The voice of Metropolitan John Pelushi

My first encounter with Metropolitan John was at the seminary, an impressive complex of new stone buildings on a hilltop a short distance inland from the port city of Durres. Though his main responsibilities are in Korça, he comes to teach at the seminary as often as he can manage the six-hour journey. For several years he had been the seminary’s director before his other responsibilities became too heavy. He has translated a number of books into Albanian including On the Holy Spirit by Saint Basil, The Orthodox Faith (a four-volume catechism by Father Thomas Hopko), and a collection of writings by and about Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain. Currently he is at work on an introduction to dogmatic theology, the first volume of which is now ready for publication. Two more are awaited. Born the first of January, 1956, he looks even younger than he is with his dense black hair and beard. His English is fluent. No translator was needed. He had studied for several years at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School near Boston in the United States.

I asked how he had been able to study in the USA.

“I went there thanks to a scholarship established by Albanians in America in memory of Bishop Fan Noli. During this period, when I heard that Archbishop Anastasios had arrived in Albania, I contacted him. He was very receptive, encouraging me to return to Albania in order to meet him. I was very impressed with his person and his devotion for the cause of the Church in Albania. During this meeting, I even happened to be present at his enthronement on August 2, 1992.

“The following year, after graduating from Holy Cross with a Master’s of Theological Studies, I returned to Albania and the Archbishop appointed me to teach theology at the seminary, as well as serve in other capacities within the Church. He ordained me as a deacon on February 27, 1994, then as a priest on December 4 the same year. In 1995 I received a scholarship from him and returned to the United States to pursue further studies. When I returned in 1996, I was appointed as director of the seminary as well as elevated as an archimandrite on November 19th. On July 18, 1998, I was elected as Metropolitan of Korça and enthroned two days later.”

I mentioned how impressed I was with the architecture and stone construction of the various buildings crowning the hill where we met.

“If you had seen this hilltop a decade ago, you could not have imagined that it would soon be a church, monastery and theological school. It had been an important monastery, a place of pilgrimage, in the past, but in 1967 everything was destroyed. Only a fragment of one building survived — part of two walls but no roof — and a few trees. You could not even discern the shape of the former church, though secretly people continued to climb the hill at night in order to pray. It was recognized as a sacred place. All that you see here has been built through the continuous effort of the Archbishop.

“My life in some ways is like this hilltop. I was converted to Christianity in 1975 during my last year at high school after a friend — an underground Orthodox Christian — loaned me a copy of the New Testament in French. He said it was to help me learn French, but he was really an evangelist.

“Part of my journey to faith was through reading. There were many religious books in the main library in Tirana. Luckily I knew the librarian and was able to borrow them discreetly — books by Orthodox, Catholic, Moslem and Jewish authors — to me it didn’t matter. Anyone who believed in God was somehow my ally, just as for the state anyone who believed in God was an enemy. The state was at war God, nothing less.

“The next step was becoming part of a small underground church group. It was such a different time! Not only you but your whole family could pay dearly if you were found praying with another person. Yet it was such a great joy! At last came the day when Father Kosmas baptized me. Until then I was called Fatmir (which means, “good luck”). In baptism I received the name John, after John the Theologian.

“It’s amazing. When he was made a bishop, I — so much younger, his spiritual child, one of the people he had baptized — was one of the consecrating bishops! It was in 1979 that he baptized me — a dangerous time to do such a thing. There have been Albanian priests executed for that. It was in the cellar of his house. His son stood outside on guard, watching. Now he is a priest, Fr. Ilia.

“Our small community used to meet mostly at the home of the Cico sisters in Korça, though we only had liturgy and communion rarely. Some used to take Holy Communion once a year and some others four or five times a year. Once we managed to go to Father Kosmas’s village where there was a liturgy in the middle of the night.

“We had to be very cautious. The years 1974-81 were the worst period for believers, though the anti-religious repression had started in a serious way in 1967. The atheist campaign intensified in 1974 after a so-called secret group was ‘found’ — these supposed ‘enemies of the state’ gave the government the occasion to launch a campaign of terror.

“When I left school I got a job organizing occupational therapy at a psychiatric clinic — very good cover for me! What better task for a follower of Christ than care of the sick? In fact the ‘insane’ were sometimes not insane — a family member would declare a person insane to prevent him being arrested and condemned.

