During his trip to Albania in September 2014, Pope Francis heard the spine-chilling story of an 84-year-old priest who lived in a labor camp for 28 years during the communist regime in Albania. His name is Ernest Simoni and he will be made a cardinal in the in the consistory on November 19.
This is his complete story, which he revealed in a speech before Pope Francis, during his visit to this Eastern European country.
"My name is Ernest Simoni. I am an 84-year-old priest. In December, 1944, the Communist Party arrived in Albania, with the primary goal of wiping out faith and clergy from the country. To achieve this goal, they immediately started arresting, torturing, and executing hundreds of priests and laypeople. This went on for seven years, shedding the blood of innocent Christians, some of which, staring death in the face, shouted, "Long live Christ the King!”
In 1952, the communist government, following a political strategy orchestrated from Moscow (Stalin), tried to gather the remaining priests to let them practice their faith under one condition: that they distance themselves from Rome and the Vatican. The clerg never accepted the government's pretenses. I carried on with my studies at the Franciscan college for ten years, from 1938 to 1948. Our superiors were executed by the communists and that is why I was forced to finish my Theology studies in hiding.
Four years later I was sent to the army. They wanted to make me disappear. I spent two years there, which was worse than being in prison. But the Lord saved me and, on April 7, 1956, I was ordained a priest. The next day, on Divine Mercy Sunday, I celebrated my first Mass. For eight and a half years I practiced my ministry, until the communists decided that I was to be removed.
On December 24, 1963, after celebrating Mass on Christmas Eve, in the town of Barbullush, near Scutari, for officers came to find me and showed me a warrant for arrest and execution. They tied my hands behind my back, put me in cuffs, and forced me into their car by kicking me. From the parish, they took me to an isolated room were they kept me for three months in subhuman conditions. They interrogated me. Their boss told me: "You will be hanged as an enemy because you have told the people that they will die for Christ if necessary.” They tightened the irons on my wrist so hard that I could feel my heartbeat stopping. I was dying. They wanted me to talk against the Church and the hierarchy. I almost die from the torture. Seeing me in that state, they freed me . The Lord wanted me to stay alive.
They also accused me of celebrating three Masses for the soul of the late president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who had been murdered a month before my arrest. But the Masses I celebrated according to the indications that Paul VI gave to all the priests in the world. I was a subscriber of the main Russian magazine in French: "The Soviet Union.” As proof of their accusation they presented the judge with an issue of the magazine, in the cover of which there was a picture of the American president. Divine Providence allowed for my sentence never to be carried out. They brought another prisoner to the isolated room, who was to spy on me. He criticized the Party but I responded saying that Christ teaches us to love our enemies, to forgive them, and to work for the good of the people. The dictator learned about the words I had been speaking. He replaced my death sentence with 18 years of prison in the Spaç mine. When I got out, I was senteced to another ten years of forced labor, until the fall of the regime. I worked in the sewage. I celebrated Mass in latin, from memory.
I also confessed and gave communion secretly.
When religious freedom was instituted, the Lord helped me serve in many towns and reconciliate vengeful people with the Cross, keeping hatred away and the devil away from the hearts of men.
Holiness, I think I speak for everyone here. I pray to the Lord that, through the intercession of the Holy Mother of Christ, he give you a long life, good health, and strength to guide the flock that is the Church of Christ. Amen.”