Pope Francis with Cardinal Simoni after the General Audience Pope Francis with Cardinal Simoni after the General Audience  (VATICAN MEDIA Divisione Foto)

“A living martyr”: Pope Francis pays tribute to Cardinal imprisoned for three decades

At his weekly General Audience, Pope Francis pays tribute to Cardinal Ernest Simoni, who was imprisoned by the Communist regime in Albania for twenty-eight years.

By Joseph Tulloch

At the end of this week’s General Audience, Pope Francis laid aside his prepared remarks and offered a long, unscripted greeting to one of his visitors.

After discussing the history of Christian martyrdom in ancient Rome, the Pope noted that today, too, there are many martyrs all across the world, and offered a special greeting to Cardinal Ernest Simoni, who he described as a “living martyr”,  

Twenty-eight years imprisonment

Born in the village of Troshani, northern Albania, in 1928, Ernest Simoni began his studies for the priesthood within the Franciscan order when he was just ten years old

In 1948, the Franciscan convent where he was staying was looted by agents of the Communist regime. The friars were shot and the novices expelled.

Despite this, Simoni continued his theological studies in secret, and was clandestinely ordained a priest in 1956.  

In 1963, after Christmas Mass, Simoni was arrested and imprisoned. He remained behind bars for twenty-eight years, facing both solitary confinement and many years of hard labour.

Pope Francis met Fr Simoni during his visit to Albania in September 2014, and was brought to tears when listening to him discussing his sufferings. After returning to Rome, the Pope decided to make the elderly priest a Cardinal.

The Pope’s words

Pope Francis began his tribute to Cardinal Simoni with a reference to the many Christian martyrs buried all around them in the Vatican.

“All of us have read, have heard, the stories of the early martyrs of the Church,” he said. “Even here, where the Vatican is now, there is a cemetery, and many were executed here.”

“But, even today,” the Pope stressed, “there are many martyrs all over the world: many, perhaps more than at the beginning. There are many persecuted for their faith.”

He then introduced Cardinal Simoni, noting that he “lived 28 years in prison” as a result of the Communist persecution of the Church in Albania which, he said, was “perhaps the cruelest” of its kind.

Cardinal Simoni “continues to bear witness,” the Pope stressed. “He is now 95 years old, and he continues to work for the Church without becoming discouraged.”

After his release from prison in the 1990s, Cardinal Simoni forgave his jailers, and resumed his service as a priest, with a special focus on promoting reconciliation in post-Communist Albania. 

“Dear brother,” Pope Francis concluded, “I thank you for your witness.”

Pope Francis with Cardinal Simoni following the General Audience
Pope Francis with Cardinal Simoni following the General Audience

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14 February 2024, 12:02