“I know so many people who went to prison. My father was in jail in 1944 — ‘an enemy of the state.’ Many times they nearly arrested me. Once the secret police were going to raid my office — someone told them I had a Bible — but the director of the clinic was able to stop them. He had sympathy for me — and because he was a cousin of the director of the secret police he could protect me.

“We have so many people in our country who have suffered persecution and now must try to prevent the persecuted from becoming persecutors. This is why learning to forgive is so important in our country. In the Kanon of Lek — a medieval text that remains a monument in our culture — it is written, ‘If you forgive, it is an act of courage.’ I am happy to say that last year a committee in the north of the country, with Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim representatives, were able to get 800 families to agree to reconciliation. There was a big event in Lezha to mark this achievement.

“It was important that the three main religious communities took part in this effort. The religions in Albania must co-exist. We don’t meet enough but at least we have contact on each other’s feast days. If you know someone, it is hard to fight him! In our small country we already have so many divisions, we don’t need any more.

“I come from a Bektashi family, a form of Shia Islam, actually a kind of crypto-Christianity, a form of Islam not far from open Christianity. Bektashis have a kind of baptism, a kind of communion, even three ranks of clergy just as we have. They venerate saints. They use icons. They drink wine. Clearly some of their roots are Christian. However there are also many Gnostic elements, including belief in reincarnation. Less than two centuries ago, after several centuries of Orthodox Christianity, my region became Bektashi so that they wouldn’t have to pay the tax that Christians were forced to pay in the Ottoman Empire, yet keep many Christian elements and maybe ease their conscience a bit. But they are somewhat suspect in the view of some other Moslems. Today, many of them are coming back to the Church.

“People often say they are this or that religion because of their name. If you have a certain name, you are Muslim, another name you are a Christian. But in fact you may be a nothing or an atheist. We have many atheists with Christian names, many with Moslem names! We have so many nothings — especially people between 40 and 60. A lost generation. It is very hard for them. They have nothing.

“The church concentrates its efforts on the young but it can happen that the young rescue their parents and even grandparents. I was told the strange story of a grandfather who became Orthodox because his grandchild said it was a pity he didn’t pray and cross himself before he ate his food. ‘They won’t let me eat unless I make the sign of the cross!’ the grandfather told me. He finally decided not only to make the sign of the cross but to be baptized!”

Our next meeting was in Korça, first in his office, a room that also held the core of his substantial library, later over the table as his guest for a Lenten meal. I expressed my surprise at the huge church that was under construction on the western edge of the city’s main square. It was not simply impressive and ideally located, but a work of art that inspires prayer.

“This church was built while I was teaching at the seminary. Through Archbishop Anastasios’ initiative, we finally received land in the center of the city — but it was not easy. We had previously accepted another plot of land, not nearly as well located, but the government took it away from us after some controversy. Following much prayer and effort by many, we received the best possible piece of land in the city — right in the center, next to city hall. For us, this was a miracle. We could not have asked for a better place to build our cathedral.”

I asked about the building where we were meeting, both the administrative center of the diocese and, in several rooms on the top floor, his residence.

“It was built by the church in the pre-Communist time and was used in the same way. Then in the Hoxha years it became the local Communist Party training center! Now it has been returned to us — there is no more Communist Party. This also was restored by the Archbishop.

“We have a great deal to do here. There are now 200 churches in this diocese — a very heavy administrative load. On the other hand, there were 400 churches in the diocese before 1967. Being a bishop is not easy. You have to make a lot of decisions, you need a lot of prayer. Thank God there are some stupid — or perhaps crazy — people willing to be bishops. Bishops today must no longer live like princes. We are no longer living in the Byzantine Empire. We must be close to the people. An episkopos must be someone who guides, not a ruler.”

I asked if he hadn’t been tempted to stay in the United States after his studies were completed. The large Albanian community there would have certainly found a parish for him.

“It was suggested to me a number of times. I have other family members who moved to the US, but I decided to come back to Albania. This is my country. This is the Church that really needs me. Here I can make a difference. Yes, it is difficult here, but where is it not difficult? I was baptized here and had my first communion here. There were many good friends there who thought I was crazy to return, and there are people here who think the same — even people who say I am a CIA spy or that I get a lot of money by being a bishop. Otherwise why would I have come back? They cannot imagine any motive but financial gain.

