One of the new cardinals created today by Pope Francis is Fr. Ernest Simoni, 86. You will hear more about him in coming days as his will be the most unique, the most touching, the most heroic of all the stories of the 17 new red hats. Here is a brief look at the future eminence – a story by staff writers of La Stampa newspaper who covered Pope Francis’ visit to Albania in September 2014.

Pope Francis welcomed Fr. Ernest Simoni – the Albanian priest who spent 28 years behind bars – by kissing his hands. A moved Pope had embraced him on September 21, 2014 in Tirana, after listening to the account of his persecution. “Fr. Ernest was subjected to 11,000 days of torture and forced labor,” says Mimmo Muolo, a journalist who writes for the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire. Muolo also authored a book on Fr. Ernest Simoni. From persecution to his meeting with the Pope. The priest handed a copy of the book to the Pope in person. He was accompanied by Sister Marisa, a representative of Edizioni Paoline which published the volume.


“My persecution,” Fr. Simoni said, “began on Christmas Eve in 1963 when I was arrested and put in solitary confinement, tortured and sentenced to death, simply because I was a priest.” His cellmate was told to record “the foreseeable rage” of the priest against the regime: but Fr. Ernest had nothing but prayers and words of forgiveness for his persecutors. And so his sentence was reduced to 25 years of forced labor in the mines and sewers of Scutari. “When I was in prison,” the priest recalled, “I celebrated mass in Latin by memory and I gave communion”.

Fr. Ernest was set free on September 5, 1990, after which he resumed his pastoral activities, which, he confides, he never actually stopped but simply “carried out in an unusual context”. The first thing he did was to confirm his forgiveness towards his persecutors: “I constantly invoke the Lord’s mercy on them,” he said. When asked how he managed to endure such persecution without giving up, Fr. Ernest smiled before revealing his secret: “I didn’t do anything extraordinary really, I always prayed to Jesus, I always talked to Jesus.”

A CNS story at the end of the 2014 Albania trip noted that, “two survivors of Albania’s communist crackdown against the Church brought Pope Francis to tears with their stories during a vespers service in Tirana’s cathedral September 21. “To hear a martyr talk about his own martyrdom is intense,” the pope told journalists on the papal plane back to Rome the same evening. “I think all of us there were moved, all of us.” Franciscan Father Ernest Simoni, then 84, talked about his life as a priest under a militant atheist regime that targeted people of every faith — Christian and Muslim — between 1944 and 1991. Despite the risks of torture, imprisonment and execution, people held onto their beliefs as best they could, praying and passing on their traditions underground.