By Eugene Merlika
– OUR LADY OF SHKODRA –
Memorie.al/ Xenacano are a small hill town in the western part of the province of Lazio, in central Italy. It is a medieval city that was part of the Papal State and enjoyed the privileges of not paying taxes, thanks to the protection of the powerful Colonna princes. Between this city and the northern capital of Albania, Shkodra, there is a special connection, which emerges from all the usual frameworks of relations that, for various reasons, unite different cities and provinces in the four corners of the planet. The legend says that one day in 1479, when the 35-year Albanian resistance to the Turkish invasion was in its last throes, an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary was detached from the church of the Shkodra fortress.
It flew up over the sea and a good part of the land in front of it and stopped at the church of Xenacano. Following this icon in its flight, two men crossed the sea on foot, as can be seen in the painting at the entrance of the church, inspired by this legend. This was the legend, perhaps the truth is closer to another version, the one that tells us that this frame was made from Shkodra, which fell under the Turkish occupation, by two merchants who wanted to save the cult object of their city from the danger that was threatened by the conquerors of another religion.
The ‘Our Lady of Good Counsel’ or the ‘Our Lady of Shkodra’ ran away and the people of Shkodran always turned their heads to the west when they continued to pray to the protector of their city over the centuries. Over time, that icon of the “Our Lady of Shkodra” became the object of the cult of all Albanians who, in order to avoid danger in their native land, crossed the sea and took refuge in different parts of neighboring Italy. The Albanian emigration to the Apennine peninsula had begun long before the fall of Shkodra, but for all Arbris, that icon symbolized the faith of the ancestors and the hope for better days.
The cult of Our Lady, the mother of Christ, of the woman who would give birth to the son of God from her body, is the most widespread in the Christian world, even that figure is seen with respect in the Islamic world. Lourdes, Čestokova, Mezhdugorie, Fatima, are the most famous symbols of the presence, the greatness and the inexhaustible strength of Our Lady, this divine figure of the woman as the renewer of human life
May is the month of Our Lady, and every day of this month the faithful pray to her, often gathered in groups. The last Sunday of this month, for Christian Albanians in Italy, is the day of Our Lady of Good Counsel. From all the villages of this country, they gather that day in Xenacano. This is what happened last May 31. The church was full of Albanian believers who prayed in their language, because that day one of the masses, the most important one, at eleven o’clock, was said in the Albanian language.
It was a somewhat special ceremony, which brought the echo of a past time, of a historical era when, for Albanians, the church was not only the place of prayers, worship of God or confession of sins, but also the logo of Albanianism, patriotic ideals of an enslaved people, aspiring for freedom. “Faith and Motherland” this was the emblem of the Albanian Catholic Church throughout the ages. The mission of the priests did not end with the preaching of the Gospel and its moral teachings, nor with the works of charity and helping the poor, the sick and the weak. He had another goal, that of the patriotic ideal in a country languishing under foreign occupation. The priest had to be a teacher, organizer, and advisor, propagandist of the language, history, tradition, and spirit of the Nation at the same time.
Albanian priests perform this function under pressure, at the price of sacrifices, often with their lives. Therefore, free Albania expressed its gratitude and put them on a pedestal, and many of them became political leaders of the new State. But the trials of the Catholic Church were not over. The most difficult, the most impossible ones would come next, in the confrontation not with the foreign invader, but with the communist regime. It was an indescribable carnage, the most tragic ordeal since the dawn of Christianity. The number of martyrs of the red half-century probably exceeded those of all previous centuries taken together. The communist cruelty did not know any goal, and the Albanian church became the most excellent example of resistance to an ideology and practice of murderous freedom such as Albanian Enverism.
When the young priest, Father Aurel Gjerkaj, who led the mass, asked the faithful to read the “Prayer for the canonization of the Albanian martyrs”, as a single voice, it was heard: “O God, good and merciful Father, with the example of shining light of Christ, Your crucified Son, who died and rose again, support our bishops, priests, regulars, and laymen in Albania to prove their loyalty to the Gospel and the Church in torture and martyrdom, we pray that you make them happy even on earth, giving us the grace we are asking for by entrusting ourselves to their intercession….”
Anyone who knows even a little about the history of the dictatorship of Albanian communism, could not help but see, in those moments, those hundreds and thousands of crimes, starting with the sawn-off legs of Dom Lazër Shantoja, suffered by the Catholic clergy, many of whom were well-known personalities of their country’s culture. The fact of the indifference of free Europe towards their fate, as well as towards the victims of communism in general… Even the post-communist Albanian state, which continues to maintain its form in relations with religious beliefs, excluding individual initiatives of researchers or any cultural institution, is astonishing has done nothing to honor the memory of the martyrs of various clerics, mainly Catholic ones.
I think the highlight of the mass on May 31 in Xhenacano was the bringing of the Albanian flag to the altar and its closing with the singing of the National Anthem of Albania, in full accordance with the considerations expressed above. Before this moment, Father Gazmend Tinaj, the Provincial of the Friars of Shkodra, took the floor, who addressed the attendees, all exiles and far from the Motherland. He reminded them that the Motherland still needs them, that their presence today, on the day of Our Lady, resembles the return of daughters to their mothers, to common values, to common history, to common dreams for a prosperous and advanced.
It was a touching talk, affirming concepts not heard every day, leveraging the troubled state of mind of the exiles, reaping a prolonged and sincere applause from all present. Among them were non-Catholic believers who prayed to Our Lady of Good Counsel. Coming out of the dogmas of religions, I think this phenomenon is very beautiful. It is something left over from the past regime, when belief was forbidden by law and where the philosophy of the believer accepted that every object of worship was suitable for prayer, since everyone served God and God is one for everyone.
On June 13, the feast of Saint Ndou is celebrated and many continue to experience the special emotions of many years ago, when they remember the endless line of thousands of people from all over Albania, from all ages, beliefs and social backgrounds, since those days they climbed the ruins of the church of Laçi. That pilgrimage was the culminating moment not only of the common prayer of a people, but also of its powerful resistance to a regime that had nothing human left in its blood.
After the very beautiful ceremony in the Church of Our Lady, the party turned into a picnic, where people met and mingled with friends and acquaintances, where they made new acquaintances, where they sang Albanian songs and played their dances. It was a piece of festive Albania transplanted here in the place Our Lady of Shkodra chose for her residence. That one special day, which excited us, brought us closer to God and to the Motherland, made us think and see life from another point of view, away from the worries and countless problems of every day. All this thanks to the young priests, who made this day concrete and to whom our special thanks go. Memorie.al