“But what can we offer to the world as Orthodox Christians? Not money, but the spirit of sacrifice. We must teach the people the responsibility that comes with freedom — the Albanian word is liria. Such an important word!

“In a recent sermon I tried to explain that the Lord’s commandments are not the enemy of freedom — I compared the commandments to the barriers on mountain roads which help prevent cars from falling off cliffs. Now we are in the process of understanding that freedom is not mass debauchery. Freedom is not just to do as you please with no thought of consequences, no care for others. It is not a life free of love. The Prodigal Son thought he would become free and ended up as a slave. Without transformation and asceticism, freedom is not possible.

“Instead of a culture of freedom, we are in a culture of addictions. We find many people more and more addicted. Everything becomes uniform. Here in Albania it used to be done by force while in the west it was done voluntarily. Now we are following the western style. We think we achieve freedom by money.”

He went on to speak about obstacles to the spiritual life.

“The great sin is fear of the other. In a state of fear, everyone seems to be a threat. There are many symptoms of fear among Christians. The real meaning of the English word ‘gospel’ is good news, but one can find those who are more attracted to the Bad News Gospel. You can find religious circles more interested in the anti-Christ than in Christ, more interested in the number 666 than the Holy Trinity. This is a fear-driven, bad news orientation. Where such a mentality thrives, the Christian contribution to society is meager. Where faith, hope and love flourish, transformation occurs. Faith changes life. If life doesn’t change, clearly there is no faith. Saint John Chrysostom, preaching to perhaps 400 people in Antioch, told them, ‘If all of you were Christians, there would be no more pagans in the world.’ If you want to understand how Christianity spread so rapidly in the early centuries, it was because Christians were Christian.

“Sadly, in our time, we have lost the idea of the holy. Pagans at least understood the holy. They had a sense of the sacred. We have lost this capacity. This is our tragedy because more than ever the world needs the light of Christ, the genuine light.”

I asked how the Church in Albania communicates the faith to others? Metropolitan John laughed.

“We try everything! If you have a suggestion, we will try that too. This is why the Church is doing so many things that are valuable and useful in themselves but not essential, you might think, to the life of the Church. For example we are now preparing to offer an English course for young people in the region of Prespa. It is not an essential task of the Church to teach languages but this is another way of trying to make contact with young people who have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and cannot imagine pushing open the door of the Church. Of course this sometimes irritates people in the government. They wonder what the church has to do with school. Their idea is that we should only stand at the altar.

“It is not that we are trying to manipulate others into belief through this or that project. What we are trying to do is help young people see certain possibilities, certain paths. Our task is to guard their freedom so that they can choose their own path. In general they want to be told what to do. This is the fear of freedom. But they imagine they are free and that the Church is an enemy of their freedom.”

I noticed on a bookshelf several collections of stories and saying of the early monks, the Desert Fathers.

“For me these men and women of the desert have been a constant source of inspiration. For example there is the story of an elder and his young disciple going to Alexandria to preach. They shopped. They walked about. Finally the elder said to the younger monk, ‘Let’s return to our cells.’ The disciple said, ‘But weren’t we going to preach?’ And the elder said, ‘But we preached all day long — how we walked, how we spoke, how we ate. What more could we say?’

“Then there is the story of the theologian who went to St. Anthony the Great. He asked about the meaning of a certain text. Anthony said, ‘What is your opinion?’ The theologian gave a very detailed answer. Then Anthony asked another monk, ‘Abba Joseph, what is your opinion?’ He responded, ‘I don’t know.’ To this Anthony replied, ‘Blessed are you, Abba Joseph, you have understood because you said I don’t know.’

“The words ‘I don’t know’ are wonderful! This is why in the Orthodox Church we refer to any sacrament with the Greek word mysterion — mystery. We do this because there is the danger of putting boundaries to God. It is the academic danger: to pretend — to imagine — that you know. In reality the more you know, the more you don’t know.

“It is not through scientific investigation that you know another person. It is only through love. Only love can discover something unique. If you don’t love, you cannot discover the person. Love is a state of being. Love is a sacrament of being. The moment you feel a need to explain, love is gone.

