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Tuesday 21 September |
The Feast of Saint Matthew the Apostle

The persistence of Ernest Simoni: Homily for October 16, 2016, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 10/15/16

Remember this name: Ernest Simoni.

Until this past week most Catholics, I suspect, had never heard of him.

But his story needs to be told—and remembered. This Sunday’s scripture is about persistence and perseverance—about keeping faith, even when weary, and never giving up.

And that is the story of Ernest Simoni.

Ernest Simoni was born to a devout Catholic family in Albania in 1928. He attended a Franciscan minor seminary until it was shut down by the dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha intended to purge the country of all religion—beginning with priests and seminarians.

“They wanted to make me disappear,” Ernest later said. So the government drafted him into the military. He spent two years in the army— a period that he later said was worse than any prison.

He managed to connect with other Catholics and study theology underground. In 1956, he was finally ordained a priest, on the feast of Divine Mercy. But the darkest period of his life was just beginning. On Christmas Eve 1963, Father Simoni was arrested while celebrating Mass. He was beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and tortured.

They wanted him to renounce his religion. He wouldn’t.

For this refusal, he was sentenced to death by firing squad

After several weeks, his sentence was commuted to hard labor.

He spent the next 18 years working in a mine, then another 10 years working in sewage canals.

All his time in prison, Father Simoni secretly continued to celebrate Mass—from memory—in Latin. He heard confessions. He gave prisoners communion, consecrated from scraps of bread.

Again and again and again and again, he risked his life out of his devotion to the Lord and commitment to his faith.

Having faith, any faith, was considered a crime. Albanian churches were being demolished. Lay people and religious were being imprisoned and even killed. The country had less than 200 priests—and nearly all of them were in jail.

But what would not be imprisoned was Father Ernest Simoni’s faith. It could not be shackled, or bludgeoned, or broken.

Father Simoni prayed. He trusted. He persevered.

He never gave up.

He spent a total of 28 years in prison. And then he was set free.

After he was freed, he served in small parishes in isolated mountain villages. To the people of Albania, he brought a message that was simple—and, to some, shocking.

He preached healing, reconciliation, mercy.

Do not hate the people who did this to us, he said. Embrace the love of God.

“Jesus’ love is infinite,” he once said—reminding Albanians that Christ calls us to love and pray for our enemies.

In 2014, because of the horrific persecution of these people, Pope Francis chose to make Albania the first European country he visited as pope. During the visit, as part of vespers service at the cathedral, Father Simoni stepped forward to tell his story. The Holy Father, like thousands of others, listened in stunned silence. After his testimony, Father Simoni went to greet the Holy Father and bent to kiss his ring. Instead the pope lifted him up and embraced him. They held one another for a long moment. Then, the pope took off his glasses and wiped away tears.

“Today,” he said later, “I touched the martyrs.”  

He never forgot that moment.

This past week, Pope Francis named this humble parish priest, Father Ernest Simoni, now 88 years old, a cardinal.

Cardinals, of course, are robed in red, the color of martyrdom. Red has been the color of Ernest Simoni’s life.

It has been a life colored not only by blood, but also by bravery and persistence and love. The scriptures today call us to follow that example.

“Remain faithful,” Paul writes to Timothy. “Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient.”

Or as Luke reminds us in the Gospel, “Pray always without becoming weary.”

How weary Father Simoni must have become. How frightened. How isolated.

Yet, he never crumbled.

He never gave up.

As we step forward to receive the Eucharist this day, remember all those Eucharists Father Simoni celebrated in secret, in the shadows, with crumbs of bread becoming the source of all life, all hope.

Because even in the darkest of cells—even in those prisons we encounter in our own lives that have no walls, places of fear or anxiety or sin—­God will make himself present. He does not forget us.

Remain faithful.Proclaim the word. Be persistent. Pray always without becoming weary.

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