More than 50 years ago, the Rev. Ernest Simoni was thrown in jail and sentenced to death by firing squad, by a communist government bent on cracking down on the Catholic Church in Albania.
On Sunday, Pope Francis announced that he had picked Simoni, a survivor of the political violence, for the most elite circle of leaders in the church.
Simoni is on the list of 17 priests tapped to join the College of Cardinals, the highest position in the church, save the pope. Cardinals are the pope’s closest advisers, and those who are younger than 80 (unlike Simoni) pick a new pope when it comes time.
Simoni was the only one of the 17 chosen who does not currently serve as an archbishop; Francis is elevating him from his role as a Franciscan priest in the Archdiocese of Shkodrë-Pult, Scutari, in Albania.
Before tapping Simoni and the 16 archbishops, including three Americans, to become cardinals, Francis met Simoni in 2014 — and the Albanian survivor moved him to tears.
“To hear a martyr talk about his own martyrdom is intense,” Francis said to reporters when he got back on his papal plane to Rome that night, according to Catholic News Service.
Fr Ernest Simoni who was condemned to death by the communist government in Albania and whose witness moved the Pope has been named Cardinal. pic.twitter.com/tvVOrcLUgh
— Fr. Manuel Dorantes (@TweetingPriest) October 9, 2016
Catholic News Service said that Simoni became a priest in 1956, during the communist rule in Albania that was hostile to religion of any kind. Two of his superiors were fatally shot, and he was arrested in 1963 while he was celebrating the Christmas Eve Mass.
In prison, CNS said, Simoni was tortured for refusing to denounce the church, and sentenced to death by firing squad. He instead served 28 years of hard labor in mines and sewage canals. He also says he covertly continued to act as a priest, offering Masses and hearing confessions from his fellow prisoners.
Simoni, now in his 80s, returned to the public priesthood after the communist government fell in 1991.
This post has been updated.