“A problem we face is the cult of individualism. The Church doesn’t exist to make individuals but persons. An individual is someone in a state of separation, someone out of communion. A person is unique but at the same time exists in relationship with others. You cannot divide him from the whole. A person is a being who can never be repeated yet whose being includes others — without the other, the person does not exist. Without communion there is no being.”

I asked if he could imagine if, after all these years of destruction of faith, that Albania could become a religious society.

“I am not a staretz [spiritual elder, often a person who can foretell events yet to happen] — I cannot see the future. We must do what we can and not be overly attached to achieving results.”

I wondered if monastic life had been a hard choice for him.

“I didn’t see becoming a monk as a choice. It was for me what I must do — not to be better than others! — but because no other life seemed to fit me. I never encourage young people to embrace a celibate life. You do this only if you find that you have no other choice. But a celibate vocation is only possible if you live an ascetic life. This is why we have no TV in the house. Even if you are strong, it’s better not to put yourself in the path of temptation. When an ascetic discipline is missing, there is the problem of extreme loneliness suffered by many celibates. If you are full of the love of the Holy Spirit, you do not need other kinds of love.”

He told me a story of a community of exceptionally holy monks who, unfortunately, were also terrible singers.

“They sounded like a chorus of crows. But a gifted singer happened to visit. The monks were so impressed by his fine voice that they wouldn’t let him leave. He would sing the services so that heaven would no longer have to suffer from their awful singing. Days and days passed. Each service was beautifully sung by the professional singer. But one night an angel appeared in a dream to one of the monks and asked why they no longer heard the monks’ prayers. What had happened? The monk said the angel was a mistaken — ‘There is now a wonderful singer offering the prayers so much better than we can!’ ‘All the same,’ said the angel, ‘we hear nothing in heaven.’ The monk told the brothers his dream. Afterward the monks resumed their singing.

“I am like one of these monks with an awful voice, but it is the only voice I have and I must use it as best I can.”

He commented that one of the problems for priests in the modern world is a tendency to be embarrassed by the priestly vocation.

“We have to take care that in our desire to be close to people we try to become so like them that they hardly see us. The priest has to be visible, though taking care not to obstruct Christ’s presence.”

I asked about people and events that had shaped his life.

“I think this can be divided in two periods, first when religion was forbidden, and then when the church regained its freedom. In the first period, one of the most important persons for me was a man named Petro Zhei. I met him through providence. He was a translator but, more than that, he was a genius, an erudite man with a deep experience in the spiritual life. I was about 18 years old when a friend introduced us. He was 25 years older than I was. Despite the difference in age and experience, we had many deep conversations. The exchanges with him opened so many doors within me.

“In school I went through a very deep spiritual crisis. It brought on a kind of melancholy — depression — the feeling I was losing my childhood. I was reading books about psychology and philosophy that were really killing childhood. What finally saved my childhood was the Gospel. Reading it, I felt again a childlike happiness. I rediscovered something. Thank you, Gospel, for saving my childhood. Thank you for giving me back real joy. You can become an expert but it is of no value if you lose the joy. The Gospel so moved me whenever I read it. Even the memory of it moved me. As a child I had always loved adventure books — the Gospel was the fulfillment of this love. This was the ultimate adventure book. Perhaps someday I can find time to write about the theology of adventure stories and fairy tales.

In the second period, the one who most influenced me was Archbishop Anastasios. It happens both he and Petro Zhei were born in the same year. Often it’s not enough to have a clear idea and dedication, a spirit of sacrifice. We also need models to see our ideals actualized. The Archbishop was such an example for me. Through him I was able to see a concrete example of how to combine our dedication to God and man.

Our conversation shifted toward Church response to the poor, the homeless and the sick.

“There is no Christian community where there is no service of love. If we fail to respond to those who suffer, we turn our back on Christ. I will not be congratulated by God for writing a fine book about theology. I will be asked: ‘What about that poor old woman you ignored?’

“This is why we opened the ‘Service of Love’ free restaurant just across the street, to give one example. You can see it out the window. This was opened two times a week in 1995, through the initiative of the Archbishop. We have expanded it now to five meals a week. Normally we have forty to eighty people for lunch. All this is done by volunteers, a mixture of young and old, four or five in each group. Next we want to start a home for the elderly — people who are often completely alone. We are already helping old people in their homes or apartments, for example an old woman who had surgery and had no one to care for her. But they give us more than we give them. At the same time, we cannot romanticize the service of love. Often people with needs are somewhat mentally disturbed. They may curse you, curse the Church, even threaten you.

