The Pope is visibly moved after meeting a priest persecuted by the Communist regime
Pope Francis has again kissed the hands of Father Ernest Simoni, the Albanian priest who spent 28 years in prison for being faithful to the Church during the Communist regime.
The visibly moved Bishop of Rome met the priest some days ago, after the general audience of April 20, in St. Peter’s Square.
“This is an Albanian martyr,” the Pope said when he saw him.
The Pope has met this priest before. And once again, he pressed his forehead to the forehead of the living martyr.
They first met on Nov. 21, 2014, in Tirana; the Holy Father cried when Fr. Simoni gave his testimony about the torture he suffered for refusing to deny Christ.
“The Pope immediately remembered Father Ernest,” Italian author Mimmo Muolo of Avvenire told Aleteia. “He addressed him with his last name, ‘Simoni!’ and indicated that he remembered the story of his persecution, recounted in the cathedral of Tirana in 2014.”
Muolo is the author of “Don Ernest Simoni: Dai lavori forzati all’incontro con Francesco” (Father Ernest Simoni: From persecution to a meeting with Francis, San Paoline, 2016).
“Obviously, Fr. Ernest did everything he could so that the Holy Father wouldn’t kiss his hands, at the same time, trying to kiss those of the Pope,” Muolo remarked.
Those were years of terror under the communist regime of Albania, the only nation declared “atheist” by the constitution, in 1967. “For 11 days, Father Ernest was tortured,” Muolo explained.
Guards ordered his cell mate to extract a confession. His fellow prisoner tried to provoke him so that in anger he would speak badly of the regime and thus be sent to his death.
But Father Ernest only had words of pardon and prayer for those who imprisoned him. And thus, a death penalty was changed to 25 years of forced labor in the mines of Shkodër.
“Everything began on the night of Christmas in 1963 when I was arrested for being a ‘simple priest,’ taken to an isolation cell, tortured and condemned to death,” Father Simoni explained to Aleteia.
Freedom didn’t come until Sept. 5, 1990. Since then he has maintained an active pastoral life. Speaking about the conversion of the world seems to give him a renewed vigor.
His second life, the one post-prison, has been dedicated to evangelization. Nothing diminishes the passion of this 89-year-old priest who doesn’t tire of the effort to evangelize.
Hearing confessions and bringing Communion to villagers is his pastoral mission, which brings him to travel miles to reach various districts and towns of Albania.
“Rest now, Fr. Ernest,” insists his bishop, Archbishop Angelo Massafra, who is aware of the physical strain that he carries on his shoulders, from his labor in the mines and from enduring the consequences of the rage of his guards, who were faithful to the dictator Enver Hoxha. Suffering he endured without ever coming to hate.
The priest described what moved him about this second encounter with the Pope: “Everyone sees and knows that the Holy Father, as Jesus said, is perfectly rooted in the word of God.”
And this translates to “loving and forgiving every day, and spiritually and materially aiding the orphans and the poor.”
“Jesus died to save all people, not just the Catholics,” insisted this priest who as a prisoner said Mass from heart in Latin, and distributed the Eucharist to give eternal hope.
Father Ernest said that from his two encounters with the Pope, what struck him is that Francis is a “father of everyone who has difficulties.” He paused and added that he is fundamentally a man of Jesus.
As well, he highlighted the Holy Father’s commitment to “conversion, to love Jesus with deeds, to help the poor, to hope in the resurrection that only Jesus gives to the entire world.”
“Without Jesus, you can’t do anything. With him, we do everything. If we live and if we die we are alive in Jesus,” he said citing St. Paul, “because for those who believe, death doesn’t exist.”
He also spoke of how the spirit prevails over the flesh. “Death is sin,” he said, emphasizing the importance of penance and fasting and recommending the “holy rosary, entrusted us by the Most Holy Virgin.” With this, “the family, society and the whole world will be saved.”
The testimony of this priest is a call to forgive enemies, to reconciliation, to humiliation for a greater good.
And he asks “love, charity, conversion and holiness in matrimonies, because what is bound on earth is bound in heaven,” as a teaching for all.
The conversion of all men to the “omnipotent Jesus,” he said, is not an “ideological or philosophical” idea. “You don’t negotiate with God. Ego sum qui sum. (I am who am.) I have created you. He who is not with me is against me,” he continued. Thus, “the salvation of Jesus with his love and truth is a gift for the world.”
“All of the presidents, the millionaires, the emperors from Nero to Constantine” to today, he said, above all of them, “Jesus reigns with the power of love.”
“Let us bow before Jesus and Holy Mary, seeking pardon and so that his mercy will reign in all the world, over all sinners, that all may be saved,” he concluded.
In July 2015, the Positio on the sacrifice of 38 martyrs from communist Albania — two volumes of 2,500 pages — was entrusted to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes.
Last month, in an April 26 meeting with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, Pope Francis officially acknowledged the martyrdom of Archbishop Nikollë Vinçenc Prennushi of Durrës and his 37 companions, killed between 1945 and 1974.
For his part, Father Ernest is a living witness of this page in the history of modern Christian martyrs, written in just a few decades.
Let us not forget that it is a book still being written today with the innocent blood of martyrs in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.