It was 1990. For two years, Eastern Europe had been smashing the symbols and structures of communist oppression one by one. In the Eastern Bloc, one country remained militantly communist: Albania, the only nation in recorded history that proclaimed itself officially atheist.

Father Simon Jubani (u-BAHN-ee) played a key role in changing that. He was baptizing his brother-in-law's baby on Nov. 4, 1990, when a friend rushed in to tell him that a congregation of 5,000 had gathered at a cemetery demanding Mass. It would be the first public Mass in Albania for decades, and the authorities were liable to punish — or kill — participants in it.

“We were — how do you say? — sitting ducks,” Father Jubani told me five months later.

I spoke with Father Jubani in an oddly shaped room tucked behind the dome of St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco. I had a National Catholic Register in my lap. The paper had assigned me to interview the Albanian priest who had been imprisoned for 26 years in Albanian gulags. The Albanian Catholic Institute had arranged for me to be his guide on a three-day journey to Hollywood after the interview.

The breakthrough Mass was in the Shkoder, he said, considered the most Catholic city in Albania. Its cemetery had been frequented by Catholics, at their peril, throughout the communist rule there. But its cathedral had been gutted and turned first into a puppet theater, and then into a “museum of atheism.” All Christian symbols had been stripped from the graves, the crosses ripped out and the statues shattered.

On a makeshift altar set up among the graves, wearing old vestments that had been hidden away throughout the communist rule, he began the Mass. A group of young men circled him closely, to protect him. Soldiers surrounded the defiant congregation and held their guns, ready to fire.

Father Jubani told me that the police didn't get orders to stop the Mass this time, however, and he was allowed to walk away when it was finished. The following Sunday, word had gotten around about what happened — and some 50,000 people, Catholics and Muslims alike, came to the cemetery for another Mass.

This time, Father Jubani was arrested. But many in the congregation followed him and surrounded the local jail where he was held, demanding his release. The authorities relented. This public victory fueled a new revolutionary spirit in the Albanian people. In the months that followed, mobs tore down statues of the late Albanian president Enver Hoxha and Stalin in town squares.

Faith Under Fire

And so, in a sense, the liberation of Albania from communist rule began with a Mass — appropriately, in a country first evangelized by St. Paul, and whose most famous daughter is Mother Teresa.

But for all their influence, Catholics are a minority of 10% in Albania. Orthodox Christians make up 20%, and Muslims, who have been the majority since the Ottoman Turks invaded centuries ago, make up 70% of the population.

Another, nonreligious presence is felt just as strongly. It is the presence of a tribal culture of vendettas and blood oaths and brutality. In these circumstances, Catholics like Jubani have had their faiths tested in fire.

I asked him about prison conditions.

“Beneath the animals,” he said. “In a room 4 meters by 4 meters, 30 people on a dirt floor. We had to sleep side by side. We had restroom all in the same room. Three times we left per day for nature. Every three months somebody attempted to commit suicide. We stopped them. One man a year succeeded. Everyone had a desire for death to liberate him. They would fight with one another in prison every day.”

I asked him if he ever could ever celebrate Mass. He said he was pastor in “the parish of prison.” Prisoners would take flour from the refectory to make hosts — they patted them together with saliva and left them in the sun to dry — and, with more difficulty, a prisoner would steal a wine-based concoction from the infirmary for the cup.

President Hoxha, who died in 1985, was a man as brutal as Slobodan Milosevic. His regime killed most of the priests and religious in Albania. They targeted bishops for especially harsh treatment, forcing them to dress as clowns and clean public toilets before executing them. I knew Father Jubani had been singled out for torture in prison, and that he was personally known and loathed by the Albanian dictator. I asked him why.

“I wrote thousands of pages to Enver Hoxha. I was condemned eight times for the letters. I prophesied the death of the communist empire. I was condemned and segregated for about four years in a condition worse than beasts, with only bread and water. I would pray all day. I passed through the prison with prayer and a secret Bible.”

