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Mons. Gjergj Meta (Albania): “My mission, bearer of hope for the people of the periphery”

The poor, young people, the Church, the future of the Country. Interview with Gjergj Meta, the youngest bishop in the world, first bishop chosen among the Albanian clergy after the persecution, that exemplifies his commitment and the yearning to serve the good of his community

“We will never accept dirty money, fruit of the blood and of the exploitation of women’s bodies. The doors of the Church are open to repentance and conversion. Then we shall see if the occasional Zacchaeus will devolve his riches to the victims of his exploitation, but not to the Church.” Msgr. Gjergj Meta, bishop of Rrëshen, first Albanian bishop resident in Albania ordained after the persecution of the regime,  reiterated his position in clear terms. At 41, Msgr. Meta is also the world’s youngest ordinary bishop.

Mons. Meta, you were recently consecrated bishop of Rrëshen, widely considered a fruitful land, owing to its long tradition of Catholicism and martyrdom, how do you consider your mission in this land?

I have been sent to proclaim the Gospel to the poor; it’s as simple as that. It’s the first thing I realised in my visits across the diocese over the past months. I was already aware of the situation on the ground, since many inhabitants of this diocese were my parishioners in Tirana and Durres who had emigrated from villages in the Diocese of Rreshen, but now, have learned more about their places of departure and having experienced the situation of many families living here, my perception has changed. From the very first day I asked myself what it meant to proclaim the Good News (the Gospel) to the poor for me and for our diocesan Church: what does the Good News mean to them? How can faith become concrete action with acts of charity amidst the poor? My mission, and that of my diocese as a whole, is to become bearers of hope for the people living in the peripheries, who, as we Albanians are well aware of, are often excluded from large urban centres and are not considered. We have few priests in the diocese and this made me reflect on fact that the mission of Church doesn’t involve only priests and nuns. This is the moment to discover the mission as a baptismal charism; a mission that involves all the people of God. To discover the sacramental force of the proclaimed Word that changes human hearts and instils hope. We shall start from there as it was in Latin America: we will read the Word with the poor. The Word will show all of us the way, to the shepherd and his flock, for, as St. Augustine says: et pastores ipsis unto ves – also the shepherds are the sheep.

During your consecration you said: “this is a poor Church, but we will not accept money from those who exploited women’s prostitution, those who became rich through organized crime and drug dealing.” What is the reason for such emphasis conveyed with a firm stand? Also in the light of the developments at political and juridical level, whereby ex-Ministers have been charged with illegal trafficking activities.

The failure to take a firm and clear stand reflects a neutral position, hence, in my opinion, it reflects collusion. We will never accept dirty money that is the fruit of the blood and of the exploitation of women’s bodies. But the doors of the Church are open for repentance and conversion. Then, we shall see if the occasional Zacchaeus will devolve his riches to the victims of his exploitation, but not to the Church. The Albanian Church must take a firm stand, that is not an ideological stand that is confined to words in the form of as an accusation. It should involve a proactive reaction to corruption, crime, dirty profits, trafficking in human beings, ill-treatment of women and so on. The Church is actively committed with her faithful in identifying the best response to difficult situations.

The Albanian Church (and Albanian society) is a young Church, made of young people: do you think that the greatest pain is due to the lack of models, or the presence of models that are distant from true Christian values?

Young people are a major resource. They need models to look up to. We all need them. Such role models do exist, but sadly only the models circulated by certain media outlets are known. We have our martyrs, but there are also many honest people who carry out their daily chores. Ultimately, the parents of these youths are their own models. However, it is necessary to help these role models come out in the open and be brave enough to say that a different mode of action is possible. Many Albanian youths dream a life outside Albania, they want to leave; some of them are employed, but many of them dream to make easy money taking travesties as their role models. In particular, young people need to be listened to and need to be accompanied. They don’t need patronizing nor do they need a criteria based on pessimism and mistrust. They need the Christian understanding of life presented and lived as the possibility of a new life, rich in meaning, where the loved world – and not its mundane spirit – can help young people find a direction in life and take strong and courageous decisions.

In your opinion, how important is it to transmit positive, Christian models to the young generation, making them understand that the future of a Country that yearns to establish dignity and development is not possible without social justice?

A role model is always something that is beyond us. It helps us at the initial stages, but as we grow up everyone must find their own model. It helps young people not to conform to widespread positive models, and undertake the path of originality. This is what vocation means: to accomplish what I, today, with my personality and peculiarity wish to do and that God wants from me. Social justice is a human vocation. But everyone should accomplish it according to his own nature and place. We have strong Christian models both inside and outside Albania. I’m thinking of Dietrich Bonoeffer, Martin Luther King, Don Lorenzo Milani, Pope John XXIII… Each one of these role models help us find guidance, but the journey is always unique and different for each person. Young people enjoy being original, and this is a good point of departure. Helping young people discover their own vocation will lead to a greater commitment in the future of the social life of the Country and to a more dynamic Church.

On several occasions, in interviews and articles, you said that migration at all costs is the greatest challenge of Albanian society. What’s happening?

The wound was inflicted in the 1990s with the fall of the regime, and it was reopened over the past years. Many people want to leave Albania. Corruption, unemployment, poor health and education systems, have discouraged a large part of the population. Given this situation, instilling hope becomes a major challenge. Sometimes the very fact of staying here in the service to the people can be a great contribution, but in some cases it’s not enough. We are sometimes forced to bid farewell to families who decided to leave in search of a better life abroad. But we stay here.

You represent one of those youths who did not get discouraged and chose Albania. And now, together with other Albanian priests, you are taking the fate of the Albanian Church in your own hands. This Church bears the scars and the graces of past martyrdom, does it also carry the challenge of a present marked by radicalism and an uncertain future? What will that future be like in your view?

Past martyrdom is an anchor, a point of reference, but there is more than that. Sometimes it only serves the purpose of self-praise. Those martyrs are martyrs of God not of the Catholic Church alone. They belong to everyone. But we have to come to terms with the present times, and we ought to place major efforts in countering radicalism and overcome the uncertainties of our future. Indeed, the future is in the hands of God, but it’s also in the hands of mankind. This means that our commitment should be viewed as if it all depended on us. We are Christian: we are the winners in Jesus Christ, but this victory must also be accomplished in our everyday lives, in the fatigue of facing life’s ordeals. As priests and bishops we sometimes have to lead the flock, while other times we have to share their journey, and on many occasions we must let ourselves be shown the way by those under our guidance.

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