Msgr. Arjan Dodaj: from communism to priesthood-CARF Foundation
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CARF
14 Nov, 22

Priests' testimonies

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Msgr. Arjan Dodaj: from communism to priesthood

The Archdiocese of Tirana-Durrës is a Latin ecclesiastical circumscription of the Catholic Church in Albania. Pope Francis appointed Rev. Arjan Dodaj auxiliary bishop of this archdiocese, assigning him the titular see of Lestrona, on April 9, 2020 at the age of 43. Raised in an atheist and communist culture, he converted and discovered his vocation to the priesthood. Today he is Metropolitan Archbishop of Tirana-Durrës. He tells for the CARF Foundation about his conversion from communism to become a bishop.

Arjan Dodaj Archbishop of Tirana-Durrës

Archbishop Arjan Dodaj is Archbishop of Tirana-Durrës (Albania). His life was not easy. He was born in Laç-Kurbin, in the same archdiocese, on January 21, 1977. In 1993, when he was only 16 years old, after completing his primary and secondary studies in his hometown, he emigrated to Italy and settled in Cuneo, where he began to work.

He worked as a welder - more than 10 hours a day - and finally found the Christian faith in the Fraternity of the Sons of the Cross. He was educated in atheism, but when he found Christ, he was baptized and God called him to the priesthood. I contacted Msgr. Arjan Dodaj through some students of the Fraternity of the Sons of the Cross, all of whose members are studying at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, thanks to the support of the CARF Foundation.

Bishop Arjan Dodaj told the CARF Foundation about his conversion testimony and his vocation.

A powerful story 

"All stories are moving, if we think that each story has to do with a person, with a human being, with his world and his life. However, there are stories that are more shocking than others, at least for some of us who have had the opportunity to live and see with our own eyes certain situations that have changed the existence of some countries in particular.

I still remember, in fact, as a 12-year-old boy, the boats coming to Italy from Albania in the 1990s, full, full of people crammed into the holds, on the bridges, filling every space, every available hole to escape from the poverty, insecurity and uncertainty that reigned in the Balkan country. It may have been the first time that Italy experienced the phenomenon of mass immigration, a phenomenon for which it was not prepared and which is now an everyday occurrence".

- I escaped on a ship from my homeland... Now I have returned as a bishop.

Well, today we tell the story of someone who has lived all this in person, because one of the boys on those boats that we saw on TV today is a bishop. He was born in Laç-Kurbin, on the Albanian coast, and arrived in Italy as an emigrant at the age of 16, after crossing the Adriatic Sea on a boat. He fled his country on a warm, starry night in September 1993, in search of a future and a way to help his poor family, and today he is the Metropolitan Archbishop of Tirana-Durrës, in his country.

While working as a welder and gardener, more than ten hours a day, he encountered the community of the Sons of the Cross, all of whose members are now studying in the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross thanks to the help they receive from the CARF Foundation - Centro Academico Romano Foundation - and he rediscovered the Christian faith, which was forbidden in his country, due to the doctrine of state atheism, but which had nevertheless remained imprinted in his heart, like a distant memory, thanks to the songs that his grandmother whispered in his ear.

- Thank you, Monsignor Dodaj, it is an honor to have the opportunity to interview you today for our Spanish-speaking readers. And you know that, as an Italian, your story touches me personally.

Thanks to you, it is a pleasure, because for me, as for many Albanians who knew Italy through Italian television that we could see in our country, there was only one desire: to go to Italy.

A humble and simple family

I was very impressed by his story, that faith that is kept, rather sown and buried in the heart, without one realizing it, and then blooms after many years....

Yes, and all because of my family, a very humble and simple family, originally from the north of Albania. So I was born in Laç, a city known especially for a shrine that is very dear to all Albanians, dedicated to St. Anthony, and located on the mountain behind my village. This shrine is a place that has always accompanied me in my life. In fact, since I was a child, the school I attended was at the foot of the mountain and right next to it was the path along which, especially on Tuesdays, near the feast of the saint, or others of which I was not aware at the time, many people went to pray to the intercession of St. Anthony.

