Photo: Fr. Simoni with Francis during the Pope’s visit to Albania in September 2014 (photo courtesy of CTV).
The Pope has named seventeen new Cardinals. The only one who is not an Archbishop or a Bishop is Fr. Ernest Simoni, an 84 year old priest from Albania who in 2014, on the Pope’s visit, in the cathedral of Tirana, told the story of his twenty seven years of torture, imprisonment and forced labour under the brutal regime of Enver Hoxha. He said of his captors at the time that Christ had taught us to love our enemies and to forgive them and that we should strive to seek the good of the people. While in prison, he continued to celebrate Mass from memory in Latin, to distribute communion secretly and to hear confessions.
In America Magazine Gerard O’Connell wrote of that day at Tirana in 2014: “I have been on many papal trips to foreign countries over the past thirty years and have experienced some profoundly moving and faith-filled moments on several of them but I had never before seen a Pope so overcome with emotion that he wept. But that is what I witnessed on Sunday evening, September 21, in the cathedral of Tirana.”
After he finished speaking that day Fr Simoni turned to the Pope and told him, “I pray through the Most Holy Mother of Christ that the Lord will give you life, health and strength in guiding the great flock that is the Church of Christ.” He then went towards the Pope and went down on one knee before him. Francis pulled him up, kissed his hand and embraced him for a long time, and then put his head against his and wept. The Pope turned to the altar, took off his glasses and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief.
Pope Francis said later that before going to Tirana he had spent two months studying the history of the persecution in Albania, “but I had not realized that this people had suffered so, so much. It was a surprise for me,” he confessed.
The two met again at the Pope’s General Audience on 20th April this year. In a
brief but emotionally-charged encounter Pope Francis was again seen to be visibly moved and said: “This is an Albanian martyr,” when he saw Fr Simoni. And once again, he pressed his forehead to the forehead of the living martyr. Fr Simoni gave Francis a copy of a book that was to be launched that same afternoon in which he talks about his life story.
The book, taking Fr. Simoni’s meeting with the Pope in Tirana in 2014 as his point of departure, is by journalist Mimmo Muolo and entitled: Fr. Ernest Simoni: From Forced Labor to a Meeting with Francis.
When asked how he managed to endure such persecution without giving up, Fr. Ernest smiled before saying: “I didn’t do anything extraordinary really, I always prayed to Jesus, I always talked to Jesus.”
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.” 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. And this translates to “loving and forgiving every day, and spiritually and materially aiding the orphans and the poor.”
Fr Simoni is said by many sources including the Tablet and America Magazine to be a Franciscan.