In Albania the Feast of ‘Our Lady of Shkodra’ (Scutari), also known as the ‘Mater Boni Consilii’ or ‘Mother of Good Counsel,’ was in the year 1895, proclaimed by the bishops as being the Patron of Albania. In 1467, the Ottoman troops laid siege to the town of Shkodra and intended to demolish the church. In the small church, the painting of Our Lady, miraculously detached itself from the wall, left the building and traveled through the atmosphere, over the Adriatic Sea towards Italy. Testifying to this event were two Albanian pilgrims named George and De Sclavis, who followed the Icon until it finally came to rest in Genazzano near Rome. In Genazzano an empty chapel in a church was prepared but never embellished. Following the appearance of the Icon from Shkodra or Scutari, which came to rest on a ledge in the empty chapel, the Church came to be called the Church of Our Lady of Genazzano. The Feast of Our Lady of Genazzano is celebrated on April 26. Unfortunately, the Church in Shkodra, visited by many Albanian pilgrims, especially during the times of Communist oppression, was razed to the ground by the Communists in 1967.
Saint Paul and Saint Andrew initially evangelized the Adriatic shores, including the Albanian shores. In 1361, the Islamic forces under Ortogrul invaded the Balkans and in 1432 the region was almost entirely under Ottoman rule. The Lord of Kroia, who was the most powerful Christian Lord in Albania, negotiated peace with the invading forces, the Lord of Kroia had to pay a dear price for the success of his dealings, for his four sons were taken as hostages. Repos, Stanitza, Constantine and George, the sons of John Castriota, faced their fate courageously. It was during these dreadful times that the Islamists raised Christian boys as an elite soldiery to fight in their ranks. The Ottomans raised the baptized Christian children to spurn and hate their origins and to embrace Islam’s teachings. They distorted their beliefs until soldiers were produced which were utilized as the leading spearhead of their armies. These troops were called Janisseries and were deployed during most of the Religious Wars. Truly devious plans, they recruited young Christian boys who were torn from their families’ arms.
The sons of John Castriota were found to possess exceptional fighting skills and were sent to Adrianapolis, to the court of Sultan Amurath II, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. To the Sultan, the three elder sons immediately affirmed that they were not interested in furthering his plans, or in Islam. They were sent to the dungeons and were slowly poisoned and won their glorious crowns of martyrdom. The fruit of their sacrifice would be revealed within their younger brother. The younger brother whose name George, evokes the memory of the great military Christian saint of early Christendom, found favor with the Sultan. George was integrated within the Islamic faith, circumcised and trained in military schools as a Janissary. The young Prince revealed promising qualities, and received further education alongside the Sultan’s sons. Prince George learnt languages too; he could speak Italian, Turkish, Arabic and Slavic. He displayed great courage and skill and gradually, George won over the complete trust and confidence of Amurath II. Due to George’s princely birth, he received the title of ‘Alexander the Prince’ or ‘Iskender Bey’ in Turkish. The Albanians later referred to Prince George as ‘Scanderbeg’.
Iskender Bey became a General in the Sultan’s army and defeated any army that came against the Islamic forces. Iskender Bey secretly hated the yoke of the Sultan and contemplated how in his youth when at Shkodra, he would pray before the Image of Our Lady and therefore, he frequently invoked her, for his deliverance during this time of captivity. George’s prayers were heard. In 1443, after twenty years of captivity, Sultan Amurath II made Iskender Bey ‘Bey Generalissimo’ and discussed plans of invasion with Iskender. The Sultan intended to invade Hungary and George would meet in battle Janos Hunyadi, the Catholic defender of Hungary. The Sultan’s army was composed of enslaved soldiery, Greeks, Slavic, and other Christians. Many, who feigned this conversion exteriorly, were not properly converted to Islam; the Sultan must have overlooked the depth of their Faith. The secret Christians were now disheartened and tormented on the prospect of going to battle against their brothers in Faith and ardently desired to carry the standard of Christendom themselves, rather than carry the banner of the prophet Mohammed. Prince George recognized the providential opportunity to free himself and the rest, from the yoke of the Sultan and prayed the more ardently to Our Lady and her Son, the Son of God made Man. The army of Schahim Pasha, the General who was famous for his words: “My sword is a cloud that pours blood instead of water” consisted of 80,000 troops. John (Jan) Hunyadi’s Hungarian Catholic troops numbered 20,000. In November the Hungarian Crusader Cavalry of Constable John Hunyadi resounded on the battlefield, as they charged in a furious attack upon the invading horde. Arrows darted through the sky and with the first opportunity, Prince George and his faithful troops betrayed Schahim Pasha by instigating a revolt, they joined Hunyadi’s forces and attacked the Islamic troops. The hatred and the cursing of the Schahim and of his troops, filled the air as they witnessed their military champion Iskender Bey, crossing over joining ranks with his Christian brothers. The Christians overran the Islamic army, 30,000 of the invading troops lay dead and 4,000 were taken as prisoners.