A communist country 

- And this despite living in a communist country....

Yes, and in spite of the strict prohibitions of the communist system in a country that, in fact, declared itself atheist by constitution. My family was of humble condition: my father worked in a factory and my mother on a construction site. Besides me there were my two sisters. We grew up together with much simplicity and charity, with much love and sense of belonging to that great gift that is the family.

In the village near Laç lived my maternal grandparents, whom I had more opportunities to get to know, since they were not far away. There I had, in a way, my first approach to the religious dimension, which they lived with great discretion but, at the same time, with a deep sense of the existence of God. Even if unconsciously, I dare say that I could breathe for the first time the experience of faith precisely when I saw my grandparents.

My grandmother stood every day in front of a structure in front of the house, which I didn't know was the village church: she stood there, upright, holding the rosary in her hand, and prayed. In contrast, my grandfather always started the day with the rosary and only after that came all the other activities. These practices were unknown to me and yet they conveyed to me something of their faith, of what they believed in such an 'approachable' way: the presence of God, invisible but visible to them in their hearts.

Escape from Albania 

- In the 1990s he decided to flee to Italy: why?

At that time we were coming out of the Iron Curtain in which our country was, and pluralism appeared and, with it, the possibility of democracy, so many Albanians tried to find a better future in the West. Personally, I tried several times to escape, especially to Italy. The first attempt was on August 8, 1991, after the first mass exodus that many Italians and Albanians remember, that of March, when I was fourteen years old.

On that occasion there was the case of the famous Vlora ship carrying some 20,000 immigrants. Instead, the boat that I had decided to take with many other people suffered a breakdown and - dare I say - by grace, did not leave. I realized that it was going to be a journey of great suffering, poverty and hardship. After that, I made several more attempts to be able, like many of my friends of the same age and numerous adults and families, to find a better future in the West.

It was not a future I was seeking for myself, I was driven by the desire to provide for my family as well: my sisters, my parents, who had suffered so much in extreme poverty and great persecution during the communist dictatorship.

The second leak 

- And finally the occasion arrived...

Yes, in 1993, through obviously clandestine organizations. It was the night between September 15 and 16, 1993, I was then 16 years old. Certainly, at my young age I was not aware of this adventure, since, as I said, I had only one desire: to go to Italy. As Albanians, we only knew Italy through what we saw on Italian channels.

The trip started from my hometown lagoon, Patok, where a boat from southern Italy docked. There were forty of us in all and we had paid a considerable amount of money, something almost impossible for us. For this reason I was in debt but, for the departure, necessarily each of us had already paid the sum of one million six hundred thousand lire, something like 850 euros, which by then, and especially in a country like ours, was a considerable sum.

I left a piece of my heart 

I remember that night of September 15 very well: the beautiful starry sky and the calm sea. As we traveled and moved away from the shore, I watched the lights of my hometown fade. Somehow, I felt like a piece of my heart was slowly falling away. We arrived in Carovigno, Puglia. There we were picked up and taken to a ruined house in the middle of olive groves. Then, the next morning, together with other people, I took the train to Bari and then, that same afternoon, to Turin. In fact, in Piedmont other friends were waiting for us to help us fit into the Italian reality.

I work as a welder 

- I can't even imagine how hard it must have been....

Of course, and even more difficult because of the urgency to pay the debt I had left in Albania. When I arrived in Italy - thank God - I had some compatriots who helped and supported me in the first period. After Turin I went to Milan, where I always tried to find a job. I moved around walking, going wherever I saw a crane, to enter the construction site or wherever I saw a restaurant, to try to enter as a dishwasher, but unfortunately it was not easy.

Other friends later told me that in Cuneo, in Piedmont, there was a possibility of finding something. So I went there. I settled in that town and immediately found help in a shelter founded by Franco Mondino: Casa Ristoro e Pace. So I started working first as a welder and then moved on to construction. The first period in Italy was really full of many difficulties, especially because of the absence of my family and having to adapt to a totally new reality. But later, with the Lord's grace, I understood and appreciated more and more this exhausting period.

