From a young migrant, educated as an atheist, to bishop in Albania
By Andrea Tornielli
I could still detect in his voice, on the phone from Tiranë, the surprise of what has just happened to him. It’s not long since he received the announcement of the appointment he has received. His is one of the many small, but great stories, of which the daily life of the Church is interwoven.
43-year-old Arjan Dodaj was born in Laç-Kurbin on the coast of Albania. He arrived in Italy as a migrant after crossing the Adriatic Sea on a boat. At the age of 16, he fled his country on a hot and starry night in September 1993, seeking a future and a way to help his poor family. He would work more than ten hours a day as a welder and gardener. Eventually, he came across a community that made him feel at home. There, he discovered the Christian faith, of which there was already a trace in his DNA thanks to the songs his grandmother used to sing. Pope St John Paul II ordained him ten years later as a member of the Priestly Fraternity of the Sons of the Cross, House of Mary Community, based in Rome. In 2017, he returned to his country as a Fidei Donum priest. This past 9 April, Pope Francis appointed him auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Tiranë-Durrës.
Arjan was born and raised in a communist, Albanian family. His education was atheistic. "I was born in a context where, unfortunately, every sign that recalled the faith was banned. In the first years of my life, I never heard of God's existence. My parents unfortunately endured, in a terrible way, the effect of communism. But my grandparents prayed to the Lord".
It was Arjan's maternal grandmother who instilled in him the first words of faith. "My first encounter with the things of God is like a refrain inside my head, inside my soul. Despite the threats, my grandmother was totally free in living a life of prayer. In their day, not knowing how to write, they learned their prayers by singing. And so, by learning prayers that rhymed, they knew doctrine. Only when I arrived in Italy did I discover that many things, about the sacraments for example, she had told me about them while singing at home, while working, while cleaning. She sang. That's how I learned too. I learned the second part of the Hail Mary. She always made me say the second part. That's how God worked with me."
"I arrived in Italy right after the fall of Communism”, says the newly elected Bishop. “At that moment it was not possible to obtain regular visas. The only way was by motorboat. Unfortunately, there were some boats that left, which, alas, did not arrive".
Shortly after the fall of communism, Arjan tried to leave the country. "Like many other boys, I had made many attempts. One of the first times, the boat was damaged…. Today, I thank the Lord that it didn't depart, because I don't know what would have happened to us – we were all crushed together, crowded together. Indescribable adventures, a real exodus. Then in the following attempts, I was able to get on one of those boats that left from the coast of my city, from this very beautiful lagoon, where I had gone many times as a child. We left the night of 15 September 1993. Thank God, the sea was very calm. The Lord preserved us. I remember very well that at that moment, it was my whole existence that was migrating. My story, as it were, was leaving that coast, with that night sky full of stars. I felt a tear inside me of those bonds, with my life, with my family".
Reflecting on that experience the new Auxiliary Bishop of Tiranë points out: "Today, many people are seen arriving on the boats. I think one should think of their tears, their sacrifices, the very painful vicissitudes they are living. They wouldn’t be coming if their lives were not painful".
Some of Arjan’s friends had emigrated to Italy shortly before him. Thanks to them, Arjan found refuge in Dronero, in the northern Italian province of Cuneo, near Turin. There he became an apprentice to a welder. "We used to weld bicycle frames. Then I also did many other jobs, in construction and gardening. This way, I could help support my family because we were really very poor". Other friends invited him to a meeting in the parish. "I worked a lot, sometimes even more than ten hours a day. So, in the evening I would arrive home tired. I didn't have many friends. They told me that there was a nice group of young people in the parish, led by Father Massimo, who was a member of the House of Mary Community. I had a really good time! I found the support I needed in that very delicate phase of my youth”.
Believer and priest
Arjan was baptized in 1997. Later, he asked to be welcomed into the Priestly Fraternity of the Sons of the Cross, House of Mary Community, in Rome. There, he studied to become a priest. This decision was difficult for his parents to accept. Ten years after he landed in Italy, it was Pope John Paul II who laid his hands on his head in St. Peter's Basilica.
"In 1993, the year I arrived in Italy, St. John Paul II visited Albania. The country had just come out of dictatorship. It seemed like an open trench. There was a lot of misery and poverty, but at the same time a thirst for novelty. I too, like many children and many other people, remember all the people who accompanied the Pope's car along the side of the roads from Tiranë to Shkodër. He has always accompanied me, and so has our holy Mother Teresa. As we were leaving the dictatorship, she poured out on us that balm of tenderness, of love, of goodness, of hope that she knew how to give to so many poor people in various parts of the world".
Father Dodaj worked in various parishes and became chaplain of the Albanian Community in Rome. In 2017, the Archbishop of Tiranë, George Anthony Frendo, asked Father Arjan to serve in the archdiocese. Both the superior of the House of Mary Community, Father Giacomo Martinelli, and the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Angelo De Donatis, agreed. The priest returned to his country as a Fidei Donum, priest, that is, as a priest temporarily providing service in a diocese other than the one in which he is officially incardinated.
About his appointment as auxiliary bishop, Father Dodaj said, "Honestly, I never, ever thought about it or desired such a thing. I was very happy to live in a parish context, the daily family context that I have always lived, with my community, with the parishioners with the people entrusted to us. Now I have received this further call, this appointment of the Holy Father Pope Francis. I have welcomed it with trust in the Lord, in Our Lady, and with obedience to the Church".
Albania was the first European country visited by Pope Francis. It has always been a symbol of successful coexistence among peoples professing different religions. Christians of other confessions and Muslim believers are also rejoicing with the Pope's choice. Father Dodaj clarifies the type of “coexistence” that his country enjoys: "It is not religious tolerance. It is very important to change words and understand that for us it is harmony, familiarity, a spirit of great collaboration and mutual support".