Nowadays when I read of Albania in the media, it is often in reference to Albanians who—desperate to escape their poverty-stricken country, where they are also beset by ethnic conflict—flee in rickety boats across the Adriatic Sea toward Italy. If they have not drowned or been intercepted at sea, on reaching the shores of Italy they are detained and sent back to Albania. Italy, like other European governments and the United States, has enacted ever stricter measures to keep out undocumented immigrants.
The journey of a remarkable Italian Jesuit named Giacomo Gardin (1905-96), however, carried him in the opposite direction, from Italy to Albania. Working as a missionary in Albania from the 1940’s onward, he was incarcerated by the Communist regime that took control of the country after the defeat of the Nazis. Father Gardin described his 10-year ordeal in his 1986 autobiography, Banishing God in Albania. I recently reread it as a reminder of how faith can act as a life-saving force, giving people extraordinary strength, both physical and psychological.
The Communist regime in Albania saw the Catholic Church as one its most dangerous enemies and considered Gardin a Vatican spy. His arrest occurred on June 21, 1945, the feast of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the Jesuit patron saint of youth. In his homily to a group of students that day, Father Gardin urged resistance to the evil of the time, a clear reference to the Communist government. Secret agents planted in the church reported him to the authorities, and that same night he was taken away. Thus began a decade of imprisonment, coupled with backbreaking work in labor camps during the summers. One camp was located in marshlands near the Greek border that the authorities wanted reclaimed, a job that involved forcing the prisoners to work in dangerously malarial surroundings. There, he wrote, “many died worn out by the toil, malnutrition and diseases.” During the winter, those still alive were taken back to prison settings in urban areas until spring.
At a second labor camp, equally heavy work required the prisoners to dig all day in waist-high mud. If they failed to meet the daily work quota, they were denied the Spartan evening meal of a ladle of soup and a few mouthfuls of bread, a deprivation that could easily lead to death. Gardin himself speaks of becoming “so weak that my sight started to grown dim.” But, he adds, “with God’s help I was able to overcome the crisis.” There were other priests also in the camp, and their religious status alone set the atheist camp commanders against them. “They would even try to make it almost impossible for us to finish our work,” he writes, “so that they could find an excuse to punish us.”
A sense of community among the beleaguered priests, however, helped to sustain them. They coordinated their efforts so carefully that “we often did more than required and in less time.” Even the commander was eventually forced to commend them begrudgingly on one occasion before the other prisoners. In any case, Gardin adds, “Suffering took the rough edges off our personalities and taught us to live in loving communion with God and one another.... The Gospel was our code of life.” Companionship with those of similar spiritual backgrounds thus served as a crucial support in the face of separation from his brother Jesuits. The prisoners were not allowed so much as a Bible. But memory came to their aid. Certain Scripture verses, like the 23rd Psalm, “were fixed in my memory,” Father Gardin wrote, as a way of strengthening both faith and morale.
His last forced labor assignment took him to a brick factory where the divine Providence in which he had placed his trust took an ironically benevolent turn. The factory work involved working in high temperatures, in “air saturated with dust and ashes that penetrated everywhere,” leaving the workers’ bodies dripping with sweat and “our hands stripped of flesh” from touching the red-hot bricks. And yet the intense heat from the furnaces actually helped cure him of the rheumatism that had afflicted him since his time in the marshes, causing pain so severe that he was often unable to stand up straight. “How,” he humbly asks of this unexpected healing, “could I not consider this a fatherly intervention of Providence?” Finally, on his 50th birthday, Gardin was released and repatriated to Italy.
Other Jesuits incarcerated for their faith down through the centuries have been less fortunate in the effects of their ordeals. They died either behind bars or in labor camps or, if released, were too broken in body and mind to leave any written record of their experience. But Gardin—like another Jesuit of the same period, Walter Ciszek, a prisoner for many years in Russia—survived. And in their books, both left testimonies of God’s sustaining presence throughout their years of brutal confinement.