I asked him about the tortures he received. How did he persevere?

“The gates of hell will not prevail against the door of heaven. If I died, I was always sure of the triumph of my ideas,” he said.

When Americans look at the situation in Kosovo, it is very difficult for us to grasp the dynamic at play in the entrenched ethnic, religious and territorial passions of a people who have endured constant turmoil for centuries and who have few modern comforts.

Perhaps it is easier to see the cultural gulf between our countries through the eyes of an Albanian priest, who spent much of his life in brutal gulags, and then spent a day touring Hollywood.

Universal Studios

I traveled by plane with Father Jubani from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where our first stop was the rectory of a parish where we were to stay. The first day we were there, an associate pastor took us to Universal Studios for lunch and the tour.

We climbed into a tram where a young Californian in sunglasses and shorts began a rapid-fire commentary on the history of Universal Studios, peppered with jokes from the comedy routine he said he performed off-hours in nightclubs.

Father Jubani looked confused and uninterested, until the tram encountered the first of the special-effects assaults that rocked it throughout the tour. We were crossing a bridge that suddenly cracked and dropped. Father Jubani jumped up, and would have crawled out of our car to safety if he hadn't noticed the complacent posture of his American hosts. He looked angry that nobody had taken the danger seriously.

Soon, the tram entered a tunnel and what the guide announced was an earthquake began to shake the cars. Water began pouring through the walls. With a bang, a semi truck that appeared to be traveling on a road above us came skidding sideways right on top of us, jarring to a halt only a few yards away.

I turned to Father Jubani. He was white with fright, with tears in his eyes. He appeared to be praying.

After surviving that, he seemed to realize that it was all a put-on, and even began to enjoy it. When the tram drove past the two-story-tall face of King Kong (his breath is made to smell like bananas) the priest pointed and laughed, shouting, “Monkey! Monkey!” and then “Darwin! Darwin!”

At the end of our trip, Father Jubani told me, “You are my Virgil,” and I am certain that the experience did seem to him, in many respects, like Dante's tour of hell.

The Real Superpower

His favorite phrase on our trip was “the paradox of America!” which he would repeat with great enthusiasm but no explanation. After that tour, he revealed more of what he meant.

Americans have so much, he said — natural resources, prosperity and freedom — and we have used it to produce something as sophisticated and advanced — and frivolous — as the Universal Studios tour. In Albania, he said, some people have cars. But not gasoline. They hitch their cars to horses, and pull them through the streets.

When God has blessed us the most, he said, we take his blessings most for granted. When God gives the gift of suffering, the human spirit restlessly searches him out.

Certainly, Americans must be as out of place in the Balkans as this living martyr was at Universal Studios. Pope John Paul II called for peace from the beginning in Kosovo. He knows the region well (Father Jubani assured me of this; he had been given an audience after being released from prison). The Pope saw from the beginning that American bombs would do nothing in this ancient place but unwittingly aid the violent at the expense of the just.

Father Jubani could have told you that. In 1990, he had a lot to say to America.

When we visited a Studio City elementary school, he told the students, “America is the champion of democracy, peace and progress. Europe had all the wars. The American people are peaceful. Peace-loving. You must be peaceful and love one another — forgive and forget.”

When he found the students didn't know it, he proudly named the year America was discovered. “I knew it when I was your age. It was 1492. It was named America for Amerigo Vespuchi. He was from Albania. The Christian faith is the model of civilization. Before America celebrated its five centuries, there was Montezuma. They were pagans. They sacrificed men. They were primitive. It was the Christian faith which civilized America. You must pray.”

He ended by summing up the “paradox of America” and the paradox of the faith.

“America is the military, scientific and technological superpower. It is the Christians who are the real superpower: in religion, art, philosophy and literature. We are super. We are super for our faith.”

Tom Hoopes is executive editor of the Register.