TIRANA, Albania – When Pope Francis visited Albania in 2014, he was brought to tears by a priest's description of the two decades of imprisonment, torture and forced labor he suffered under Albania's brutal communist rulers for refusing to renounce his Catholic faith.
On Sunday, Francis honored the Rev. Ernest Troshani Simoni's witness by naming him to the College of Cardinals.
Troshani, who turns 88 later this month and uses his Troshani birthplace as one of his names, was one of 17 new cardinals named by Francis who will be formally elevated at a Vatican ceremony Nov. 19. He is among four cardinals over age 80 who can't vote in a conclave to elect a new pope but were named to the club because of their service to the church.
For Albania's tiny Catholic Church, the nomination was a deeply symbolic gesture acknowledging the suffering of Catholic clergy during the reign of Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who banned religion in 1967.
"That is an homage to a cleric symbolizing all Albania's suffering clergy," said the Rev. Gjergj Meta, a church spokesman.
Troshani recounted his life story to Francis during the pope's Sept. 21, 2014 one-day visit to Tirana, a visit meant to highlight the interfaith harmony that exists among the majority Muslim nation of 3.2 million. It was the end of the day and Francis was meeting with priests and seminarians at the Tirana cathedral.
Troshani recalled his arrest, after celebrating Christmas Mass on Dec. 24, 1963 and being placed in isolation. He told of being condemned to death, but the sanction was commuted to 25 years of forced labor.
During his incarceration, he became the spiritual guide to many other prisoners, who then came to his defense when he was again sentenced to death in 1973 after a revolt. He was spared because of their testimony.
Troshani was freed in 1981 but had to continue preaching clandestinely until the communist regime fell in 1990.
As Troshani recounted his ordeal, Francis — who was reading along an Italian translation of his remarks — became visibly moved, at one point tearing up. When he finished, Troshani knelt before the pope. They embraced for nearly a minute to the applause of the priests and nuns in the audience.
"Today I touched martyrs," Francis said of the experience.
Troshani will be elevated to cardinal two weeks after the Vatican honors 38 of his confreres who were persecuted or executed under Hoxha's regime. The beatification ceremony is scheduled for Nov. 5 in Shkoder, Albania, where the first public Mass was held after the fall of communism.
The Albanian church said Troshani's elevation was a sign of Francis' "honor and gratitude" on the eve of the beatification.
"Elevating the Albanian clergy persecuted during communism is a sign of how much this clergy has given to the universal Catholic Church with their martyrs," a church statement said.