Arjan Dodaj, Archbishop of Tirana-Durrës

Arjan Dodaj: "My return to Albania"

He was sixteen years old when he boarded a motorboat in 1993 to get to Italy. He wanted to learn about the world he had seen on TV, and then discovered his faith and vocation. Now the Pope has called him to lead the diocese of Tirana-Durrës.
Alberto Perrucchini

State atheism, the persecution of the Church, priests imprisoned and killed, and regime of terror. Albania lived through one of the darkest realizations of communist ideology in the twentieth century. When the system collapsed in 1990, people were starving. It was a country drained of its material and spiritual resources. Young people began to flee and take the sea route to reach the nearest western country, Italy, hoping to enter a new world. More than thirty years later, while our borders are being crossed for not dissimilar reasons by Ukrainian refugees, we met Arjan, who was sixteen at the time and was one of the many tens of thousands of young people who arrived on Italian shores. Today, Arjan Dodaj is a bishop. Pope Francis appointed him on November 30, 2021 to head the Albanian archdiocese of Tirana-Durrës. His story is extraordinary. But even more extraordinary, more than 20 years after his departure, is what he found upon his return to the country, which he calls "a living Church".

Why did you leave? What made you leave your country and come to Italy?
I am one of the many young Albanians who sought their fortune on the other side of the Adriatic. My generation was born during a regime but this did not prevent us from realizing that there could be something else, from wanting to look for something more in our lives. I remember when, in July 1990, many young people from Tirana stormed the European embassies and the government was forced to allow them to leave Albania to go to Italy, France and other Western countries. We have all seen images of the great exodus of 1991, the year in which the boats carrying people fleeing Albania arrived in the ports of Bari and Brindisi.
In 1993, I was sixteen years old and I was watching Italian television channels that showed a totally different world than the one I had known up to then. Did such a place really exist? The desire to find out made me leave. I came clandestinely. The motorboat left us near Ostuni, and from there I took a train to Bari. I then continued on to Turin and finally arrived in Cuneo where I had some friends. I wanted to get to know a new world and help my family financially so I started working as a bicycle welder. In Cuneo, I met friends who belonged to a prayer group devoted to Our Lady of Medjugorje. I was not baptized, and in Albania state atheism ruled. I began, however, to spend time with them because I saw something that resembled that something more I was looking for.

What happened next?
After meeting the group of young people in the cathedral of Cuneo, I realized that the more I spent time with these friends, the more the desire grew in me to deeply understand what I had found. I was baptized in 1994. I began to involve myself in the life of the parish and to participate in pilgrimages to Medjugorje. I sensed, however, that God was asking even more of me; I wanted to be able to give my life for that superabundance that I had encountered. I went to Rome where I began a vocational journey in the House of Mary, the prayer group born from the charism of the Bergamasque priest Fr. Giacomo Martinelli. In 1997 I entered the seminary and in 2003 Pope John Paul II consecrated me a priest.

Why did you return to Albania?
In 2017, the then Archbishop of Tirana-Durrës, Monsignor George Anthony Frendo, asked me to return to help him administer the Diocese as Vicar General. I was happy in Rome, taking care of the parish of St. Raphael the Archangel, a church entrusted to the community of the House of Mary. I had never thought of going back to Albania, and, precisely for this reason, I decided to accept the Archbishop's proposal. I perceived that this was an invitation that surpassed all my calculations; it was a call that came to me through someone who intercepted me in a manner that is still unknown to me today. I left and began this service. In 2020, I became an Auxiliary Bishop and on November 30, 2021, Pope Francis named me Archbishop. In these few months I have seen my schedule fill up and, at the same time, I have also discovered a living Church.

What does that mean?
At Mass on Sundays, the cathedral is full. You will not believe it, but 80% of those present were no more than thirty years old. What I found when I came back to Albania was a new faith. In my country, during the dictatorship, they tried to eradicate the religious sphere. During that period, churches became cinemas or theaters, priests were killed or imprisoned. Today, a young Church is flourishing and is taking its first steps. For me, this is moving and, at the same time, paradoxical when one considers that the first bishop of Durrës was St. Caesar, one of the 72 disciples sent by Jesus, and that the first person to evangelize the region of Illyria was St. Paul.
I have touched what Tertullian describes when he says: "The sacrifice of our martyrs, who gave their lives for their faith, is the seed of the new Christians." Moreover, we must be grateful that there are witnesses who still today recount what happened in Albania during the regime. I am referring, first of all, to Cardinal Ernest Simoni. Men like him testify the strength of faith to the new generations to such an extent that, every year, at least seventy young people ask to be baptized on Easter Day.

What do you remember about your childhood in Albania?
I do not regret anything about those years, apart from not having been able to encounter the Lord. At the same time, however, I remember feeling a sort of carefree attitude, I wanted to live every circumstance as a challenge, as an opportunity to seek something more. I could say that my friends and I lived through the tragic years of the regime like the child in Roberto Benigni's film Life is Beautiful experiences the horrors of Nazism. We did not understand what was happening but we perceived the need for an experience of beauty. Religion, in reality, never left Albania; I could say that the gift of faith was kept in a simple way, through song. My grandmother would sing doctrine, sing prayers, sing the Rosary. I would repeat her words without knowing what they meant. My grandparents did not talk to me about God, but they transmitted something to me that I later saw resurfacing in faith. I remember that my grandfather, every morning, would lie in bed for several minutes, in silence, with his eyes open. In his hand he held a crown made of olive stones. Only later did I realize that he was praying the Rosary.

Read also – Zuppi: "The charism, an open window"

That more that you saw on TV, that you searched for in Italy and then again in Albania, did you ever find it?
Yes, I found it and I wish to keep following it. During these years I have earned much more than I could have imagined when I got on the motorboat and left my country. I grew up with my grandparents, without parents, but in Italy I found many fathers and mothers ready to support me. I found people who helped me to get a job and, finally, I met friends who allowed me to know and give a name to that more I was looking for: faith in the Lord, the only one able to satiate the thirst of my heart.

What is hope for you?
For me, hope right now is the Ukrainian people. It is seeing people offering their lives and allowing all of us to get to know each other better and to discover that we are united. 140 countries at the UN General Assembly voted against the attack on Ukraine, something which has never happened before! Hope exists and is in front of us. If we do not follow it, however, we will only be spectators.