Pope Francis Weeps As He Honors Albania’s Martyrs
by Gerard O’Connell
I have been on many papal trips to foreign countries over the past thirty years and have experienced some profoundly moving and faith-filled moments on several of them but I had never before seen a Pope so overcome with emotion that he wept. But that is what I witnessed on Sunday evening, September 21, in the cathedral of Tirana, Albania.
It all happened when Don Ernest Simoni, an 84 year old Franciscan priest from Albania told the story of his personal martyrdom under the brutal communist regime of Enver Hoxha. He told it in the presence of Pope Francis and a church packed with cardinals, bishops, priests, women and men religious, seminarians and members of lay Catholic movements.
Reading from a prepared text and speaking without any emotion, the elderly grey haired priest told how he was arrested on 24 December 1963, immediately after celebrating the mass of the vigil of Christmas, and how he spent the next 27 years in prison, during which he experienced all kind of suffering and torture.
He recalled that he was interrogated some months after his arrest and an officer told him, “You will be hanged as an enemy because you have told the people that we will all die for Christ if necessary.” They tortured him because they wanted him to speak out against the Church and the hierarchy, “but I would not do so,” he said with great humility. He recalled how they tied his wrists so tightly with irons that his heart stopped beating and he nearly died, “but the Lord wanted me to continue living.” They condemned him to death but the sentence was never carried out.
There was total silence in the church as he continued to recount the heroic story of his personal martyrdom, until the day he finally gained his freedom.
Don Ernest finished speaking and then turning to the Pope told him, “I pray through the Most Holy Mother of Christ that the Lord will give you life, health and strength in guiding the great flock that is the Church of Christ.”
He then went towards the Pope to kiss his hand, but as Francis got up to embrace him the old priest went down on one knee before him. Francis pulled him up, kissed his hand and embraced him for a long time, and then put his head against his and wept. The Pope turned to the altar, took off his glasses and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief.
Then, as scheduled, a second witness to the faith came forward: an 85 year old nun, Sr. Marije Kaleta, of the Stigmatine Order. She too told the story of her life and sufferings in that same era under the communists, and with the same detachment as the priest. When she finished speaking the Pope got up and embraced her too and blessed her.
Pope Francis had intended to deliver a talk from a prepared text, but having heard the life-histories of these two modern-day martyrs he decided to put is aside. Instead, he spoke off the cuff for some minutes, offering a spiritual reflection on what he had heard from these two heroic followers of Christ, and told his audience, “God is merciful and gives us consolation.”
Three hours later on the flight back to Rome, when a reporter asked what he had felt as he listened to those extraordinary testimonies, Pope Francis admitted that he had totally unprepared for all this, he had not expected it. “We were all deeply moved,” he said in a voice that still conveyed emotion.
He revealed that he was particularly touched as he listened to the old priest speaking of his own martyrdom in such a humble, detached way as if all that had happened to someone else and not to him.
The Jesuit Pope went onto reveal that before going to Tirana he had spent two months studying the history of the persecution in Albania (under the communists), “but I had not realized that this people had suffered so, so much. It was a surprise for me,” he confessed.
He recalled that when he drove from the airport to the city center that morning he was particularly impressed at seeing the portraits of forty of Albania’s martyrs, whose cause for beatification is now being examined, hanging along the main street of Tirana. “I saw that these people honor their martyrs,” he remarked with admiration. Then referring to the two martyrs who had given there testimonies, Francis said, “To listen to a martyr speak about his (her) own martyrdom is powerful indeed.”
Pope Francis came to Albania was to honor the martyrs, but he had not calculated on experiencing anything like this. Nor had I.
Survivors of Albania’s dictatorship give witness, move pope to tears
By Carol Glatz
Two survivors of Albania’s communist crackdown against the church brought Pope Francis to tears with their stories during a vespers service in Tirana’s cathedral Sept. 21.
“To hear a martyr talk about his own martyrdom is intense,” the pope told journalists on the papal plane back to Rome the same evening. “I think all of us there were moved, all of us.”
Banners depict Albanian martyrs, most of whom died under communism, as Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass in Mother Teresa Square in Tirana, Albania, Sept. 21. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Franciscan Father Ernest Simoni, 84, talked about his life as a priest under a militant atheist regime that targeted people of every faith — Christian and Muslim — between 1944 and 1991. Despite the risks of torture, imprisonment and execution, people held onto their beliefs as best they could, praying and passing on their traditions underground.
Father Simoni said his religious superiors were shot dead and the military drafted him in an effort to “make me disappear. I spent two years there, years that were worse than any prison.”
He managed to be ordained a priest in 1956, on the feast of Divine Mercy. But the worse was yet to come when the regime, which was set to become the first atheist nation in the world, intensified its war against religion in the 1960s.
On Christmas Eve 1963, the priest was arrested while celebrating Mass and was sentenced to death by firing squad. He was beaten, placed for three months in solitary confinement under “inhumane” conditions, then tortured because he refused to denounce the church.
He was eventually freed, but later arrested again and sent to a prison camp, where he was forced to work in a mine for 18 years and then 10 more years in sewage canals.
All the time he was imprisoned, he said, he celebrated Mass from memory in Latin, heard confessions and distributed Communion to other prisoners — all clandestinely. When the regime collapsed in 1991, he returned to ministry by serving isolated mountain villages, urging Christians caught up in a cycle of revenge to let go of their hatred and embrace God’s love.
When the priest finished his testimony, he approached the pope, who extended his arms to embrace him. But the priest dropped to his knees to kiss the pope’s ring. Standing together, the two men embraced warmly. Moved to tears, the pope removed his glasses and the men briefly rested their foreheads against each other.
Stigmatine Sister Marije Kaleta, 85, spoke next about being a novice during the regime and secretly baptizing “everyone who came to my door,” but only after making sure they weren’t spies who wanted to turn her in to authorities.
One day, while walking along a road, a mother carrying her child ran up to her, asking her to baptize the infant.
Sister Kaleta was hesitant because the woman’s husband was a communist and she worried it might be a trap. So she told the mother it wasn’t possible because she didn’t have the things necessary for baptism.
The mother appeared desperate, and even though they were in the middle of a road, she pointed to a nearby ditch saying that’s where they could get the water.
Still unsure, the sister said she had nothing with which to pour the water over the child’s head.
“But she insisted that I baptize her child. So, seeing her faith, I took off my shoe, since it was made of plastic, and I took the water from the canal with that and baptized the child,” she said.
Thanks to a number of priests who also worked clandestinely, “I had the good fortune of having the Blessed Sacrament,” which she kept hidden in bed sheets to secretly administer to people who were ill or dying.
The pope said he had had no idea how much the people of Albania had suffered for their faith, until two months earlier when he started preparing for his trip.
He said he was moved to see Tirana’s main boulevard lined with banners bearing black-and-white photographs of dozens of Catholics killed by the regime. Their cause for canonization as martyrs of the faith is being considered.
Pope Francis called Albania a land of heroes and martyrs and said that, by embracing the priest and sister, he had “touched two of them.”
The pope said Father Simoni and Sister Kaleta “performed a service for us: consoling us” by showing that God always provides the strength and hope to confront and overcome the tiniest inconveniences and the worst atrocities.