ONLY JESUS, ALWAYS JESUS
When pope Francis Heard the story of his life, he said only one sentence: ‘You are a martyr!’. And then he started crying. It was the first time during his pontificate. Cardinal Ernest Simoni spent 28 years in prison. Only because he was a priest. This is one of the most fascinating contemporary people of the Catholic Church. He is 90 years old and is an Albanian. Krzysztof Tadej, a journalist of the Polish TV interviewed cardinal Ernest Simonin
KRZYSZTOF TADEJ: - On 24 December 1963, on the Christmas Eve, everything changed in life of Cardinal…
CARDINAL ERNEST SIMONI: - I was celebrating the Holy Mass and the church was full of people. Four men from the security service entered. They waited till the Holy Mass ended. Then they came up to me to put handcuffs on me. They showed me a decree with a verdict – death through hanging. Everything was taking place by the altar, under the eyes of people.
How did believers react?
My mum and my dad were in the church. My father was shouting: ‘What has my son done that he is being arrested? Why are you torturing him?!’. They answered: ‘He is the enemy of the people’. Everyone was crying.
What were you, Priest Cardinal, accused of?
I heard three accusations. I was accused that during my sermons I had said that the Catholics are supposed to be faithful till the end and when it is necessary, they are to be killed for Christ. Another accusation was celebrating the Holy Mass for the murdered president of the United States John F. Kennedy.
Was it forbidden?
They said that he was the enemy of the Soviet Union. Indeed I celebrated the Holy Mass in his intention, as I had heard an appeal of the Holy Father on radio to pray for the killed Catholic president of the United States. Other reservations were connected with it. I subscribed a magazine in French entitled: ‘The Soviet Union’. In included a photo of John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline. They said that I kept photos of enemies at home.
And what about the third accusation?
The fact that I am an exorcist which was perceived as a bad influence on people in Albania. They knew that I had attended a 10-day meeting of exorcists from all over the world in Rome and Vatican, where there was also a meeting with pope. I did not hide that I was an exorcist acting against satan. What was this activity based on? I gave exorcisms for those who came to me and needed it. Beside that I recommended prayer, for example, to women who could not have children. I advised them to pray the rosary three times a day, maintain chastity and faithfulness in marriage and pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercifulness of s. Faustyna Kowalska. In other cases I asked for prayers ‘Our Father’ and Litany to Holiest Heart of Jesus. I was blamed for all that.
Did Priest Cardinal expect being arrested and that the imprisonment would last many years?
I knew that something might happen. Church in Albania suffered a lot after communists began to govern. People were arrested and murdered. There were attempts to separate priests from Vatican. I knew what was happening. Before the war I joined the Franciscan college in Szkodr. Then I studied and later I was called for military service. Those two years in army were very hard. There were days when I was standing with a gun on snow, in frost for 17 hours. In 1956 I was secretly ordained a priest, and in 1963 they came to arrest me. Indeed I was arrested because of hatred which they had in hearts towards the Catholic Church.
In 1967 president of Albania Enver Hodża announced that Albania would be the first atheistic country of the world. It was when I was in prison. Before that priests had become enemies for the ones holding authority. I think that God foresaw everything. Tortures, sufferings, but, He will finally win anyway.
What was the most difficult in prison?
The beginning was difficult. In Szkodra, after being arrested, I was put into a small cell – two per two meters. Without a window. It was dirty everywhere. I was treated as an animal. Also my friend was sent to my cell. I was thinking about him so then. He used to be in the presbytery and help in the church….
How did he behave in the cell?
He used to say about communists badly – that they are atheists and criminals. He kept on adding something bad about them. I reacted calmly. I said that Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, pray for them and bless everybody. Once that ‘friend’ said: ‘You will get lost because of Jesus’, and then he asked: ‘And what? Do you want to die in this situation for Christ?’. I answered: ‘I will die for Christ. Yes, I am ready to devote my life for Him’.
Was it him who betrayed Priest Cardinal?
After many years it turned out that it had happened so. At the beginning I did not know it. I did not feel that he had been provoking me to say something bad about communists. I used to answer kindly, in a friendly way and with love of Church. ‘Jesus told us to forgive’ – I used to say. And I added: ‘Forgive everybody, without exception. Also forgive those because of whom we are suffering’.
Were you acquitted of death penalty thanks to it?
In the cell there were wiretaps installed. It turned out that the president of Albania Hodża, when sitting in his office, liked to listening to what prisoners were saying in prisons. We did not know about it. When he heard my talks about communists and forgiveness, after a few days he sent an officer to the prison with information that he had forgiven me and that I would not be sentenced to hanging. The officer said that the president had realized that I had not been saying anything bad about communists and I had not been a fierce enemy. My death penalty was changed into 25 years of imprisonment.
