At the end of the Angelus and Mass for the Marian Jubilee, Pope Francis made a surprise announcement: a new consistory on November 19, the eve of the Solemnity of Christ the King and the closing of the Jubilee of Mercy. He simultaneously named seventeen new cardinals. The focus on mercy and “periphery” is evident in those choices.
His effort to emphasize the universal, rather than solely the Western dimensions of the Church is clear, given that most of the new cardinals come from outside Europe: Africa, Asia, South America, and Oceania.
For example, he named Dieudonné Nzapalainga, Archbishop of Bangui, from Central Africa, where Francis opened the Holy Door of the cathedral marking the beginning of the Jubilee of Mercy. Then there are Msgr. Patrick D’Rozario, C.S.C., Archbishop of Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Msgr. Maurice Piat, Archbishop of Port-Louis (Mauritius).
But among the four new cardinals over eighty – in other words, men who were nominated as a symbolic honor – one that was especially noteworthy is Fr. Ernest Simoni, eighty-eight, an Albanian priest who spent twenty-eight years in the Albanian Gulag, and who endured one of the fiercest examples of religious persecution in the twentieth century.
A poor and impoverished country, Albania is predominantly Muslim; Catholics are a minority, about 10 percent of the population. By recognizing Fr. Simoni, Francis is showing that, even within Europe, there are still Catholic “peripheries” that the Church does not intend to forget.
Simoni is the second Albanian cardinal to have suffered persecution. The first was Cardinal Mikel Koliqi, who survived thirty-eight years of imprisonment and forced labor, and was made a cardinal at the age of ninety-two by Pope John Paul at the 1994 consistory.
During his 2014 visit to Albania, Pope Francis was touched by Albania’s commitment and testimony of faith. “Recalling the decades of atrocious suffering and harsh persecution against Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims, we can say that Albania was a land of martyrs: many bishops, priests, men and women religious, and laity paid for their fidelity with their lives,” said Francis in a speech.
Persecution in Albania was exceptionally harsh, even for Communist Eastern Europe. Among the living martyrs who were present and greeted Francis was Fr. Ernest Simoni. He gave a moving account of his almost three decades spent in Albanian labor camps; Francis was visibly moved.
The history behind this personal story is worth recalling. The conflict between the Catholic Church and Communist state in Albania can be divided into three stages:
1) 1944-1948 when the government terrorized and persecuted believers and clergy;
2) 1949-1967 when the government tried to “nationalize” or Albanize the country’s religions, and to establish a National Albanian Catholic Church similar to the Patriotic Church created by Albania’s then-ally, Communist China. This stage reached its culmination with Albania proclaiming itself the world’s first atheist state;
3) 1990 to the present, during which the Albanian Church awoke after decades of martyrdom and persecution.
Fr. Simoni was arrested on December 24, 1963, just after he had finished celebrating the Christmas Vigil Mass in the village of Barbullush, Shkodër. Four officers from the Albanian Secret Police (Sigurimi) showed up at his church and presented him with arrest and execution orders. “They tied my hands behind my back and began beating me, while we were walking to the car,” he recalled.
He was brought to the interrogation facility and kept in complete isolation, suffering unbearable tortures for three consecutive months. The accusation was that he had been teaching his “philosophy.” He taught his people “to die for Christ.” During three months of confinement and interrogation, the persecutors tried to force him provide evidence against the Catholic hierarchy and his brother priests, which he refused.
There is an interesting American connection to his persecution. One of the accusations against Fr. Simoni was that he had celebrated a requiem Mass for the repose of President Kennedy’s soul, exactly a month after the Catholic president’s death. A journal found in Fr. Simoni’s room featured a picture of President Kennedy and was presented to the court as material proof – of something or other.
“By God’s grace, the execution was not carried out,” Fr. Simoni recalled. After the trial, he was sentenced to twenty-eight years of forced labor, working first in the mines and then as a sanitary and sewage worker, until the fall of Communism in 1991.
Fr. Simoni is the last, still living priest, to have endured the Communist persecution in Albania. That Francis was moved by his story and has now made him a cardinal says that, as St. John Paul II encouraged for the Third Christian Millennium celebrations in 2000, the current pope still believes that there are historical injustices to be remembered – and corrected.
Like many of the modern martyrs and confessors, Fr. Simoni has publicly forgiven his false accusers and persecutors, and has repeatedly prayed for them. In an interview with Vatican Radio, after the unexpected news from Rome, he remarked: “I am an unworthy servant of the Church, but everything that I have done is for the glory of Christ, the Church, and the Albanian people.”