Prince George of Albania forced Amurath’s secretary of state to sign a royal mandate, which in the Sultan’s name, ordered the Ottoman government in Albania to hand over the governance to the person presenting the mandate. The secretary of state of Sultan Amurath, hoped to have his life spared with his signature, however, the hopes of saving his life were obviously an illusion for the Sultan would surely execute the Commanders. Prince George put the secretary of state and his retinue to death before they could reach Constantinople, Istanbul. Prince George and his followers invoked ardently the protection of the Holy Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin and rode seven days and nights to reach the land of Kroia in Albania. On reaching the city, the prince met with the influential Albanians and received their pledge and their aid, at dawn the party stormed into the Ottoman stronghold and presented the governor with the royal mandate. Prince George regained all the Albanian territories, which were rightly his own.
On November 13, 1443, following twenty years of Islamic oppression, church bells rang and Catholic Albania was freed from the enemy’s yoke by the intervention of Our Lady of Shkodra, Our Lady of Good Counsel at Genazzano. For the next twenty-four years Prince George or Scanderbeg fought in defense of Albania and Christendom. The Albanians and the Holy See recognized him as a true Catholic hero. Scanderbeg remained faithful to Our Lady of Shkodra and the Blessed Virgin transformed him into a Christian model of perfection and a true defender of the Faith. He subsequently won great victories, such as the Battle of Ujebartha. In this occasion George was betrayed by his nephew Hamza, whose ambitions to govern Albania pushed him onto the side of the enemy. Hamza would later die as a beggar in Turkey. George was victorious at Ujebartha, after overcoming a numerically superior enemy. In January 1467, King George retired to Lesh where, on January 17, he received the Last Sacraments for he was sick and moribund. During those days while King George lay sickly in bed, the alarm was sounded across the town. The Ottomans were invading the City of Lesh. The perspiration of agony vanished, the dying man’s eyes opened once again and the color of vitality and life flushed through his face. He ordered his horse and weapons to be prepared for he was to carry death to his enemies. At the gates of Lesh a battle ensued. Under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, George defeated the invaders who were terrified to gaze upon the eyes of the Albanian King, for they were ablaze with the ‘Holy Wrath of God.’ Right after the battle, George returned to his deathbed. He gave thanks for the victory to the Blessed Virgin Mary and on the same day before sunset, he died peacefully.
