajani, and Br Gjon Pantalia

Giovanni Fausti (1899-1946) was a native of Brozzo (Brescia) in Italy. He was ordained a priest in 1922 and continued on to graduate in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. In 1923 he started teaching philosophy at St Thomas Seminary in Brescia, and the following year he entered the Society of Jesus in Gorizia. In 1929 he was sent to Albania as professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Seminary of Scutari. He quickly mastered the difficult Albanian language, made an in-depth research on Islam, and published a series of articles on Islam in “La Civilta Cattolica” He engaged Christians and Muslims in “spiritual dialogue.” He founded the League “Friends Islamic East”', which became widespread in Italy and abroad. In 1932 he was recalled to Italy, but returned to Albania in 1942 and was appointed Rector of the Pontifical Seminary and the adjoining Xavier College. A year later he moved to the capital Tirana, to serve Italians and Albanians, Christians and Muslims alike, suffering the misery, displacement and famine of war. In May 1945 Fausti was appointed vice-provincial of the Jesuits in Albania.

Daniel Dajani (1906-1946) was born in Blinishti, Albania, entered the Society of Jesus at Gorizia in Italy in 1926, and was ordained a priest in 1938. He returned to the Pontifical Seminary of Scutari in 1940, as professor of the Albanian language and literature as well as philosophy and theology. In September 1945 Dajani was installed as college president and rector of the Seminary. Dajani was faced with the problem of feeding a community of over 150 people, depending highly on the generosity of benefactors. Missionary work brought him into the mountain settlements and villages of northern Albania. Dajani was simple, quiet, and innately gifted as a peacemaker. Fr Lazër Sheldija, recalled in 1946: “I was a Jesuit student in Shkoder when Dajani paid us a visit after completing his missionary journeys. His stories of vendettas and violence among the Catholic tribes of northern Albania were so astounding that we listened for hours in attentive silence. These visits became memorable experiences for us.” Myfit Q. Bushati, a Muslim, who was Dajani’s student in college, who had survived ten years in Albanian prisons during the persecution, noted: ”I will always remember and cherish the last words of Fr. Dajani before he was sentenced to death, ‘Before this tribunal I don’t ask mercy, only justice’”.

After the withdrawal of the Germans from Albania in 1944, the situation for the Catholic clergy and outstanding laity began to be difficult owing to the hostile attitude of the supporters of the Communist dictatorship

On 31 December 1945, Dajani was arrested along with Fausti. They were sent to solitary confinement for two months and tortured. Both were tried as traitors and spies of the Vatican, sentenced to death on 22 February 1946 and executed on 4 March in Scutari.

Gjon Pantalia (1887-1947), born in Prizren, Kosovo (Serbia),was related to St Mother Teresa. He was educated in Italy, and then worked in the market of his city. He humbly declined the superiors’ urging to become a priest and joined the Society of Jesus in Soresins, Italy as a brother. On completing his training, he was appointed to the College of Shkodra where he was the coordinator of all socio-cultural activities, and teacher, choral and theatrical animator, composer, writer and spiritual director. He was extolled as the “brother cornerstone” of the institution. During the persecution, even alumni who had turned communists protected him and helped him find lawyers to defend his arrested companions. He was finally imprisoned in Shkodre in September 1946, and brutally tortured. In a bid to escape by jumping out a window, he broke his legs and was captured. Lack of proper treatment of his injuries led to his death on 31 October 1947.

Archbishop Massafra stated at the Beatification: “We still hear their prophetic cry – Viva Christ the King! Viva Albania!’ – and know Christ is glorified by the power of their witness, even when Albanians have regained freedom and can breathe the air of true democracy.”

Hedwig Lewis SJ of the Gujerati Province, is the author of “Profiles in Holiness, Brief Biographies of Jesuit Saints” and “Jesuit Saints without Paint”.