Pope says cardinal who survived horrific torture is a ‘living martyr’

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Albanian Cardinal Ernest Simoni leaves the stage after greeting Pope Francis at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Feb. 14, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Albanian cardinal who endured decades of imprisonment, torture and forced labor during his country’s crackdown against religion is a “living martyr” who continues to serve Christ at 95 years old, Pope Francis said.

“Today, allow me to greet in a special way a living martyr,” the pope said at the end of his general audience in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall Feb. 14, the feast of St. Valentine, who was martyred in Rome in the third century.

Thousands of visitors gathered in the audience hall applauded when the pope indicated and named Cardinal Ernest Simoni, who was seated with other special guests to the pope’s left on the stage.

The priest had been arrested while celebrating Mass on Christmas Eve 1963 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.

During the pope’s visit to Albania in 2014, the cardinal — then an 84-year-old priest — had told the pope his story of persecution, bringing the pope to tears. The pope had chosen Albania to be the first country he visited in Europe after learning how severe the religious persecution had been there from 1945 to 1991 under Albania’s militant atheist regime.

The crackdown in Albania “was perhaps the cruelest, the cruelest persecution,” the pope said at the general audience.

Pope Francis greets Albanian Cardinal Ernest Simoni at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Feb. 14, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

A grateful Christian witness

Today, the cardinal continues to be a witness like many others, he said.

“Now at 95, he continues to work for the church without being discouraged. Dear brother, I thank you for your witness,” Pope Francis said.

After giving his apostolic blessing to everyone in the hall, the pope remained standing to greet the cardinal, who clasped the pope’s hands, genuflected and kissed the pope’s hands. The two spoke animatedly for a number of minutes before the pope sat down to greet the other VIPS.

During his greetings to Italian-speaking visitors at the audience, the pope reminded people of the early Christian martyrs and how many had been executed and buried in the area of what is today the Vatican. Anytime there are excavations, he said, “they find these tombs.”

“Even today there are many martyrs all over the world, many, perhaps more than at the beginning,” he said.

More than 365 million Christians are living in places with “high” levels of persecution, according to the 2024 World Watch List by Open Doors, a non-profit organization that reports persecution against Christians. By region, 1 in 5 Christians are persecuted in Africa and 2 in 5 Christians in Asia.

Nearly 5,000 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons in 2023, it said, while 14,766 churches and Christian properties were attacked and 4,125 Christians were detained.

Carol Glatz

Carol Glatz writes for Catholic News Service.