Saint Peter Julian Eymard, who is known as the Apostle of the Holy Eucharist, recalls that in Saint Augustine’s times, the Catholic Faith had spread so widely that the whole of North Africa was Catholic. When Islam began its onslaught throughout these lands, in the seventh century, the Faith was lost. Town after town and country after another, fell to the Islamic sword. In North Africa there was no one left to worship the Almighty God in His Eucharistic Presence. Saint Eymard recalled that right in this period, when the people were apostatizing and abandoning the Faith, the Lord abandoned the Tabernacles in this region. Saint Peter Julian Eymard postulated that when the Lord leaves His tabernacles, He would never return. At age fifty-three, George the Albanian died and on hearing of his death, the Ottoman Sultan said: “Woe to Christendom! It has lost its sword and shield!” The son of King George of Albania, John Castriota, was unlike his father and compromised the kingdom by negotiating peace, rather than defending the Faith. In 1474, he sold the Albanian territory to Venice, who resold the same territory to the Ottomans. In January 1467, the Ottoman army occupied all the country and Scutari fell into the hands of the enemy. Two of George’s former soldiers, George and De Sclavis, visited frequently the Shrine of Our Lady of Shkodra. They prayed that the Patroness of Albania, would prevent the country from falling into the hands of Islam. The people had abandoned their virtuous lives. Their love of Our Lady and Her Son grew lukewarm and they chose heresy and were lax in their ways, not partaking of the sacraments and despising holiness. Both soldiers witnessed their country apostatizing quickly, they were undecided as whether to fight or to leave. During one of these nights the younger of the soldiers, George, had a vision of the Blessed Virgin who revealed to him that he and De Sclavis, had to prepare to leave Albania for good. She also confided, that her Icon at Shkodra was also to leave the country. On waking up at daybreak after conferring with each other, they discovered that both had the same identical dream. They rushed to the Icon to pray. While praying fervently before the Image, they witnessed the Icon, enveloped in a luminous cloud, detaching itself from the wall and travelling westward in full view of the two soldiers. On reaching the sea, similar to Saint Peter on the lake of Genesareth, they walked over the Adriatic Sea. They walked for the whole day without stopping or feeling in the least tired. The journey of over one hundred and ninety miles was traversed, the two companions, kept their gaze fixed on the Icon, all the while in contemplation and meditation. At the gates of Rome, the cloud vanished.
The Image miraculously appeared at Genazzano (25 miles southeast of Rome) on April 25, 1467, on Saint Mark’s day. The townspeople were celebrating Saint Mark’s Day when suddenly, around four o’clock in the afternoon they heard exquisite music. The people drew their attention upwards and saw a small cloud coming to rest upon a ledge above an unfinished chapel of Saint Biagio in the church. The Image, which was a fresco, is made of a thin layer of plaster and was supported on the small ledge with no other support of any kind. The bells of the old tower mysteriously began to ring, and the other bells of the town rang miraculously in unison. The people, who had no knowledge of the journey of the Icon, believed that the Image came from heaven and quickly referred to it as ‘Our Lady of Paradise.’
In Rome De Sclavis and George searched for the Icon and inquired of it everywhere. After much searching and prayer, they found it in Genazzano, in a church which was at the time, still being built and needed funds to complete. The Third Order of the Augustinians, Petruccia de Nocera, who donated funds to the erection of the Chapel of Saint Biagio, had said: “My dear children, do not put too much importance on this apparent misfortune. I assure you that before my death the Blessed Virgin and our Holy Father Augustine will finish the church begun by me.”(1) These funds arrived right after the apparition of the fresco of Our Lady and Child. One hundred and sixty one miracles, occurring through the intercession of Our Lady of Genazzano, have since then been recorded. The picture was first referred to as ‘La Madonna del Paradiso,’ later as ‘Madonna del Buon Consiglio.’
Assuming that the Icon traveled for one whole day, it can safely be concluded that it began its miraculous journey on April 24, 1467, on the morrow of the ancient feast in Jerusalem (Zosimo, Saint Catherine’s Monastery Egypt) dedicated to Saint George the Military Martyr and the same year when Prince George or ‘Scandeburg’ died. Pope Paul II ordered an investigation into the miraculous nature of the Icon’s apparition. The results were that the thickness of the fresco was that of an eggshell and could not have been removed by human hands. The thin layered fresco, stood upright without any support, the fresco had indeed disappeared from its church of origin in Albania, as an empty space with the exact dimensions, was later found in the Albanian church. In 1630, Pope Urban VIII on pilgrimage visited Genazzano. In 1864, Pope Pius IX also visited Genazzano. On November 1682, Innocent XI crowned the miraculous Icon. In 1753, Pope Benedict XIV approved of the ‘Pious Union of Our Lady of Good Counsel.’ In March of 1903, Pope Leo elevated the church to a minor basilica.
Today, centuries later the Image is not suspended in the same position. Between 1621 and 1629 alterations were made to strengthen the walls of the basilica and the Icon was placed in its own chapel The Icon survived earthquakes and an aerial bombing during World War II. A bomb penetrated the roof and exploded on impact with the floor, the explosion destroyed much of the interior, the main altar was demolished however the altar of the Madonna remained untouched, the Icon was miraculously preserved.