Msgr. Arjan Dodaj Auxiliary Bishop of Tirana.

Don Arjan with Pope Francis.

Meeting with the Fraternity of the Sons of the Cross

- Until the encounter with the Fraternity of the Sons of the Cross and with the Christian faith...

My encounter with the Fraternity of the Sons of the Cross, the priestly branch of the House of Mary, took place in 1993, precisely in Cuneo. There I met a priest, Father Massimo Allisiardi, who participated in the life of the community. So, at his invitation, I also began to attend his prayer group, coming more and more in contact with the founders of the House of Mary: Father Giacomo Martinelli and Nicoletta Reschini.

Through them I learned about the extraordinary event of Medjugorje, where Our Lady has been appearing for more than forty years. Within the context and the conception of total atheism in which I grew up, first the mere fact of coming to know that God exists and that Our Lady appears, and then having a living experience of it, was for me the beginning of a completely new life.

Thus, after a year of discernment, catechesis and spiritual life, I received the sacrament of Baptism. At that moment the desire for total consecration to the Lord in the priestly life was born and became clearer and clearer in me, together with other young men of the community.

The vocational gift 

- A radical change in your life...

Of course! And my studies were a consequence of this journey and the discernment of my superiors. After three years as an external member of the community of the House of Mary (from 1994 to 1997), I was definitively admitted and thus began my studies in Philosophy and Theology.

Certainly, within priestly formation, these studies acquire an important aspect, although they are not the determining point. In fact, it was decisive for me the encounter with the Church through that small reality in which the providence of God had placed me: the charismatic experience that the Lord gave me in the House of Mary and in the Fraternity of the Sons of the Cross, today recognized as a society of apostolic life.

I believe that this formation and conversion is not just a fact of how things happened, but is a concrete and daily need. Each one of us must develop and live the vocational gift in the stable context of verification and ecclesial and community experience. The Lord's call is daily, as is our response, which is always incarnated in the concrete face of the Church.

So I was ordained a priest on May 11, 2003 by Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Basilica.

In the service of the Lord 

- And now you are the first bishop of the fraternity, a great responsibility!

Sincerely, in the fraternity I feel that I am one of the Lord's brothers, like everyone else, in fact the most unworthy. For me, being a bishop is not a point of arrival, but a call to even greater vigilance, even greater service and an ever more humble response. I feel a greater need for the prayerful support of my brothers and my community, because all that the Lord has given me in this charism can enrich and serve his Church. Therefore, I am not at all disconnected from the history that generated me.

On the contrary - as I have already said - I need to draw more and more from this vital source, to put myself at the service where the Lord has wanted me. And that is why I feel called to contribute those gifts that the Lord has given me and what he says to the Church through his Mother, the Pope and his Magisterium, certainly with absolute respect for the identity of this particular Church of Tirana-Durrës.

 Fidelity to the Church 

- The Sons of the Cross Fraternity has recently obtained official recognition: what is it specifically called to do?

Our Fraternity of the Sons of the Cross, as well as the community's own Maria's Houseis a very young ecclesial reality and its fruits are being revealed little by little, especially in fidelity to the Church. Just as there is no fruit without a tree, every gift is revealed as a task of service to the Church, according to the specific design that the Lord has generated. This also applies to our reality.

Msgr. Arjan Dodaj Auxiliary Bishop of Tirana

"For me, being a bishop is not a point of arrival, but a call to vigilance, to even greater service and an ever more humble response. I feel the greatest need for the prayerful support of my brothers and my community." 

Msgr. Arjan Dodaj.

The challenges facing the Church in Albania

- What are the challenges facing the Church in Albania?

Well, the same ones that Pope Francis presented to the bishops of the Church throughout the world. In particular, in the call to live the experience of true synodality, that is, a communitarian journey of the People of God. But if the invitation is for the whole Church, each particular reality is called to make it operative, remembering its own particularity. Therefore, I believe that our Albanian Church has inscribed the specificity of martyrdom. Martyrdom must be treasured.