Was Priest Cardinal afraid of death when there still had not been the president’s interference?
I was experiencing everything in the spiritual way, close to God. I repeated words of Jesus: ‘If I was persecuted, you will be persecuted as well’ (J 15.20). I think that peace which I had, came from the Holy Spirit. It was so, when I was waiting for the verdict execution and when I found out that my colleagues had been forced to testify against me.
Did they got succumbed? Did they testify against Priest Cardinal in a false way?
Yes, they did. There were also other difficult moments. In prison I had various kinds of suffering and tortures. They wanted me to say something bad against God, Church, Vatican, pope. I did not agree. One day they put handcuffs on me, very tightly. Blood circulation stopped on my wrists. They demanded on my saying something against God or Vatican. I did not say anything. I felt that I was between life and death. I was losing strength. It was worse and worse with passing time. I was dying. It was when I accepted death. I told myself in thoughts that I would never say anything bad against God or Church. When I was nearly unconscious, my handcuffs were taken off and they started pouring icy water onto me. I came round back for life somehow.
Didn’t there appear temptation to testify what they wanted to hear? Priest Cardinal always used to say: ‘I can die but I will not renounce Christ’?
I never accepted what they wanted to gain.
Was Priest Cardinal starving in prison?
Only starvation was terrifying. It was terrible. Once in prison I weighed only 43 kilos. Skin and bones. When I was sentenced, I was not working, so I had no right to eat. They only gave me a little bread. Nothing more. I was so hungry that I was eating grass.
Yes, they threw a little grass to us, like to animals. It happened that we were vomiting from hunger in the cell. And we were eating vomits. – ... It was so. But God helped me. I survived.
Did Priest Cardinal pray a lot in prison?
I prayed every day. I prayed the Rosary and other prayers. I was patient and certain that I would receive a prize from Jesus. In the beginning I was uttering words without sounds, so that nobody would hear or would not torture me in relation to it. They thought that I was saying to myself. ‘It may be a good man, but insane’ – I heard, as they were commenting. When I was moved to a bigger cell, I was saying prayers in Latin quietly. Nobody understood them. Even prisoners thought that I got crazy.
Was Priest Cardinal praying through intercession of the saints? And are there any favourite saints among them?
All saints are good, as they are acquaintances of God. I often asked Father Pio for help. And it was so when I was performing exorcisms. However, in most cases I asked Blessed Mary the Virgin for Her intercession. No one can help but Our Lady. She is the strongest.
Did Priest Cardinal celebrate the Holy Mass secretly?
It was in another place. I was moved from that tiny cell, which we called ‘a hole’, to a bigger one, designed for a few people. The cell of five per four metres. Once even 45 prisoners were put there! We calculated that every prisoner had had 39 centimetres square. When somebody was sleeping, another person had to be standing. There were no beds, only some hay on the floor. Everywhere there was dirt and terrible bad smell. One could hardly put up with it. Later I was moved to barracks in labour camps. When it was possible, I celebrated the Holy Mass. I prepared communion wafers from tiny pieces of bread. The Holy Mass wine was made of a few drops squeezed out of grapes. I celebrated the Holy Mass by heart, in Latin. Other prisoners, muslims, were looking at me, not understanding words. But I think that they felt power of the Holy Spirit, as they were crying then.
Could anybody visit Priest Cardinal in prison, for example parents?
There were attempts of making it difficult for me every time to meet with my family, and, finally, it turned out that it was not possible at all. I was being moved to different places all the time in order to make it difficult for me to have contacts with my relatives. We were not only tortured and isolated, but we also did the hardest work. There was time when I was working in a mine, 500 metres under the ground. We were extracting out copper. And then I had a phone call, that my father had died.
It must have been an extremely difficult experience when Priest Cardinal could not participate in your father’s funeral….
At the moments of such a deep suffering I always had help from Heaven. God’s grace helped me survive those moments.
And what about your mum? Did Priest Cardinal meet with her?
Yes, I did, she lived a year longer after I was released from prison.
Cardinal said that death penalty had been changed for 25 years of imprisonment. And we know that Priest Cardinal spent even 28 years in prison…
Those 25 years were reduced to 18. At the end of that time prisoners’ rebelled. Their revolt was stifled quickly and there were attempts to find culprits. Some inmates pointed to me as a ringleader. It was when I had been sentenced to death penalty the second time. I was to be shot dead. But this time God saved me. There were policemen who knew that I had not participated in it and I was innocent. I remember that the inner affairs minister of Albania arrived. We were told to stand in rows and he started speaking. He was speaking about me that there was no problem to kill me as I was a priest. But they were not doing it only because a few prisoners had lied. Those who lied were shot dead. And my death verdict was changed into 10 years of imprisonment. All in all I had been a prisoner for 28 years.
