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Pope pays tribute to “living martyr” of Communism

Pope Francis meet Cardinal Ernest Simoni

Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

I.Media - published on 02/16/24

Cardinal Simoni, who is a simple priest, was present at the papal audience on February 14. He suffered prison and forced labor under Communism in Albania.

Pope Francis paid tribute to Cardinal Ernest Simoni (present at the audience), the Albanian “living martyr” who spent 18 years of his life between prison and hard labor during the Communist era. At the end of the general audience on February 14, 2024, the Pope asked for applause for the 95-year-old, “who continues to work for the Church without becoming discouraged.” 

“Dear brother, I thank you for your testimony.” In the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, Pope Francis turned to Cardinal Ernest Simoni to pay him a heartfelt tribute. Referring to the great number of martyrs dying today for their faith in Jesus Christ, “perhaps more than in the past,” Pope Francis improvised before the crowd a heartfelt thanks for this priest, whom he had met in 2014 during his trip to Albania. 

Ernest Simoni
Cardinal Ernest Simoni

“He spent 28 years in prison [18 years, Ed.], in the prisons of Communist Albania, perhaps the cruelest persecution. And he continues to bear witness,” said the Pope to applause from the crowd. 

In 2016, moved by the journey of this priest who was about to turn 88, Pope Francis created him a cardinal — a rare decision since Ernest Simoni was not a bishop. 

Arrested after a Christmas Mass

Born into a deeply religious family, Ernest Simoni entered the Franciscan minor seminary in Troshani at the age of 10, in 1938.

In 1948, his friary was ransacked by the Communist forces of dictator Enver Hoxha, and turned into a place where prisoners were tortured. 

At the age of 20, the young Franciscan was sent by the regime to a remote mountain village, before doing two years’ military service. After continuing his studies in secret, he was ordained a priest in 1956, at age 27. In agreement with his bishop, he was incardinated into the Diocese of Scutari, while remaining a Franciscan at heart. 

On December 24, 1963, he was arrested after Christmas Mass. He was sentenced to death originally, but this sentence was then commuted to 25 years’ hard labor. This enabled him to provide spiritual direction to the prisoners, celebrate Mass in Latin from memory, and hear their confessions. “I prayed a lot, especially the Holy Rosary,” he recalls. 

On the walls of his prison, he had written: “My life is Jesus.” Sentenced to death again in 1973, he escaped execution thanks to prisoners’ testimonies on his behalf.

Released in 1981, after 18 years in prison, he was still considered an “enemy of the people” by the regime, and forced to work in the sewers of Scutari. He carried out his priestly ministry clandestinely until the fall of the Communist regime in 1990. 


“Today we have touched martyrs,” Pope Francis declared after hearing his testimony and that of a nun, during his trip to Albania in September 2014. 

At 95, Cardinal Ernest Simoni is still able to move about and celebrate the sacraments. On Tuesday evening, for example, he celebrated Mass in the chapel of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican.

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