“There is the spiritual danger of seeing people as if they were carvings — it is a break in communion. The closer you get to another person, the more you understand this could be you. Everything can become a sacrament, the mystery of God’s presence.

“We look for many ways to help — we can never say we have finished. A week ago Sunday the Gospel of the Last Judgement was read during the liturgy — ‘What you did to the least person, you did to me.’ In my sermon I asked for volunteers to help us expand our Service of Love program — after the liturgy there were 28 volunteers, many of them young people. This means we can do more.

“You will not be saved by doctrine if you don’t practice it. If you believe in the power of medicine but only keep it in bottles, it will not save you. Saint Gregory the Theologian said that the knowledge of God starts with obeying the commandments; if you begin the journey you will experience the mysteries — the sacraments. Like Moses, we are granted an oblique view of God. This is a quest that surpasses every fairy tale, every legend.

“One of the things we learn in any project of service is that we cannot do it alone. Christ said he will be present whenever there are at least two or three gathered in his name — one is not enough.

“From such work we also learn gratitude. This is essential. The deep meaning of the word Eucharist is thanksgiving. Complaining is the disease of our time. Our sin is not being grateful. I visited recently an 83-year-old woman who had been blind since she was three. I have never met anyone as grateful as she is, someone so thankful. Whenever you met the Cico sisters, you would notice that each time they mentioned Christ, their faces were illuminated. Such gratitude! They have lived in the other world — they have enjoyed it and we experience their joy. This kept them alive. But in our present world if you don’t complain you are regarded as an idiot.”

I was reminded of the words a French Catholic poet, Leon Bloy, who said that joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.

“Yes! One Christmas I went to a cave in the mountains near here, a place many people were afraid to go to because of superstitions about ghosts. I built a small a fire and prayed. In that cave I was so full of joy! People who have not had such an experience cannot imagine. Joy? Joy in a cold cave in the middle of winter? They will think you are crazy. But I felt a great joy, and within me overflowed a deep prayer. This joy overwhelmed me for days — I could hardly work.”

Our conversation returned to the Hoxha years, when one would be very lucky to be regarded as crazy rather than criminal.

“Those years of persecution were hard but helpful. You certainly didn’t get a medal for being religious! In 1948 the head of our Orthodox, Archbishop Kristofor, was arrested and confined to the church of St. Prokopios in Tirana. Four years later, it was reported in the press that the bishop he had been found dead, but it is generally assumed he was poisoned. He died a martyr’s death.

“Another bishop, Irineos, had the courage to refuse to ordain as bishop a person nominated by the government and for this was exiled to the Ardenica monastery. Bishop Irineos was from Skodra in the north of Albania. He studied theology in Paris and Belgrade.

Irineos never wanted to be a bishop or even to be ordained as a deacon or priest, but accepted it during the Italian occupation of Albania to prevent a Uniate bishop being imposed on us. The Italians had intended to put a Uniate in the Synod as soon as there was a vacancy. After a week of prayer, Irineu accepted the proposal though he was a layman at the time. He was quickly ordained deacon, then priest, then bishop, all in one week! He served as bishop in Kosovo and part of Macedonia. Bishop Irineu was arrested and exiled to the Ardenica Monastery where he died in 1973.

“Religious life was something dangerous for many years. But in those days I felt strongly that you cannot live without religion. Such a life is a mutilated life. Now we have the impression that we can live without religion or that religion can be a hobby. We lived through a time of collective madness. You were condemned for any form of religion — it was a war against the idea of the holy, the idea of God.

“Yet to tell the truth, I often felt sorry for the persecutors — and still feel sorry for them. Really, they were the victims. They became sub-human. I don’t know how they feel now, but they have been badly damaged. Hell is life apart from God — it begins in this life. If we don’t become familiar with God in this life, how will we do it in the next?”

I mentioned that some of those who once persecuted religion are not only alive and well but still in government.

“Our sad history in the Balkans — so many invasions and occupations and acts of cruelty — taught people not to trust. Here there has always been war. It is regarded as normal. We who are Christians have to stop these endless cycles of hatred.”

Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches; do not reprint without the author’s permission.