Tirana, Albania, Sep 22, 2014 / 06:44 am
An Albanian Catholic priest shared his story of encountering persecution for his faith by the country's repressive state atheism, noting how he waited decades before his dream to be ordained was fulfilled.
"When I first said I wanted to be 'like Him,' a priest told me that it was a dark path to take, but I replied: 'I see no darkness,'" Father Gjergj Simoni said.
In a Sept. 21 interview with CNA, he recalled feeling drawn to the priesthood at an early age.
"When my grandmother took me to Mass when I was six, and at the moment of the consecration, I had the feeling that I wanted to be like Jesus in the hand of that priest. I soon realized I wanted to be a priest, even if my dream did not come true for years."
Pope Francis touched on Albania's recent history of religious oppression several times throughout his one-day trip on Sunday. Albania lived under state-imposed atheism from 1967 to 1991, but priests and other religious leaders began to endure persecution when dictator Enver Hoxha took power in 1946.
The regime conducted a war against religions: almost 2,100 people, including Catholic priests and adherents of other religions, were brutally killed because of their religious beliefs.
Despite Fr. Simoni's strong desire to be ordained, the day would not come until much later when Albania's communist rule ended. He was the first Albanian priest to be ordained in decades on April 21, 1991.
Fr. Simoni was raised in a Catholic family – his brother, Zef Simoni, was ordained a priest during the 1960s and later consecrated a bishop.
"My brother ordained me," Fr. Simoni said, noting that both of them were persecuted under the Enver Hoxha regime.
"My brother was a brilliant professor. He was also offered scholarships in the countries of the Soviet Union, but he refused. In 1958, he decided to enter the seminary. It was a secret seminary, since persecution had already begun," he said.
Fr. Simoni said that he, too, studied to be a priest, but he was not ordained "in order to avoid problems."
Though he was not a priest yet, he too suffered persecution from the regime. In 1967, he was arrested after police found sacred objects, books from the archbishop's house and a book of poems he had written against the regime were found at his home.
"I had a house with a big garden, and I was asked to hide in my garden chalices and other sacred objects and books," he said.
He agreed to hide the objects. He excavated a big hole in the garden and planted flowers on it in order to hide everything. However, someone saw him. He was reported to the authorities, who sent police to his house to search.
"They searched in my house and then outside in the garden for eight days. They also brought a metal detector, in order to find a chalice," the priest recounted.
Fr. Simoni was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Now, decades later, Fr. Gjergj attended the Sept. 21 Mass with Pope Francis. He carried with him the book of poetry he had written and the book his brother, the late Bishop Zen Simoni, wrote about the Christian persecutions in Albania.
"During the 1991 synod of bishops, my brother reported about what happened in Albania to bishops from all over the world," Fr. Simoni said.