Lavdi Perëndisë! Glory to God!

As Bishop Nikolai replaced the cotton and carefully locked the tomb, the lights turned back on. Reflecting about the experience with the rest of the team, the only explanation that we could come up with is that God was preparing us to venerate the relics of Shen Joan.

Ne ju përshëndes në emër të Jezu Krishtit.
We greet you in the name of Jesus Christ.

We pray that this finds you healthy and happy! Thank you for your prayers as we traveled and settled in Albania. We arrived in Tirana on Holy Tuesday and we were immediately immersed in the Liturgical life of the Church. After Holy Week, we found an apartment very close to the other missionaries. The apartment is about a 6 minute walk to the Annunciation Church and a 20 minute walk to the Resurrection Cathedral. From the balcony on our apartment, we have a nice view of the hills and we enjoy having morning coffee and looking at God’s beautiful creation.

We would like to share a few of our favorite memories from our first month as missionaries in Albania.

(From Alexandria)

While on the Seminary Mission Team (led by Fr. Luke Veronis), we had the blessing of going to Elbasan, to the Monastery of Shen Joan Vladimir (St. John Vladimir) for a vigil in honor of his feast day. I was very excited for my first vigil in Albania. There is something mystical and uplifting about going to a vigil. We arrived in Elbasan at around 9pm on Monday night and the first thing we encountered was a huge traffic jam on the tiny road leading to the town of Shi Joni. We spent about 15 minutes waiting for traffic to clear up, so that we could make our way to the Monastery compound. As we drove down the road to the compound, there were hundreds of people walking and celebrating the feast day of Shen Joan. I was told that many faithful Christians pilgrimage to Elbasan to celebrate this feast day. I was also told that this is a celebration for the whole region of Elbasan, regardless of their religious affiliation.

When we were finally let out of our furgon (bus), we walked into the Monastery compound and there was a sea of people! Maybe that’s why there was a traffic jam in town! There was a small area set up where the Shen Vlash Seminary students were selling Orthodox items; there was also a big projector screen set up where they were showing the history of Shen Joan Vladimir. After we greeted some of our new friends, we went inside of the Kisha (Church) to venerate the relics of Shen Joan Vladimir.

Vespers, Paraklesis and Orthros followed soon after. By 1 AM we were half way through Orthros and we were instructed to go into the small side Chapel (next to the altar) where Shen Joan’s relics were kept. All of our team and a few of the Shen Vlash Seminary students were joined by Bishop Nikolai, Fr. Luke Veronis and a few more Albanian priests. There were some prayers said and Bishop Nikolai started to open up the reliquary of Shen Joan. As the reliquary was opened the priests started to take prayer ropes and bless them on the relics of Shen Joan. We were blessed that we were able to venerate the relics of Shen Joan. While in the small Chapel, you could feel the Holy Spirit among us and smell the sweet fragrance from the tomb. As we left the Chapel we received small fragments of cotton that were in the tomb.

During Paraklesis, a big thunderstorm started and the Church lost electricity. Everyone scrambled to light their candles so that they could read their service books. Fast forward to the time of us in the small Chapel venerating Shen Joan’s relics. As Bishop Nikolai replaced the cotton and carefully locked the tomb, the lights turned back on. Reflecting about the experience with the rest of the team, the only explanation that we could come up with is that God was preparing us to venerate the relics of Shen Joan.

(From Stephanos)

Walking down the streets of Tirana brings back floods of memories as sights and sounds trigger forgotten moments from my childhood. It seems as if everywhere we go, we meet people who I remember from my youth. Being back in Albania has been an amazing experience. For me, these constant reminders of my childhood have been an unexpected surprise that reminds me of how important relationships are in our Christian journey.

One of my favorite experiences of this time was also the Vigil at the Monastery of Shen Joan Vladimir. Usually I am not the type of person who does well at vigils. I usually get tired and sleepy, instead of spiritual. This time was different. Despite the language barrier, despite the noise of the people, this vigil was profoundly spiritual for me. The highlight was entering the room for the changing of the cotton surrounding the relics of Shen Joan. In this pitch black room the only light came from three tiny candles held by Nick Muller (one of the Team members), a Priest from the area, and myself. Despite this, it felt as if the room was filled with light. Slowly my tiredness and feelings of being alone and isolated from the other worshipers dissipated, and after we left the room, I felt calm and relaxed. I was able to pray without distractions, as I have only been able to do a few times in my life. It was wonderful being able to be so focused on prayer: to be able to pray for my wife and my family, to pray for the team we were on, for each of you, and finally to pray for the Church of Albania and the work we are here to do.

Thank you for your continued prayers and your support. We are blessed to have you all in our lives. Please keep us in your prayers as we begin this season of summer camps!

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Stephanos Ritsi, son of Father Martin & Presvytera Renee, grew…
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