Standing on the street outside a towering cathedral in northern Albania one summer Saturday in 2008, I watched a narrow, nimble priest approaching passersby, his startlingly white hair reminiscent of Pope Benedict XVI.
Soon, he detached a woman with a young son from the crowd and walked with them through the giant door of St. Stefan’s Cathedral — used as a sports arena with a basketball court between 1967 and 1990 — in Shkoder, a county of some 215,000 people, where most Albanian Catholics live.
Catholics represent a little over 10% of the majority-Muslim nation.
Later, inside, I noticed the priest in an old wooden confessional, giving the sacrament of reconciliation to the family he met outside.
“That’s Father Ernest Simoni, an extraordinarily holy priest who suffered in communist labor camps for 28 years,” whispered Father Martin Thompson, a British priest who guided me around the area’s vibrant Catholic community.
Meeting a Martyr
Father Thompson introduced me to Father Simoni, then age 79, well-known and beloved, especially for his devotion to bring post-communist Catholics back to reconciliation — as I saw him do — encouraging old and young to return to the sacrament.
“God’s will was for me to serve other prisoners,” he replied when I asked how he survived the grueling persecution of Albania’s atheistic state.
His humility and authority immediately brought to mind St. Teresa of Calcutta, Albania’s most revered Catholic model.
Father Simoni will be elevated to the College of Cardinals Saturday.
Pope Francis met the elderly priest during his one-day visit to Albania in September 2014, when Father Simoni and Sister Maria Kaleta, a Stigmatine nun, gave public witness to their triumph, through Christ, over torture.
Visibly moved by the testimony, the Holy Father responded, “Today we touched martyrs.”
Atheism’s War on Religion
Pope Francis immediately made a connection between the two survivors he met and Albania’s many martyrs for faith as he spoke at Tirana’s St. Paul’s Church to an audience of clergy and religious sisters and brothers:
“I did not know that your people had suffered so much,” the Holy Father said. “Today, on the road from the airport to the square, [I saw] all the pictures of the martyrs. One can see that this people still remembers those who have suffered so much: a nation of martyrs.”
What Pope Francis saw in Tirana were banners depicting Catholic Albanians murdered by the regime of Ernst Hoxha, who persecuted religion as soon as the communists took power.
Hoxha outlawed religion in 1967 and declared Albania an atheist state, imitating China’s Cultural Revolution. He closed or destroyed all churches and mosques. He shut Albania off from the rest of the world.
Pope Paul VI worried in 1972 that the Catholic Church in Albania might not survive communism.
The pontiff wrote that it “seems relegated not only to the peace of silent suffering, but to the peace of death. With the shepherds stricken and the flocks dispersed, one cannot see what human hope remains there for the Church.”
But the dedication of servants such as Father Simoni, who completed seminary studies underground and then maintained the sacraments secretly in prisons, on chain gangs, in private homes and on makeshift altars, kept the Catholic Church alive.
A disturbing historical revelation that emerged with the opening of various national archives regarding World War II and the immediate postwar period is the implication of Western governments in the consolidation of communist power.
As Stephen Dorril reveals in M16: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (Free Press, 2002), Ernst Hoxha and the Communist Party of Albania (CPA) got financial assistance and weapons from the British government, whose goal was to use “partisan” fighters against the Germans who occupied Albania.
A similar case has been made regarding Josip Broz Tito and his communist movement in Yugoslavia, who gained Allied support at the same time nationalist elements, including Orthodox and Catholics, were desperate for Western support against both fascism and communism.
On Nov. 5, the Catholic Church beatified 38 Albanians, 35 members of the clergy and three laypeople, who died between 1945 and 1974 for their faith.
These include one woman, Maria Tuci, age 22, a Franciscan novice who was stripped naked and stuffed in a sack with a wild cat, provoked to attack her. Tuci died in Shkoder’s city hospital of infections related to this inhuman brutality.
Sociopathic forms of torture and murder were used against the martyrs: Two Albanian priests were drowned when guards held their heads in a latrine. Another suffocated when his larynx was pulled out of his throat.
A Byzantine-rite Catholic priest was buried alive in a swamp.
The dictatorship tried to persuade bishops and priests to denounce the Vatican and create a national Church controlled by the state. Not one accepted, so about 170 clerics were imprisoned; many were locked up in a Franciscan monastery used as a prison.
Albania’s apostolic delegate, Bishop Frano Gjini said, “I will never separate my flock from the Holy See.” So, in 1948, he was shot.
Two German missionary priests were also shot dead. An Albanian was tortured by being stabbed with screwdrivers and then shot.
