In the consistory of November 2016, among the 17 men Pope Francis elevated to the rank of cardinal was an 88-year-old priest who was neither a bishop nor of the eligible age to vote in a conclave. Why then, did Pope Francis name Father Ernest Troshani Simoni of the Archdiocese of Shkodrë-Pult in Albania to the College of Cardinals? With the highly symbolic appointment, the Holy Father desired to honor the suffering of Albanian Catholics under what was perhaps the harshest communist persecution the world has known, and to draw attention to their courageous witness outside the small Balkan country of 2.7 million people. The red worn by cardinals symbolizes the blood they are willing to shed for the Church. For most cardinals, it is a pious thought. For Cardinal Ernest Simoni, it is a reality.
Pope Francis first met now-Cardinal Simoni on a one-day visit to Albania in September 2014. The Holy Father was brought to tears when listening to Father Simoni’s address on his sufferings and those of his countrymen persevering in their faith despite such brutal persecution. After Father Simoni’s address, Pope Francis stated: “I did not know that your people had suffered so much. Today, on the road from the airport to the square [I saw] all the pictures of the martyrs. One can see that this people still remembers those who have suffered so much. A nation of martyrs…Today we touched martyrs.”
It can be said that the persecution of the Church in Albania actually began when the Ottomans expanded their empire from Anatolia to the Balkans in the 14th century. The conquest of Albania was particularly brutal, which explains in part why Albania is a majority-Muslim country today while other Balkan nations remained Christian. The Catholic population remained very small after Albania declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912; it is less than 20 percent of the nation’s population today. But in the tumult of the Second World War, fascist Italy invaded and annexed Albania as a part of its own empire. This was short-lived. As the Soviets won repeated victories over the Nazis in the Balkans, Albanian communist forces took control of the country. The leader of the Albanian Communist Party, Enver Hoxha, came to power and sought to reassert fiercely his country’s independence. Religion was a primary foe of his regime as he believed it to be a source of division, even though relations were peaceful among Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox citizens.
Hoxha’s rule lasted from 1944 until his death in 1985. It was characterized by brutal Stalinist tactics, seeking to destroy any threat to Hoxha’s governance. The Catholic Church was the first and most fiercely targeted religious community, as the Vatican was seen as an agent of fascism and anti-communism. After China’s Cultural Revolution, Hoxha’s brand of communism took on a Maoist character. He declared his own “Cultural and Ideological Revolution,” and in 1967 Albania became the world’s first officially atheistic state. Torture, imprisonment, exile, and murder were common instruments of the communist regime against anyone suspected of challenging their ideology.
For those still practicing the Catholic faith, an effort was made to draw them into a new, state church with no connections to the Vatican. The harshest persecution was reserved for the bishops and priests who refused to facilitate this enterprise of apostasy.
Among the vast numbers of victims of the communist persecution in Albania, 38 were proclaimed “Blessed” by the Church as examples to all the faithful. Their beatification Mass was celebrated on November 5, 2016 by Cardinal Angelo Amato, just a few weeks prior to Father Simoni’s elevation to the cardinalate. Among the 38 beatified Albanian martyrs were two bishops, 21 diocesan priests, seven Franciscans, three Jesuits, one seminarian, and four laypersons. These martyrs were subject to torture and to the cruelest indignities before their deaths. But they never relinquished their faith in Christ and his Church. Two of the priests were drowned with their heads held in a latrine; another was buried alive. Maria Tuci, aged 22, who was pursuing religious life as a Franciscan sister, was stripped naked and stuffed in a sack with a wild cat readied to attack her. She would later die of her wounds.
Cardinal Simoni survived the persecutions, but was not exempt from imprisonment and torture for remaining faithful to his priesthood. He served an 18-year prison sentence with hard labor. He lived to be honored for his sacrifice by being made a cardinal and witnessing the beatification of his fellow Catholic countrymen, some of whom he knew personally. At the beatification Mass relics of the Albanian martyrs were brought forth Cardinal Simoni himself—the living martyr of Albania.
With gratitude to a seminarian of the Archdiocese of New York, Vasel Gjonlekaj, who is family friends with the cardinal, His Eminence graciously made time for an interview on a recent visit to my parish in New York.
Father Seán Connolly, for CWR: Your Eminence, it is a great honor to interview you. Your story first came to my attention, and the attention of many Catholics around the world, when you brought Pope Francis to tears during his apostolic visit to your homeland of Albania in 2014.
Let us start from the beginning. What was your childhood like and what made you want to become a priest?
Cardinal Ernest Simoni: May everything be for the praise and glory of God.
Growing up, we were poor like the rest of the families in our town. Ever since I was 10 years old, I knew that I was called to be a priest. My father was always involved in the local parish. He would often serve Mass and would spend his entire day assisting the priest in his daily ministry. Seeing the beauty of the Church militant which had been alive and well at the time, but also through the grace of the Holy Spirit, I knew that God had ordained for me to become a priest for the salvation of souls. Toward the end of my 10th year, my parents sent me to the Franciscans to finish my schooling and begin my formation. I was educated by the Franciscans until the seminary was closed in 1948. So I was there for about 10 years. All of my professors had been trained in Germany and so the Austria-Hungarian culture was imparted in us.
As a seminarian, the bishop sent me to a parish in the countryside where the “feet of the communists” could not go. I would spend four hours each day leading the faithful in prayer and another four hours catechizing the children.
