I don’t think there was another bishop; if there was, I don’t know him, I don’t know whether he celebrated Ash Wednesday alone in his Cathedral, without a concelebrating priest. Not because our priests do not love their bishop, but because there are so few of them (6 in all) and they all work in their own parishes and villages.
I woke up at 6.00 AM this morning. I had a shower and perfumed myself nicely, in accordance with the Gospel dictum. After morning prayers, in which I particularly treasured reading the prophet Isaiah on true fasting, I got into my car and went to pick up the nuns who accompany me to the villages. This time, as well as the Vincentian nuns, there were two sisters of Mother Theresa of Calcutta who plan on opening a home in the diocese. We pray the rosary during our journey. I always do, with those who are in the car with me.
The first village we get to is Simon. It’s almost an hour away from Rreshen, where I live. Half of the road is tarmac, the other half is terrible. When I get there, the church is closed: we hadn’t notified the man who opens and closes the church every time I go there for Mass (which is every two weeks). The fault is mine, I had thought the nuns had informed him. I manage to find him, and he comes and opens the church for us: the floor is covered with dead flies. It happens often in some of the churches. I sound the bells to alert the people, we clean up the church and we prepare for the celebration. We begin the Rosary, the second one of the day.
I will be celebrating another four Masses today. I thought nobody would show up, but I was wrong.
Five women and a girl arrive. She is the only girl in that village ,which now has only 15 families left, down from 150 only 15 or 20 years ago. The girl is accompanied by her teacher, the only one in the village, whom the Ministry has hired for that one child.
There are almost ten of us with the nuns, the sexton, the women and the girl. But to me it’s like there are one hundred or one thousand of us. I have put some ash in several small plastic bags, for whoever wishes to take them away. Here, we take home the blessed ashes to place them on those who did not attend Mass. We read the Readings and the Gospel, followed by the ashes. Until yesterday evening, those ashes were a piece of wood, a log which I burned in the wood stove and which, in turn, had been a tall and beautiful oak tree. And this tree had been a sapling and the sapling was a seed born of the earth, of dust, of ashes. It’s a little like the journey of life, I explain in my homily, and everyone nods thoughtfully, perhaps thinking of their own life. A nun places the ashes on me and I place them on everyone else, in accordance with ritual.
The second village is Kaçinar. It’s about half an hour away from the first one. The church there is one of the largest and oldest in the diocese. It wasn’t torn down under communism, as it was used as storage instead. A nasty surprise awaits us as we open the door. There were strong winds a few weeks ago, and a tornado has sheared part of the roof off. The church is covered in dust, mud, dead leaves and branches. The nuns, some women from the village and I clean up and prepare for Mass. People come: there are about fifty in all, most of them women.
It is customary in this village to celebrate Mass for all the villagers, the dead and the living. People offer what they can, and they would like everyone’s name honoured at Mass. They want to hear their names. They do not want an Mass exclusively for those who have passed away, but it is important that we pray for everyone, and mention everyone’s name.
This is one of the poorest and most forsaken villages in the area, but the people are generous: among them, a priest would live in evangelical poverty, but would never go hungry. Here too I repeat the homily on the cycle of life and I place the ashes, but this time I also celebrate Mass. Two girls read the Readings and another one reads the Prayer of the faithful. There are no children, they’re all at school.
Returning home, we will have to stop at Bukmira, another village on the way back. The name possibly means Good Bread. It used to be a mountain crossroads which connected several areas and villages. Tired travellers would stop by the families of the village, who would welcome them in accordance with tradition.
Here, there are people already waiting for us, as we are running a little late. The church is clean, Davida takes good care of it. She has is a cancer patient and fights through every day; she is extremely poor, but still she takes care of the church. She never wants any money for her services. She asks for nothing, only a little food for her children, once a month.
Her too, everyone is so generous. Bukmira has beautiful vineyards and Bukmira grapes are known all over Albania, so after Mass people often bring me bottles of home-made wine or grappa. I celebrate Mass and place the ashes. They are silent and discreet people. They have faith.
After these three villages I must get to the other side of the diocese, but first I drive home and drop off the nuns on the way there. I take a short break, and then I leave for Malaj. I have Mass scheduled there for 3.30 PM, and it will take me almost 30 minutes to get there; I must then be at the Cathedral at 5 PM for High Mass. It’s always me who is driving, non just because I like to, but also because I could never afford a driver.
Another group of nuns is with me. They belong to a foundation from Palermo, the “Collegine della Sacra Famiglia”; two are from Tanzania, the other is Italian. They are very good, a gift for the diocese, especially because of their simplicity and the life of poverty they conduct. The church is already open when we get there, and some women have begun reciting the Rosary. Many more arrive. I celebrate Mass, the third one today. I stand by myself for the number of Masses celebrated. I am the bishop after all.
Bardhok came to church as well. During communism, two of his brothers died in prison. One of them was a priest, Dom Anton Doçi. His grave lies at the entrance of the church in Malaj.
At the end of Mass he says: we would be happier if you came more often, because you celebrate Mass for us.
Jokingly, I tell him: Bardhok, I will ordain you, so you can celebrate Mass for the village. He smiles, but he doesn’t say no. Maybe one day. Maybe not Bardhok, he’s a little too old, maybe someone else… I feel tired now, but I have another Mass to celebrate, at Rreshen Cathedral. And I must be enthusiastic, fresh, energetic: it is the Cathedral after all. I get there just in time. Sister Virginia is waiting for me there, she has been acting as the “parson” of the Cathedral for the past year. She and her community are a gift. The church is full to the brim, people are standing. The altar boys have prepared everything, including incense. I must act both as celebrant and Master of Ceremonies. One of the older boys knows what to do and assists me. Maybe I can train him as a Master of Ceremonies. At the end of the Mass I introduce the nuns of Mother Theresa, who are in our Cathedral for the first time, and everyone welcomes them with great warmth.
The church is full of young people. At the end of Mass I appeal to them: “Now – you see boys, I celebrated Mass five times today for this Ash Wednesday. I am glad and I’m happy, although I’m a little bit tired. When I go to the villages I fill up with life, because I meet many people. But as you can see, even today I’m alone on the altar. There are no priests. Our people need us, the Gospel must be announced. If you listen to its voice today, do not harden your hearts. Accept serving the Lord and our poor brothers and sisters here, in our diocese”.
I am sure that they understood my words. The Lord will take care of the rest. Look at us, Lord!
(*) bishop of Rrëshen (Albania)