Imprisoned for decades, Albanian cardinal visits Michigan to offer living witness to brutal martyrdom of 20th century
ROCHESTER HILLS — When a prelate is elevated to the College of Cardinals, the bright red color of his new vestments is meant to signify the cleric’s willingness to become a martyr for Christ, to “take up one’s cross” by sharing in the blood of the savior’s sufferings.
When Cardinal Ernest Troshani Simoni of Albania was elevated to the sacred college in 2016, he didn’t have to imagine what such martyrdom might be like.
The 88-year-old priest, who suffered nearly three decades of torture, imprisonment and forced labor at the hands of Albania’s 20th century communist dictatorship, was the featured speaker March 18-19 at St. Paul Albanian Parish in Rochester Hills during a special Mass and dinner honoring those who suffered under Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha’s brutal regime, which outlawed the practice of religion for all Albanians in 1967.
“If you were Albanian, you knew about it, but if you were outside of 100,000 people in the United States, they don’t know,” said Mike Kaljaj, grand knight of St. Paul Albanian’s Knights of Columbus council, Fr. Gjergj Fishta Council 10343, which helped sponsor the Mass and dinner. “Nobody talked about it, nobody understood it. It’s like you’re alone in a room full of people.”
Though the Church in Albania was never large — just 10 percent of the country’s total population, according to some estimates — it was even smaller after the persecution that lasted from 1944 until the fall of communism in 1991. Of the 300 Catholic priests alive when Hoxha came to power, just 30 survived, not to mention the thousands of lay Catholics who were executed or imprisoned for their faith.
Kaljaj said St. Paul Albanian’s pastor, Fr. Frederik Kalaj, met one of those 30, Cardinal Simoni, while in Albania for his sister’s funeral and asked whether the priest would visit Michigan to offer his testimony.
A living martyr
Cardinal Simoni might be familiar to many Catholics as the priest who, in 2014, brought Pope Francis to tears.
It was then that, during a one-day visit to Albania, the Holy Father listened intently as Fr. Simoni told of being beaten, handcuffed and locked in solitary confinement for his refusal to betray his faith.
Fr. Simoni was celebrating Mass on Christmas Eve in 1963 when he was arrested for offering a prayer for the repose of the soul of recently assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy. That was enough for the communists to charge Fr. Simoni with treason, and he was sentenced to 28 years of forced labor.
“When they arrested us, all among us they incarcerated us, and we all knew we were going to die for Christ,” Cardinal Simoni told The Michigan Catholic during an interview translated from his native Albanian. “They chose the public holiday, which was Christmas, when they arrested me because they wanted to incite fear in the congregation.”
Rather than be killed, as many of his fellow priests were, Fr. Simoni was sentenced to 28 years of forced labor.
After his imprisonment, the regime spent several years attempting to trap Fr. Simoni into betraying his bishops and fellow priests, first sending a wiretapped inmate — one of his best friends — to record his conversations, and later attempting to frame him for inciting a prison revolt.
Seeking to justify further persecution of the Church, the regime told the priest he could have his freedom if only he would testify against his bishops and fellow priests.
“They wanted me to be a traitor and testify against my Church and my fellow priests and bishops that they told me to organize the revolt,” Cardinal Simoni said. “They wanted to use this as propaganda to show that the Church was organizing as the enemies against the communists.”
He refused, and accepted the punishment instead.
Cardinal Simoni said he thanks God and the Blessed Mother every day for sparing his life, not for his sake, but to witness on behalf of those who died.
“My friends who went through this, they paid their martyrdom with their blood, and my life is a testimony to give echo to their voices,” Cardinal Simoni said. “Everything is for the glory of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to carry on.”
Imprisoned for Christ
The dinner at St. Paul was attended by local Albanians as well as members of the civic community and Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, who said he was “blessed to spend the evening with a true hero of the faith.”
Also giving his testimony was Gasper Kalaj, the cousin of Fr. Kalaj, who was imprisoned with Cardinal Simoni for nearly 10 years in the northern Albania town of Spaç.
Gasper Kalaj said prisoners would sneak in pages of the Gospel and pass them around one by one, secretly copying each page by hand.
“They would copy the whole Gospel and read it, and that became the source of our strength,” Gasper Kalaj said, with Fr. Kalaj translating. “If they caught you, they would add years in prison.”
Gasper Kalaj recalled walking with the cardinal one day during a “free hour,” quietly discussing the Gospel, when a young man ran up with a newspaper announcing the election of Pope John Paul II.
“He said, ‘Dom Ernesto, you see, the communists are now in the Vatican. Wojtyla — John Paul II — is from a communist country. So the KGB is now in the Vatican. We are owning all,’” Gasper Kalaj said. “He thought he would take the cardinal’s hope, but he didn’t understand who he was talking to. The cardinal said, ‘Nobody knows God’s plans. He’s the one who chooses popes.’ And actually John Paul II is the pope who helped bring down communism.”
Fr. Kalaj, who escaped the communist persecution to come to the United States, where he was ordained in 2000, said no one knows how they will react to persecution until the moment comes.
“Good people, when they are put in difficult situations, not everyone acts in the same way,” Fr. Kalaj said. “Praise God I will never be put in that situation, but you never know how many martyrs you have among you.”
‘Love your enemies’
During Mass the next day, children of the parish processed into the nave carrying pictures of each of the 38 blessed martyrs, followed by the cardinal. Outside in the narthex, posters listed the names and descriptions of each: One priest had his arms and legs broken before being shot in the neck. A young woman was thrown into a sack with a wild cat and beaten.
Kaljaj, the grand knight, said for Albanians born in the United States, the suffering can seem surreal.
“Literally it seemed like everything that was anti-Catholic in the world was focused on Albania. They tried to destroy the whole Church in Albania,” Kaljaj said. “Some of the stuff, if you saw it in a James Bond movie, you’d say it was unbelievable.”
Cardinal Simoni said Catholics must continue to pray for the intercession of the Virgin Mary on behalf of all those who continue to suffer persecution around the world, but added Christ set a high cost for being his follower when he himself suffered on the cross.
“Everything we went through was not as human beings, it was according to what the Lord told us: ‘In the same way they persecuted me, they will persecute you,’” Cardinal Simoni said. “This journey of my suffering was in the same way as the cross of Christ.”
Both Gasper Kalaj and Cardinal Simoni say they have forgiven those who tormented them, even as the Church in Albania continues to recover.
“Jesus told us we are to love and forgive our enemies and forgive those who harm us,” Cardinal Simoni said. “Before anything else, before any martyrs or saints, the source of all strength in difficult times is Christ himself.”