When Pope Francis visited Albania in 2014, he was brought to tears by a priest’s description of the two decades of imprisonment, torture and forced labour he suffered under Albania’s brutal communist rulers for refusing to renounce his Catholic faith.
On Sunday, Pope Francis honoured Fr Ernest Troshani Simoni’s witness by naming him to the College of Cardinals.
Fr Simoni, who turns 88 later this month, was one of 17 new cardinals named by Pope Francis who will be formally elevated at a Vatican ceremony on November 19. He is among four cardinals over age 80 who can’t vote in a conclave to elect a new pope but were named to the club because of their service to the church.
For Albania’s tiny Catholic Church, the nomination was a deeply symbolic gesture acknowledging the suffering of Catholic clergy during the reign of Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who banned religion in 1967.
“That is an homage to a cleric symbolising all Albania’s suffering clergy,” said the Rev Gjergj Meta, a Church spokesman.
Fr Simoni recounted his life story to Pope Francis during the Pope’s 2014 one-day visit to Tirana, a visit meant to highlight the interfaith harmony that exists among the majority Muslim nation of 3.2 million. It was the end of the day and Pope Francis was meeting with priests and seminarians at the Tirana cathedral.
Fr Simoni recalled his arrest, after celebrating Christmas Mass on December 24, 1963 and being placed in isolation. He told of being condemned to death, but the sanction was commuted to 28 years of forced labour.
During his incarceration, he became the spiritual guide to many other prisoners, who then came to his defence when he was again sentenced to death in 1973 after a revolt. He was spared because of their testimony.
Fr Simoni was freed in 1981 but had to continue preaching clandestinely until the communist regime fell in 1990.
As Fr Simoni recounted his ordeal, Pope Francis — who was reading along an Italian translation of his remarks — became visibly moved, at one point tearing up. When he finished, Fr Simoni knelt before the Pope. They embraced for nearly a minute to the applause of the priests and nuns in the audience.
“Today I touched martyrs,” Pope Francis said of the experience.
Fr Simoni will be elevated to cardinal two weeks after the Vatican honours 38 of his confreres who were persecuted or executed under Hoxha’s regime. The beatification ceremony is scheduled for November 5 in Shkoder, Albania, where the first public Mass was held after the fall of communism.
The Albanian church said Fr Simoni’s elevation was a sign of the Pope’s “honour and gratitude” on the eve of the beatification.
“Elevating the Albanian clergy persecuted during communism is a sign of how much this clergy has given to the universal Catholic Church with their martyrs,” a Church statement said.