The Albanian Church has not yet fully manifested what Tertullian says: Sanguis martyrum, semen christianorum. In fact, there are still many brothers and sisters who hope to become Christians through the grace of our martyrs. And we, with a growing awareness, are called to make their offer evident. Another peculiarity of our Church is that it is both ancient and new at the same time. Ancient, because it is an apostolic Church. The first bishop of our diocese of Durrës was St. Caesar, a martyred bishop, one of the seventy-two disciples of the Lord.

However, it is a Church evangelized by Paul himself, as he says in the Epistle to the Romans: "In every direction, starting from Jerusalem and reaching as far as Illyria, I have completed the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ" (Rom. 15:19). However, it is a new Church, because after five centuries of Ottoman occupation and fifty years of dramatic torture, persecution and annihilation at the hands of communism, it is new in the message it receives. It is a Church that needs to cultivate more and more with kindness, patience and love the message of the Lord, especially in the many young people who seek Christ and his love.

Relationship with the Orthodox Church and Islam

- And it is also a very complex reality, if we consider the very strong presence in the country of the Orthodox Church and Islam....

Yes, and if we also take into account that in our archdiocese we have a large number of people who begin the journey of the catechumenate and approach the Catholic Church, becoming children of God through Baptism. Here in Albania, the relationship with Islam and the Orthodox Church is very special, if not unique. Pope Francis himself has taken it to the world as an example of fraternal cooperation.

It is clear that this is a gift that we can never take for granted, but one that we must cultivate, accompany and support, every day. It is precisely for this reason that we often meet with the various religious leaders in various commissions, to present them with valuable initiatives in the fields of culture, education, women, immigrants and charity. Such initiatives seek to solicit and awaken in society, in institutions and, above all, in people's hearts that need for unity and communion which only the "spirit of those who believe" (cf. Acts 4:32) can make evident.

Addressing the situation of migrants 

- You have been a migrant and today this issue is more alive and painful than ever: on the one hand the tragedy of the loss of tens of thousands of lives every year in the Mediterranean, on the other the fear of losing identity, faith and economic and social security by being too open to welcoming so many people in need. How do you think all this can be addressed?

I believe that there is no clear and definitive answer to this question, because we are always dealing with real people, with a history, sometimes marked by wounds, suffering and pain, but also with much hope. We are called to respond to the real desires of the human heart, without ever losing sight of the responsibility to cultivate these same hopes in the host countries.

Of course, this does not mean erasing the culture of the host country; one does not offer a better welcome by losing one's own identity. If we do not know who we are, we cannot know who we are welcoming. It is therefore necessary to rediscover the beauty of the richness of the encounter between cultures, as well as the defense of one's own identity. Only in this way will there be a true enrichment that leads to complementarity. Otherwise, we run the risk of living in a society that seeks only to normalize everything and everyone.

So, in the end, I can say that the answer lies in the love and service that comes from the faith of a people that, like Italy, for example, knows how to welcome and be generous at the same time; that knows how to recognize its identity in those distant roots in the world of art and culture and in many other things, of course, but mainly in those roots of the Catholic Christian faith.

At the University Pontifical of the Holy Cross 

- At the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross we have a small world marked by all that you say, and also the pleasure that the Fraternity of the Sons of the Cross, which is your family of origin in the faith, like many other realities of the universal Church, has the possibility of receiving an adequate formation to face all these challenges at a global level.

I am very grateful to our Lord for all these realities that, like the University of the Holy Cross, arise from the prophetic work that St. Josemaría Escrivá knew how to give to the Church through the Prelature of Opus Dei. Together, we ask for the grace that in the Church and in the place where we find ourselves, we may always know how to carry that grace that our Lord sowed in the hearts of the saints. Indeed, we too, inheriting these gifts of their offering and response, can in turn be included in the sign of prophecy that they were able to proclaim. Thus, together we can become a seed of prophecy and hope for all the people we meet. Thank you.

Thank you very much to you, Monsignor.

Gerardo Ferrara
BA in History and Political Science, specializing in the Middle East.
Head of the student body at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

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