The religious persecution the atheist state waged between 1944 and the 1990s was so severe, it prompted Pope Francis to make Albania the first country in Europe he visits. He told journalists in August that learning about a country where worship was illegal, churches were torn down or turned into movie theatres made him feel, "I should go," so he will visit Sept. 21.
Luigj Mila, secretary-general of the Albanian bishops' justice and peace commission, recalled life growing up in atheist Albania.
"I remember an old man who went to pray for his mother at the cemetery. He was walking there slowly and a communist saw him and chased him away. He returned home, crying, 'They didn't let me pray for my mother.' This hit me so hard, I'll never forget. How could you do such a thing to a man in his 90s? What harm could it do to a party?"
After Enver Hoxha came to power in 1944, he spearheaded a brutal campaign to create a new Albania: a nation of atheists "par excellence, who have in their hearts only the Communist Party," said Albert P. Nikolla, head of Caritas Albania.
The worst atrocities occurred between 1944 and 1967, Mila said, culminating in a constitutional ban of all religions. After that, until the regime dissolved in the early 1990s, all forms of worship were a crime. Priests, religious and lay Catholics faced arrest, torture, firing squads, concentration camps and forced labour resulting in the death of "many lay people and 104 priests," Mila told Catholic News Service.
Though St. John Paul II recognized 40 of them as heroes of the faith, their process of beatification is still ongoing.
Fr. Gjergj Meta, media co-ordinator for the Archdiocese of Tirana-Durres, said the lives of the martyrs inspired him to pursue the priesthood.
"I read about the priests who were killed, and it pushed me to think about my vocation and to want to replace one of them," said the 38-year-old priest.
Those who survived the purge were driven underground as Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians sought to safeguard and pass down their faith — a faith so valuable that parents and grandparents risked their lives and liberty for it, he said.
For Klaudia Bumci, head of Vatican Radio's Albania program, growing up in an underground Church meant she was baptized in her home under lockdown.
"There was a priest in our home that day, my parents and an uncle, who was going to be my godfather," she said in a July interview with Il Sismografo, an Italian blog.
"My mother still talks about how worried the priest was, he urged us to not let anything get out" about the baptism, Bumci said.
People's movements were watched, "even lights inside the home had to be turned off by 10 p.m." when Albanian television programming ended.
"If you watched other channels after that, the police took it as a subversive act," which carried the risk of criminal charges and prison, she said.
Bumci said her family would close the house's shutters up tight before watching Mass broadcast from abroad in their home.
Mila said his family always celebrated important feast days in secret.
"I remember my father would put someone by the front door to keep watch while we prayed. It was very difficult because the communist organization would always send someone to check on Catholic families."
If targeted families were found buying meat — a rare commodity — for a holiday, "they could go to jail."
In the countryside, officials would even check the house or the farm yard to see if a kid goat had been slaughtered for Easter or other feast days, he said.
Mila said his family was targeted right away during the purge. His newly married, 23-year-old father was thrown in jail with a 10-year sentence, but he was let out after five years when he contracted tuberculosis. The young couple went to live in the mountain village of Suma, near Shkoder, but they were classified as "class enemies" and "enemies of the party."
"They persecuted us for 45 years. We weren't allowed to study at university," Mila said, "and no one could come to our home. There were many people in the same situation."
Mila and his four siblings all wore a small medallion of Our Lady hidden around their necks, under their shirts. Mila only took it off when he had to serve in the military.
"We had a picture frame with two sides hanging on the wall," he said, "one side with St. Michael on it and the other with a landscape" to display in case officials inspected the home.
Mila, who was born in 1966, was baptized right before the 1967 constitutional amendment outlawed religion and all places of worship. After that, baptism by a priest, he said, was next to impossible.
When the atheist regime dissolved in the 1990s, people were free to practise their faith. However, all the churches had been destroyed so the Mila family opened its home to the community and an Italian Franciscan friar who stayed with them.
For a whole month, "Fr. Stefano" baptized hundreds of people in the Mila home: "We all participated. Our house became a church."
Couples, even older couples with kids in their 30s, streamed in to be married "because for 34 years, no one could get married in the Church either."
The most poignant moment of experiencing religious freedom came, Mila said, when their newly built church received a bell from Italy.
"When it tolled for the first time in 1991, my father cried like a child. It was like the Freedom Bell in Berlin," marking the end of communism in Europe.
For his father, who had suffered so much for so long, he said, that church bell "was a sign of hope, the voice of God."
He said the ban on religion left such a hole in people's lives, "they looked for ways to combat the regime's belief that communism and religion didn't go together. So every time a new church opened" or an old one was restored, "it was like another blow to communism."