In 1951, Stalin declared war on the West and the UN. I was soon drafted into the military after my philosophical studies had been finished.
After six months of service in the military, I entered the diocesan seminary to finish my studies in moral and dogmatic theology.
CWR: What led to Albania declaring itself the world’s first atheist state in 1967? Where did the violent reaction against so-called “religious obscurantism” come from?
Cardinal Simoni: In 1944, communism crept into the country and the crusade to destroy Catholicism began. In order to eradicate Catholicism from the country, [having] declared Albania to be an atheist sovereignty, the communists targeted the clergy. They said that “we cannot be victorious unless we destroy the clergy.”
In 1945, the war against the Church, the clergy, and God began. Many of my professors (Franciscan priests) were executed by firing squad. After three years, many of the churches, including our own Franciscan seminary, were closed.
CWR: After ordination, what was your priesthood like? What were some of your assignments?
Cardinal Simoni: On April 7, 1956, I was ordained a priest and said my first Mass. I’ve been a priest for 61 years. My first assignment was in Shkoder to replace a young priest who had been imprisoned at that time. The communists were surprised by the work I was able to accomplish in my parish in Shkoder and it was here that I caught their attention. I had many young boys serving at the altar and the Masses were always crowded.
CWR: What led to your arrest?
Cardinal Simoni: Many of the communist party members would ask me, “How is it that you are able to deceive so many people with your lies?” I would simply say, “The Church has existed for nearly 2,000 years for the salvation of souls, even your souls.”
By that time, the communists considered me to be a threat to the Party and so they tried relentlessly to have me speak ill of the Party. They bribed some of my friends to convince me to say something against the government, but I was aware of their deception.
On Christmas Eve 1963, a warrant was issued for my arrest. I had just finished celebrating midnight Mass for the soul of John F. Kennedy when the police came into the vestibule and handcuffed me.
I was brought to court under the allegations that I was conspiring against the state. Hoping to find evidence, the judges asked me, “Why did you tell the people, ‘you must be willing to die for Christ’?” I told them, “We must forgive, love, and pray for our enemies.”
After three months of intense interrogation, the court sentenced me to 18 years of intense labor in the coal mines of Spaç, near Lezhë. My initial sentence was death by firing squad, but by the grace of God, I was able to live.
CWR: Please provide us some details of your imprisonment, and how you were able to continue your priestly ministry despite the circumstances.
Cardinal Simoni: The conditions of the prison were horrendous. We were forced to work in the copper mines for hours. It was so cold that many died from the temperature alone. The water had a reddish hue due to pollution from the copper.
In 1973, a prison riot ensued, to no avail. After the riot ceased and the guards took control of the prison I was brought in for questioning. The guards accused me of inciting the riot because of my influence over the prisoners. The accusations were terminated and I continued my sentence for another eight years.
While I was in prison, I would secretly offer the Mass in Latin for those whom I trusted. Because I did not have a Missal, I relied on my memory of the Latin canon to celebrate the Mass. A friend from the outside would smuggle in bread and wine so that we could properly celebrate the Mass.
CWR: When were you released? What was life like subsequent to your release before the fall of communism?
Cardinal Simoni: After 18 years, in 1981, I was released from prison and sent back home. The communists had asked my parents to persuade me to marry and leave the priesthood. They told my father that if I marry, they would guarantee that I would not be sent to prison again. I was not deterred by this and would say, “I’m already married to the most beautiful bride there is; I’m married to the Church.”
From 1981 till 1991, I continued saying Mass, hearing confessions, and performing exorcisms in a small town near Shkoder, away from the public eye.
On July 5, 1990, I was called in by the state once again. I feared that someone had told them about my ministry [in Shkoder]. The meeting, however, was not one of condemnation but of joy. The state had called to tell me that the churches would be open again and that relations would be restored.
CWR: What is Albania like today? Is there freedom of religion?
Cardinal Simoni: In Albania, there is currently religious harmony among the Catholics, Orthodox, and the Muslims. Communism has been completely eradicated and there is peace in our land.
CWR: Communism has fallen in Europe. But now, secularism has spread even among Western European nations that were once the jewels in Catholicism’s crown. Why do you think this is? Can Europe become truly Catholic once again? If so, how?
Cardinal Simoni: From communism emerged consumerism and materialism, which St. John Paul II condemned. Consumerism is about filling our stomachs and pockets and fulfilling all of our bodily pleasures. Morality has been thrown out and Christ has been forgotten. God has been substituted with pleasure. As Christians, we have forgotten that Christ is our judge and the savior of souls. Without Christ we can do nothing. We have abandoned praying the Rosary and going to Mass. Christ said, “I have come to call sinners,” but we cannot help those who are not contrite. We often speak about the mercy of Christ, but his judgment is forgotten. Our Lady says, “Et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies timentibus eum”—“And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”
The Mass, mortification, and the Rosary are the most powerful tools we can use against the devil. It is with these three weapons that we can crush the head of the devil.
We see the prophecy of Fatima revealing itself today. If the people do not turn towards Christ, darkness and error will consume the world. If we trust in God and turn towards him, we should have no fear.
CWR: Your priesthood is an inspiration to many, as you persevered in your vocation despite such tremendous obstacles. What message do you have for priests and young men who are discerning a vocation to the priesthood?
Cardinal Simoni: Entrust your vocation to the Blessed Virgin and always seek the truth. Always remember that the love of Christ is without end. The love of the world will always betray you. Be inspired daily by the cross. It is in the cross that we find the true love of God.