Was there a moment in prison that Priest Cardinal thought that you would not put up with it any longer?
No, there was no such a moment. I always prayed with hope that God would help me.
Was there anybody among those holding the authority or guards who was behaving differently? In a human way?
Once one of guards wanted to hit me hard so as to kill me. But a commander forbade it to him. Those holding supreme posts and those who were less significant were saying that I was the enemy of people – the enemy in a political sense and that is why I would be killed. They added: ‘But we support you as a man, because you are good’.
Did anyone of them got converted later?
Who knows? There were many of them…When I was released from prison I saw one of them in the street. When he saw me, he moved away from me very quickly.
I forgave everybody who hurt me. Without any exception – everybody. From the first moment in prison. When I found out that somebody of them had died, I celebrated the Holy Mass for him.
Priest Cardinal was released from prison in 1981.
I was released from prison but I was still treated as ‘the enemy of people’. I was forced to work in sewage canals. I was told that I had to do it till the end of my life. In free time I went to villages and various towns. I gave confessions, baptisms and celebrated the Holy Mass secretly. Not earlier than in 1991 was there a breakthrough and I could act freely.
The fact that Priest Cardinal survived is considered as a miracle.
This is God’s grace. These are facts. I could do nothing by myself.
Francis said to Priest Cardinal ‘You are a martyr’, other priests say ‘One day he will be proclaimed a saint’. Do Priest Cardinal feel a saint now?
(laughter) When we are speaking about holiness, we are looking at Jesus. Jesus is an example and answer to everything.
What does private life of Cardinal Simon look like now? Do Priest Cardinal read books, watch football matches?
My life…now I am often invited to various sanctuaries, churches. I go there to give a testimony. In Europe, in Asia, often in various towns of Italy. But it is getting more and more difficult, as I am 90 years old! Beside that my every day is a prayer. I celebrate the Holy Mass and later I pray. I do not watch TV. I watch only prayers of pope Francis broadcast on TV. I turn on the radio when there is Rosary prayer broadcast. I want to be close to God. My life is a prayer. Nothing more.
Now, at this age, aren’t Priest Cardinal afraid of death?
I am calm. Somebody who loves Jesus, does not die. St. Paul said: ‘None of us live do ourselves, and none of us die for ourselves, as if we live, we live for Lord; whereas if we die, we die for Lord. Romans 14, 7-8). We should remember that life does not end at the moment of death, but it changes. If you believe, death is only transition into eternal life.
What are dreams of Priest Cardinal?
To bring all souls closer to God, convert atheists. I heard that people of all over the world come to Priest Cardinal to ask for a prayer, for example, for healing. And there is often a miracle, that is, healing at once, permanently and inexplicable from the scientific point of view. God does miracles. I only pray for it.
Can Priest Cardinal tell us about particular events?
When I went to New York, I met a couple who had not been able to have children for 16 years. I prayed in their intention. A lot of months passed and when we met again they told me that thanks to that prayer they had a child. A few months ago a parish priest in one of parishes in Florence asked me to visit a 6-year-old child in hospital. The child was suffering from brain cancer. I went there and prayed. After four days somebody from the child’s family phoned me to say that the child had been healed! Doctors said that an unknown hand stopped the brain cancer. There are a lot of such events. Jesus, who is for everybody, acts so. It is not me – only Jesus, always Jesus.
What message would Priest Cardinal like to give to Readers of ‘Niedziela’ and all Poles?
I am going to pray for Poland and Poles with all my heart. And what my message is? For priests – it is necessary to be a priest 24 hours, not only in a particular time. One is a priest for others all the time. Priests are supposed to be the light for people. The light of Jesus. These are them who know what they are supposed to do and say what Jesus says. A priest devotes his own life to God. But in order to follow Jesus one must carry his cross. And it is necessary to follow Him till the end.
And I have a message to Readers of ‘Niedziela’ and all Poles – pray. Every day. Pray, saying the Rosary prayer and other prayers. What does our Lord expect from us? Not only to follow Him. We are to get sanctified. Reject a sin, ‘get washed’, aim at holiness. Love Jesus. Jesus does everything for those who love Him. Jesus is alive. Jesus loves. Jesus is waiting. He got resurrected. He got really resurrected!
The interview with cardinal Ernest Simonin was conducted by Krzysztof Tadej
Translation: Agnieszka Gałązka
Translated by Aneta Amrozik
Niedziela 9/2018 (4 III 2018)