Tirana, Albania, Sep 25, 2014 / 16:12 pm
With tears in his eyes, Pope Francis gave a warm embrace to Father Ernest Troshani Simoni, 84, one of the last survivors of the terrible Communist persecution in Albania.
During his visit to Tirana, Albania, on Sept. 21, Pope Francis met with priests, religious, seminarians and members of ecclesial lay movements at the Cathedral of St. Paul, where he listened attentively to Fr. Simoni's testimony.
The priest told of how he was imprisoned in inhumane conditions because of his fidelity to the Church and to the Successor of Peter, before winning freedom from a death sentence.
He recounted that in December 1944, an atheistic Communist regime came to power in Albania and sought to eliminate the faith and the clergy with "arrests, torture and killings of priests and lay people for seven straight years, shedding the blood of the faithful, some of who shouted, 'Long live Christ the King,' as they were shot."
In 1952, Communist leaders gathered together the priests that had survived and offered them freedom if they distanced themselves from the Pope and the Vatican, which they refused to do.
Fr. Simoni said that before he was ordained, he studied with the Franciscans for 10 years, from 1938 to 1948, and when his superiors were shot by Communists, he continued his studies in secret.
"Two terrible years passed, and on April 7, 1965, I was ordained a priest, the day after Easter, and on the feast of Divine Mercy, I celebrated my first Mass," he recalled.
On Dec. 14, 1963, as he was concluding Christmas Eve Mass, four officials served him an arrest warrant and decree of execution. He was handcuffed and detained. During interrogation, they told him he would hanged as an enemy because he told the people, "We will all die for Christ if necessary."
He suffered immense torturing, but said that "the Lord wanted me to keep living."
"Divine Providence willed that my death sentence not be carried out right away. They brought another prisoner into the room, a dear friend of mine, in order to spy on me. He began to speak out against the party," Fr. Simoni recalled.
"I responded anyway 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. Those words reached the ears of the dictator who, a few days later, freed me from my death sentence," he explained.
The priest was given 28 years of forced labor instead, during which time he celebrated Mass, heard confessions and distributed Communion in secret.
Fr. Simoni was released only when the Communist regime fell and freedom of religion was recognized.
"The Lord has helped me to serve so many peoples and to reconcile many, driving out hatred and the devil from the hearts of men," he said.
"Your Holiness, with the certainty that I am expressing the intentions of those present, I pray through the intercession of the most holy Mother of Christ, that the Lord grant you life, health and strength in guiding the great flock that is the Church of Christ, Amen."
After concluding his remarks, a visibly moved Pope Francis dried the tears in his own eyes and embraced the Albanian priest.