© AFP/File / by Briseida Mema | The plane tree in the Rrmaj cemetery where it is believed that some of 38 martyrs of the catholic church have been executed during the communist regime on November 1, 2016
SHKODRA (ALBANIA) (AFP) – They were tortured to death, fatally strung up by their feet, shot or thrown into quicksand.Now, more than 30 years after their deaths, 38 Albanian Catholics killed under the isolated Communist regime of dictator Enver Hoxha are to be beatified — a step on the path to sainthood.
Vatican officials will join the Balkan country’s small Catholic community on Saturday to remember their martyrs at a cathedral mass in the northwestern city of Shkodra, whose cemetery was the scene of executions.
“Faith in Christ was our only glimmer of hope in the life of Communist hell,” said Father Ernest Simoni, who spent nearly two decades doing forced labour in prison and in the fields.
The 88-year-old clergyman will on November 19 become only the second Albanian to become a cardinal.
Initially condemned to death for celebrating a mass in memory of slain US president John F. Kennedy, he instead was forced to toil and eventually escaped the brutal repression during prisoner unrest in 1973.
Two-thirds of his sentence was spent in pyrite mines in the deserted Albanian mountains, more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Tirana.
– ‘A land of martyrs’ –
The bodies of hundreds who went missing still lie in the underground passages around the notorious Spac labour camp.
Spac labour camp
Few Albanians at the time knew about the prison complex — except that people who went there rarely returned.
“It brings to mind Dante’s Circles of Hell, a gulag built for opponents of the Communist regime,” historian Gjergj Marku told AFP.
If there was a Marxist motto that dictator Hoxha liked to repeat, it was that religion is the “opium of the people” and he tried to eradicate it from his country, officially declaring it an atheist state in 1967.
He engaged youth organisations to destroy 1,280 churches and mosques, which were sometimes transformed into sports or entertainment halls.
Seven bishops, 111 priests, 10 seminarists and eight nuns died in detention or were executed between 1945 and 1985, accused of having hidden arms to overthrow the regime, or of being spies or traitors.
“Albania was a land of martyrs,” Pope Francis told a crowd of up to 300,000 when he visited Tirana in 2014.
– ‘How is it possible?’ –
In the Shkodra cathedral museum, 82-year-old priest Gjergj Simoni — imprisoned for 10 years for writing a “Letter to Lucifer” meant for Hoxha — recently told the story of the 38 believers who will be beatified.
There was Marie Tuci, a young woman tortured to death, and priest Pjeter Cuni, who did not survive being hung up by his feet.
Another priest, Leke Sirdani, was thrown alive into a cesspool, while Josif Papamihaili was swallowed by a quicksand swamp in eastern Albania.
Two German priests are among the martyrs and one Italian, Giovanni Faustini, who was shot aged 47.
“How is it possible that a man could invent such tortures to humiliate people who refused to surrender and never betrayed their faith?” wondered Angelo Massafra, the archbishop of Shkodra.
More than 30 years after the death of Hoxha in 1985, the dictator’s dream of an atheist country has disappeared.
According to the national institute of statistics, 56.7 percent of Albania’s three million people identify as Muslims, while more than 10 percent are Catholic and almost seven percent Orthodox.
Fewer than 14 percent refuse to answer the question of their religion.
Drane Malaj, 71, wiped her eyes as she recalled her uncle, a priest whose remains were found four decades after he was shot in Shkodra, and who will be beatified this weekend.
“He has a grave and will be recognised as a martyr in the name of God,” she said.
.- 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.
Remember the Priest Who Made Francis Cry in Albania? He’s the Only Non-Bishop on the List of New Cardinals
“I am a poor priest and my only richness is Christ,” are the words that his Italian biographer, Mimmo Muolo, retains of Cardinal-designate Ernest Simoni, hero of the Gospel under the Albanian Communist regimes, who endured condemnation to death and was a slave labourer for almost 30 years.
Father Ernest Simoni is the only non-bishop on the list of 17 who will receive the red hat in November.
Tortured and imprisoned at the time of the Communist persecution, his testimony moved Pope Francis to tears during the apostolic visit to Tirana in 2014.
More than 80 years old, Cardinal Simoni will be a non-elector in case of a Conclave.
On announcing his name yesterday, Sunday, October 9, the Pope specified that he chose “a priest who rendered a clear Christian testimony.”
During Vespers in the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Tirana on November 21, 2014, in the presence of Pope Francis, Father Simoni — who will celebrate his 88th birthday on October 18 — recounted his arrest in 1963, after eight years of priesthood. Beaten and tortured because he proclaimed Christ, he spent years in prison and in forced labour until the collapse of the regime in 1990. Becoming the Spiritual Father of numerous prisoners, he celebrated Mass in Latin by heart, distributed Communion and heard confessions secretly. He wrote on the wall of his cell: “Jesus is my life.”
“Today we have touched martyrs,” said Pope Francis after his testimony and that of a woman religious: “With this simplicity, they suffered very much physically, psychically, with the anguish of uncertainty, not knowing if they would be shot or not, and they lived with this anguish. The Lord consoled them. (…) He consoles in the depth of the heart and by His strength.”
Pope Francis saw this elderly priest again during a General Audience last April: he then kissed his hands in sign of respect.
Here is what his biographer shared with Zenit.
ZENIT: Mimmo Muolo, last year you published — in Italian — a biography of the Albanian Franciscan priest that Pope Francis has just chosen to be a cardinal (“Father Ernest Simoni. From Forced Labour to the Meeting with the Pope,” Pauline Publications 2016): How did the idea come about of this book on Father Ernest Simoni?
Muolo: Paoline Libri publishing house asked me for the book, after my article on the Pope’s visit to Albania, in the course of which Father Ernest’s testimony of his experience made Pope Francis weep.
ZENIT: How did you do it?
Muolo: I met Father Ernest in Florence, where he goes often to visit Albanian faithful of the diaspora, and I stayed two days with him. He recounted his life to me <and> I wrote. That was a great grace for me!
ZENIT: What are the principal stages of his unbelievable life?
Muolo: First of all he had his vocation, in his childhood, when he “played” at celebrating Mass, then his Ordination among a thousand dangers and his first priestly ministry. Then his arrest, and his death sentence commuted to 25 years of forced labour. In the end, he served 28, first in a quarry then in the mines, and finally in the sewers of Scutari – a “martyr” according to the term used by Pope Francis.
ZENIT: Is he a model for the Jubilee of Mercy?
Muolo: Certainly. He is a model of mercy because he always forgave his persecutors.
ZENIT: What can Father Simoni’s role be as Cardinal?
Muolo: Father Simoni is a living witness of fidelity to Christ in all the situations of life, including the most extreme. And as Cardinal, he will also remind us that there is nothing more important than Jesus.
ZENIT: What are your wishes for this hero of the faith so justly named Cardinal?
Muolo: I hope he will continue to spend himself without stopping to proclaim the Gospel until the last moment of this earthly life. It is what he does at present, at 88, with different health concerns.
ZENIT: What question would you like to ask him?
Muolo: I would like to ask him if he ever imagined that one day he would become Cardinal. But I know his reply: “I am a poor priest and my only richness is Christ.” It’s what he has always said to me. And he will say it again now.
[Translation by ZENIT]
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