Despite the conversion of churches into barns, courts, movie theaters, sports halls, stables and warehouses, believers found unusual — and unusually moving — ways to preserve their faith.
For example, according to Father Thompson, who served in Shkoder from 2006 to 2013, Catholics told him about visiting Shkoder’s Atheism Museum on Sundays. The museum, established in the 1960s by the Communist Party, housed many treasured statutes of saints, ripped from church pedestals.
“People prayed secretly before the saints in a museum dedicated to the eradication of religion,” recounted Father Thompson, who brought me to see these saints being restored to their rightful places back in church.
Now in Athens serving Catholic Albanian immigrants, Father Thompson told the Register by telephone he is thrilled that Father Simoni will become “a holy cardinal.”
“His example is one of great faithfulness and forgiveness. He forgave all the people who tortured him,” said the priest.
“I was often told of his great reputation for sanctity,” added Father Thompson. “Toward the end of the dictatorship, some communists would ask him to come bless the sick or perform an exorcism. He was always regarded as a holy man.”
Father Leonardo Falco is rector of Shkoder’s Our Lady of Good Counsel Seminary, attended by 20 seminarians and 25 other students. It was founded in 1992.
He talked to the Register by telephone in October, about the Catholic community’s response to news about Father Simoni’s impending elevation as cardinal and the beatification of the Albanian martyrs.
“This was so unexpected for us and has caused great emotion, because, by perceiving the suffering of Father Simoni, Pope Francis has honored the experience of all Albanians,” Father Falco said.
He added, “It is an especially beautiful moment for our Church, coming before the beatification.”
“The 38 martyrs come from every part of the Church — bishops, priests, seminarians, a nun, laypeople. Such a representation means the martyrdom of a whole people or nation,” observed Father Falco.
“The fidelity of these martyrs — think of this, when one priest was told to deny Christ, he shouted, ‘Long live Christ the King,’” so he was killed and his body left for dogs — shows the integrity of the Church,” said Father Falco.
The rector described Father Simoni as a bridge between the persecuted Church and the revived one.
“Catholics kept the Church deep in their hearts” during the dictatorship, Father Falco said. “But without catechism, they could not really explain what the faith is.”
People who gave testimonies, witnesses from nearby former communist countries and religious people who came to Albania from other European nations helped evangelize and rebuild the Catholic Church in Albania, according to Father Falco.
Since 1990, Father Simoni has helped revive many churches in Shkoder County and cared for a village parish, as well.
“He has a deep zeal and love for people and for God,” concluded Father Falco, who mentioned that Father Simoni met Mother Teresa on one of her three visits to Albania.
A Contemporary Community
Pope Francis celebrated Albania as a healthy nation where three major religious communities, Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox, seek to live in peace. Over the last 25 years, indigenous forms of worship and practice have emerged within the Catholic Church.
The country’s first religious community founded by an Albanian priest, Temple of God (Tempulli i Zotit), began Dec. 8, 1996.
Sister Emanuela described the community to the Register as “a charismatic movement, which is the fruit of prayer and spirituality, with a charism of evangelization.”
Father Prelë Gjurashaj, a Franciscan priest of Albanian origin, serving in neighboring Montenegro, founded the community 20 years ago.
Temple of God is especially engaged in pro-life activity, catechism and outreach to youth.
It has 35 male and female members: Five are ordained priests, and four others are studying for priesthood. A lay order of 18 people “who closely support and collaborate with us” is also considered part of Temple of God, according to Sister Emanuela.
Four members — two men and two women — come from Detroit, Michigan, while three are from Dubrovnik, Croatia. The other 27 are Albanians.
Father Thompson confirms that Temple of God is a devote community of young Catholics. He explained Father Gjurashaj gathered the group together when he served as apostolic administrator of northern Albania.
“They are missionaries, really, and very good people. They go out into the parishes and serve the people,” said Father Thompson — a sign that Albanian Catholics recovered faith and have made it their own.
A Catholic journalist covering regional affairs in Tirana, however, warns the Catholic Church not to become complacent.
“We see new threats clouding Albania’s future from two sides: radical Islam and the secular West,” said the local columnist, who preferred not to be named.
“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inaugurated the largest mosque in the Balkans in this city last year for 30 million euro. At the same time, Parliament passed legislation, pushed by the European Union, for same-sex marriage, against the opinions of all churches,” he continued.
“A small country like Albania especially needs a brave Catholic Church, which proved its might in surviving communism.”
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning international correspondent
and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine and the Washington Examiner.