The silent forest in Albania

“We, Catholic women, ready to take risks to protect the children of Muslims”

29 August 2020

Monica Bologna, and the Casa Betania orphanage. Awards from Mattarella and Pope Francis

Of all the Albanian children who have found refuge and love in Casa Betania, one without warning started openly calling Monica Bologna, the director, “mamma”, in Italian, because both languages are spoken in the hostel. That boy’s name is Angelo, and today he is twenty years of age. When Monica first encountered him he was yet to be born, however, he was already immersed in a violent and abusive context.

Monica Bologna, and the volunteers of the Betania association, had just arrived in Bubq Fushe Kruje, a town twenty kilometers from Tirana, which was a very poor place in a nation in turmoil. It was the spiritual mother of everyone there, Antonietta Vitale, the founder of the Associazione Betania, in Bosco Zevio, in 1990, close to Verona, who wanted to set up a structure for orphans in that little corner of the world. Antonietta Vitale was born in Basilicata, and whose upbringing was characterized by poverty and marginalization. For this reason, as a young girl, and after emigrating to the North, she worked hard to build a place that in its name would remember the poor village near Jerusalem.  For Jesus this was the place of friendship, for Bethany is remembered for the resurrection of Lazarus who lived there with his sisters Martha and Mary. The prefix “Beth” in Hebrew means “home”. The word is commonly translated as the “house of the poor”.

While the Association was growing thanks to its volunteers, Vitale found herself welcoming many exhausted Albanian children who arrived in rubber dinghies. Because of this experience, she chose to go to Albania in 1998 to see with her own eyes the conditions they had left behind. Then she bought a piece of land where she had the first mission abroad built.

Monica Bologna was still a primary school teacher at the time. “I didn’t experience a vocation for that kind of life. The Lord enlightened my way towards Mother Antonia, my family was afraid I was making a mistake. In 1999 I left for Albania thinking of staying there for a month, I am still here. I didn’t know what I would find, I was hesitant. Then I opened the door of the hostel and saw dozens of children running towards me to embrace me. I, who hadn’t done anything for them yet, had become a fundamental figure in a few moments”.

In those first months, they had taken in a woman who had become pregnant outside of marriage: “We, Catholics, who took care of Muslim children and who openly defied unwritten laws, such as that of helping a so-called adulteress who in their eyes deserved to be killed. The angry and armed men of her husband’s family arrived in our house; they could not understand that we were single and unmarried women and that we had made the decision to side with that girl”. The child of the scandal was Angelo: he came into the world, healthy, his mother abandoned him immediately and so Monica Bologna had to take care of him materially too. Angelo has not forgotten this; today he is studying Italian literature in Tirana, he calls her all the time.

After a short time in Albania, Monica Bologna decided to take the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. The daily work of care and love began in extreme conditions; many children come from disadvantaged families where violence is a daily gesture and the love of the parents something unknown. “Many were about to die of hunger and cold when we took them in. There were one hundred and twenty and all very small”.

The Bethany House organizes the school and after-school activities for them, but it is their life from dawn to dusk that must be thought out, organized and rounded off. “Sometimes there is anger and fraying nerves, rebellion and hostility explodes. At those moments I understand their discomfort deeply, they bring wounds. Yet, they finally manage to understand the grace of being able to live in a place where nothing is missing, together with them we thank Providence for having brought us together” says Monica Bologna who joyfully recounts her experience, yet seems to minimize it, as if it were a simple life equal to others. While, instead in 2018 Sergio Mattarella, the President of the Italian Republic, granted Casa Betania in Bubq the title of “Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy” for its humanitarian merits. Children who become of age, as adults they can choose to be baptized and receive the sacraments, some instead go away and disappear forever. “I have been lucky enough to experience a spiritual and almost unlimited motherhood because there are hundreds of children who have lived here. As a parent, we sow here, but do not always see the harvest. We help our children grow by setting the example of the Gospel, which is very concrete: they are witnesses that good germinates good, but sometimes to see the fruit takes patience”. The result is that former orphans often return to Bubq Fushe Kruje with their wives or husbands and children; they call Monica Bologna “grandmother” or “aunt”, a large family where Catholics and Muslims coexist without conflict. Such a high example that in 2014 Pope Francis, during his apostolic journey, stopped at Casa Betania in Bubq Fushe Kruje, saying words of thanks to Monica Bologna and to the founder Antonietta, who over the years have also created a mission in Kenya and opened new houses in Basilicata and Sardinia.

by Laura Eduati