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Cardinal once persecuted by Albanian communist regime celebrates 65 years of priesthood

Ernest Simoni

TIZIANA FABI | AFP

Gelsomino Del Guercio - published on 04/27/21

This "living martyr" spent 28 years in prison doing hard labor rather than deny Christ.

Sixty-five years of priesthood, some of them practiced under extreme conditions: Albanian Cardinal Ernest Simoni, 92 years old, celebrated this truly exceptional ecclesiastical milestone in Florence, Italy, on April 7. He spent 28 years as a prisoner doing hard labor rather than deny Christ and His Church.

The only remaining witness of the Albanian persecution 

Today Simoni is a canon at the cathedral of Florence, the Tuscan capital. He’s the only priest still living who witnessed the persecution of the communist regime of Enver Hoxha, who proclaimed Albania the “first atheist state in the world.”

From the day of his liberation in 1990, and until the arrival of the pandemic, he never ceased his ministry. During these years he always visited parishes and met with the faithful in Albania, as well as in Italy and the United States, where there are also many groups from his homeland. 

“Who am I …”

To give an idea of his personality, the cardinal recalls,

I used to repeat to myself, and I still repeat: who am I, a poor man and a sinner, to take the body of Jesus into my hands? Today I reaffirm my love for Christ and the Church, as I have tried to do every day during these 65 years.

During these years, the man who “played” at saying Mass as a child, according to Avvenire, placed the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice at the center of his existence. At the end of a Eucharistic celebration, he was arrested at his parish in Barbullush, a village near Scutari, on Christmas night 1963.

The night of the arrest

Ernest Simoni was arrested after the celebration of Mass. “Four policemen took me away by force; they were at the point of breaking my arms,” he said.

He recalls that he was arrested by the communist authorities because he practiced exorcisms, and because he had celebrated Masses in suffrage of U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, assassinated the previous month. He was imprisoned, tortured, and sentenced to death—a sentence commuted to 25 years of hard labor. 

Extreme conditions

He celebrated Mass then under extreme conditions, and at the risk of his life. “I would put aside breadcrumbs and squeeze the grapes so I could consecrate,” he told Avvenire. “The guards didn’t understand and thought I was crazy. Our Lady protected me.”

A witness of the faith who should be honored

Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, archbishop of Florence, who appointed him canon of the cathedral chapter, commemorated Simoni’s 65th anniversary.

“Our Florentine Church,” Betori said, “has welcomed a witness to the faith, who should be honored and shown gratitude for the suffering he endured because of his fidelity to Christ.”

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