By conventional standards, the fact that around 20,000 people gathered inside and outside the cathedral of St. Stephen in the city of Shkodër, in northwestern Albania, on November 6 for a Mass to beatify 38 Soviet-era martyrs under the government of Enver Hoxha probably doesn’t rate as a banner headline.
Albania, after all, is a nation of fewer than 3 million people, in Europe but not of Europe, and a country with a Muslim majority where the Catholics are a minority – they make up just 10 percent of the population.
Since the beginning of his papacy, however, Pope Francis has been passionate about the peripheries, driven by the belief that big things often come in small packages. That’s certainly true in the case of Father Giovanni Fausti, like Francis a member of the Jesuit order, and one of the martyrs beatified last month.
Born in Italy in 1899, the young Fausti attended seminary in Brescia with Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, and the two became friends, often spending vacations together.
After an early period of studies, Fausti was sent to Albania as missionary in 1928, where he served as a professor at a Jesuit-run seminary. He learned to speak and write Albanian, and developed what would be a lifelong interest in Islam, both Sunni and ascetic or mystic Islam, including Bektashi, Khalwati, Rufai and other Sufi orders which were part of Albania’s Islamic landscape.
Fausti came back to Italy in 1932, suffering from tuberculosis he developed during his missionary assignment, and underwent aggressive treatment.
In July 1942 Fausti returned to Albania, serving as rector of the Albanian Pontifical Seminary in Shkodër. During the Italian occupation and World War II he moved to the capital, Tirana, to serve a population devastated by the war, misery, displacement and famine.
Wounded by a German bullet which hit his healthy lung and broke his collarbone, he continued his works of mercy. After the war, in 1944, the communists led by Enver Hoxha took over and the persecution of Albanian religions started, a campaign that would eventually cost Fausti his life.
In part, what made Fausti dangerous to the regime was his passion for learning and for truth. He was “a missionary-professor,” as he described himself, willing to imitate the prototype: Jesus’s infinite patience.
Through his intellectual philosophical studies and his preaching, Fausti was trying to understand and penetrate into the thinking of the Muslim faithful of Shkodër, a city with a Muslim majority which was divided between Christian and Muslim neighborhoods – a city that had few Christian churches, and several mosques and madrasahs.
In Shkodër the bells of the Christian churches mingled with the calls for prayers of the muezzins, and all believers belonged to the same nation, abided by the same norms of Albania’s centuries-old canons and Besa – truce and honor.
Albania is at the crossroads of civilizations and a microcosm of the Mediterranean cultures and religions, a frontier where Christianity encounters Islam, which for a frontiersman and Jesuit such as Fausti presented an incredible wealth of first-hand experience.
He was quick to observe the particular distinctiveness of Albania’s Islam.
The majority of Albanian Muslims were Sunni following the Quran; a part were laramani – motley or crypto-Christians who although Muslims in appearance had retained Christianity at home. Usually men were converted to Islam to secure government jobs, while women and children followed the Christian faith.
Moreover, Albania provided Fausti with the exceptional opportunity to study mystical or what he called “spiritual Islam.” The Bektashi tekkes (convents), dervishes and communities had a long history and presence in the nation.
Fausti’s first-hand experience with the forms of mystical brotherhoods and their convent-communal life, opened new opportunities for dialogue and apostolic perspectives on Islam as well as for drawing parallels between Islam and Christianity.
He believed that what was needed was “mutual understanding,” as he wrote in 1931: “the two worlds, Christian and Muslim, know too little of each other. And because of this they seem to be one against the other with arms (in armed conflict). We have to talk to the Orient to understand it and not to insult it.”
Fausti went beyond tolerance in his model of Christian-Muslim dialogue. For him “tolerance” meant that one can live and let live, everyone in his own circle, each walking his own paths.
What Fausti was proposing was comprehensive hospitality, where paths cross and the exchanges become natural, and thus the dialogue becomes more profound.
The Christian-Muslim dialogue Fausti was suggesting did not water down the faith or adjust the theological principles to fit into the dialogue. Instead, each religion engages in dialogue while preserving its authenticity.
His research and findings in Islam anticipated the teachings of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate and the call for “mutual understanding” and working together (Christianity and Islam) “to preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.”
His studies and encouragement of dialogue with Islam also had an impact on Pope Pius XI, who appreciated the Orient and called it “the Orient that prays.”
That deep appreciation for the life of faith, however, put him out of favor in post-war Albania, which in 1967 declared itself the world’s first atheist state.
Fausti was arrested on December 31, 1945, together with another Jesuit, Father Daniel Dajani. At the time, Fausti was the Jesuit superior and Dajani rector of the Pontifical Seminary.
They were accused of organizing “United Albania – an organization to overthrow the regime”; “intelligence with the Anglo-Americans for an airborne intervention in Albania” and other accusations repeated with every clergy member who went through arrest and trial.
On February 22, 1946, Fausti and Dajani were sentenced to death by execution. ln the early morning of March 4, 1946, they and six other clergy were brought to the cemetery of Rrmaj of Shkodër, the place of their execution and martyrdom. At 6 a.m., the order was given to soldiers to execute them.
Fausti was given a chance to pronounce his last wishes: “I am happy to die fulfilling my responsibility. Give my best to my Jesuit brothers, deacons, priests and the Archbishop.”
As soon as his last wishes were pronounced, a chorus of strong voices of those who were going to be executed joined in singing: “Long live Christ the King! Long Live Albania. We forgive those who kill us.”
Albania and her people have lived to see her martyrs such as Fausti and Dajani beatified. It’s a faith which lived for 45 years in the hearts and minds of the people subjected to the most severe religious persecution in Eastern Europe, and it returned with the fall of communism.
As Pope Francis said after his 2014 visit to Albania, “Let us go home thinking: today we have touched martyrs.” Fausti is indeed a martyr.
Ines Angeli Murzaku (http://academic.shu.edu/orientalia) is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs.