Stojan is a village on the southernmost area of my diocese. I was there a few weeks ago on the occasion of the Patronal feast, the feast of Saint John of Capestrano (October 23). I also confirmed seven children. Inside the church, there were twenty people at the most. It’s a very small church, rebuilt on the ruins of the previous one destroyed under communist rule. The missionary fidei donum from Brescia, Fr Gianfranco, guided me to visit the old parsonage, which once served as Friars Minors convent.
After Mass we paid a visit to two poor – generous and warm – families. All the houses in the village remain open for the patronal feast to welcome guests at lunch and dinner. We had a taste of grappa in keeping with tradition, and finally I went over to Gjon’s, who was waiting for me. He knew that the bishop was coming over.
Gjon is 97. He enjoys speaking in Italian, which he masters well. He wanted to speak in Italian with me too, although I reminded him that I am an Albanian priest…He smiled and replied that he knows, but he still prefers Italian! He learned Italian in 1939 when he worked as a manual labourer for an Italian mining company in Rubik, located in the same diocese of Reshen. He held a rosary in his hands as he started telling me his story: “I fought 74 years against ‘the one who may God keep at bay’”, he said referring to the devil, whose name he would not make. To him, the devil has the face of the Communist totalitarian regime.
“I was arrested three times and I my fate was death by firing squad, but I’m still alive, and I was kept alive by prayer. I had a fiery temperament – Gjon recalled – and I always carried a gun. I would have used it on some occasions, but prayer held me back, and I didn’t kill anyone. Murder is a sin. “‘The one who may God keep at bay’ tempted me several times into seeking revenge against my persecutors, but I never did.” He went on: “The rosary – he showed it to me as he held it in his hands – is what saved me.”
He then joked about his experience, to the point of being self-ironic. He remembered when a Secretary of the Communist party asked him to curse Saint Anthony and he pretended to be insane, claiming that he was unable to curse a turtle. Also on that occasion, he said,
“I was flying into a rage and I felt like knocking him down, but something that escapes me held me back. Those were hard times, we lived our life on a string. They did all they could to destroy me, but they failed. Faith won. The faith of my mother and my father… During our childhood we used to pray the rosary three times a day” Gjon would not stop taking, he has a lot to say, a whole lifetime that in three years will enter its 100th year. I told him: you did well to resist. Here, your fingers are for the holy rosary, their purpose is not to trigger a gun. He smiled and concurred.
I said: “Since you did not come to Church we brought Jesus to you.” We gathered in prayer. Near him stood his second wife – his first wife died at a young age, leaving two children to be raised. Today they are both elderly and they pray the rosary together every evening. He said that sometimes he prays the rosary at night, whenever he can’t fall asleep.
We recited Our Father and then, holding the wafer, I said: “Behold, the lamb of God…” Gjon was totally absorbed, and he received the holy communion in utter silence. We lingered in silence and prayer. I then imparted the blessing and we asked to be excused. He would have wanted to walk us out, but we didn’t allow him to. I promised him I will be visiting him again, and I said: “Thank you for your beautiful testimony.”