VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The story of how an Albanian priest endured decades of imprisonment, torture and forced labor during his country’s communist crackdown against the church brought Pope Francis to tears.
During the pope’s 2014 visit to Tirana, Cardinal-designate Ernest Simoni moved many listeners when he described the brutality a militant atheist regime wielded against people of every faith, and paid tribute to God’s infinite goodness, grace and love for allowing him to survive.
Dedicating his life to drawing people away from hatred and revenge, the octogenarian priest will be one of 17 prelates elevated to cardinal in a consistory Nov. 19 at the Vatican.
Cardinal-designate Simoni, whose 88th birthday was Oct. 18, said he heard the news of his elevation while watching TV as the pope prayed the Angelus Oct. 9.
“I have to thank the Lord for the life he gave me and for the graces, the many graces I have had,” he said.
Born to a Catholic family in Troshani, Albania, Oct. 18, 1928, the cardinal-designate went to a Franciscan-run minor seminary and novitiate until it was shut down after the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha came to power in 1944 and sought to cleanse the country of all religion.
The military drafted the young man in an effort to “make me disappear. I spent two years there, years that were worse than any prison.”
Despite the risks, he studied theology underground and was ordained a priest in 1956, on the feast of Divine Mercy. On Christmas Eve 1963, the priest was arrested while celebrating Mass and was sentenced to death by firing squad. He was beaten, placed for three months in solitary confinement under inhumane conditions, then tortured because he refused to denounce the church.
He was eventually freed, but later arrested again and sent to a prison camp, where he was forced to work in a mine for 18 years and then 10 more years in sewage canals. All the time he was imprisoned, he celebrated Mass from memory in Latin, heard confessions and distributed Communion to other prisoners – all clandestinely.
Albanian Father Ernest Simoni, a priest of the Archdiocese of Shkoder, one of 17 new cardinals, is pictured in early January in Rome. (CNS photo/Massimiliano Migliorato, Catholic Press Photo) See POPE-CARDINALS Oct. 9, 2016.