On February 5, 1986, the pastor of the parish of Rudamina, one of the founders of the CaCDBR (Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights), Father Juozapas Zdebskis, was killed in an automobile collision.
On February 10, the Lithuanian State Department of Motor Vehicles reported on the television program Roads, Cars and People [Keliai, Mašinos, žmonės) that on the road between Varėna and Eišiškės, at the Valkininkai intersection, a Zhiguli , belonging to J. Zdebskis and driven by A. Sabaliauskas, crossed the center lane and collided with a milk truck. In the collision, three passengers in the Zhiguli died, and a fourth, R. Žemaitis, was injured. The cause of the collision was being invest i gated.
TASS, informing the world abroad, gave a different version of the collision: Zdebskis' Zhiguli, driven by Sabaliauskas, was passing an automobile, and crossing the center line, collided with a milk truck. At the time of the collision, Zdebskis, the driver Algis Sabaliauskas, and a woman passenger whose name was not given out, were fatally injured; Žemaitis was hospitalized. The driver of the milk truck, slightly injured, was taken to the hospital.
In neither report was the truck driver's name mentioned. TASS gave no information concerning the driver or possible passengers in the automobile which Zdebskis' Zhiguli was passing. They did not indicate a license number of the automobile, even though this automobile could have been the cause of the accident, and the driver a witness to the incident.
The shoving of Father Bronius Laurinavičius under the wheels of a truck, the sadistic murders of Fathers Leonas Šapoka and Mažeika, the liquidation of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group, the efforts to destroy the Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights at any cost and the constant attacks of the KGB on Father Zdebskis, allow us to form the supposition that this collision was not accidental, but a carefully planned and executed act of violence; all the more because various obstacles were posed to claiming the remains of Father Zdebskis, as well as his personal effects.
After the collision, Zdebskis' Zhiguli was towed to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Šalčininkai and searched.
On the day of his death, the telephone of the rectory in Rudamina was disconnected and friends learned of the collision only a day later. The KGB kept the whole funeral under special surveillance. The young men taking care of the funeral arrangements were brazenly followed by KGB automobiles. Even after they returned home from the funeral, the KGB did not let them out of their sight for a long time; wherever they went from morning to night, KGB agents followed them.
The authorities wanted to forbid the burial of the remains in the churchyard, but the grave had already been dug and there was nothing they could do.
Žemaitis, who survived the collision (all the passengers in the car with the priest were workers on the renovation of the church of Rudamina), while in the hospital told friends of the deceased about the collision, occasionally contradicting himself. He said on one hand that "It was our fault," and on the other that, "I don't remember anything." Later, they would not allow people who went to visit Žemaitis into the ward. "Those are our orders," the doctors and medical personel said to justify their act ions.
After he had left the hospital, Žemaitis wrote in the Prienai Rayon newspaper a panegyric to the Soviet friendship of nations and his gratitude for the medical treatment he had received.
At 12:00 noon on February 10, 1986, Their Excellencies Vincentas Sladkevičius and Juozas Preikšas arrived at the church in Rudamina to accompany the remains of Father Zdebskis on the last journey.
Participating in the solemn services were about 100 priests and countless throngs of faithful, the greater portion of which consisted of youth. During the funeral, Father Jonas Zubrus urged everyone to perform their obligations regardless of all difficulties; Father Juozas Užupis talked about the life of the deceased and Father Donatas Valiukonis spoke about current events: problems of believers' rights.
At the grave, a few words were uttered by the Dean of Lazdijai, Father Vincas Jalinskas:
" ...My dear friends, I am very grateful to Your Excellencies, to my brother priests and to the faithful. I should like to say a few words, especially to you, my brother priests... As the executor of Father Juozas' will, and as dean, I examined his desk drawers and found them... full of little stones from the fields of Lithuania. Surprised, I knelt by the desk. Frankly, I thought then and I think now that we ought to bring every young priest to see and rejoice. How much 'gold and possessions' a real priest has! I understood what the true weight of the priesthood means --he did not need worldly possessions.
"We kept a vigil beside your casket, Father Juozas, and distributed Holy Communion day and night. The altar was adorned not with flowers, but with Iiving people, in adoration. At your bier, Father, youth kept constant vigil. I asked one frozen youngster praying In the unheated church, 'What did the deceased give you? Perhaps he bought you an automobile?'
"Sighing with tears in his eyes, he said, 'He gave me God!' My Lord, he gave you God!...
"And so I would like to say to every one of you priests 'Brothers, what we sow. we shall reap'..."
A representative of the youth addressed the assembled participants at the funeral. "I should like to say a few words in the name of the young people. You don't have to thank us for coming! For us. this was taken for granted. We could not but come to Father Juozas' funeral. He raised us here present from the time we were schoolchildren. He taught us to enjoy ourselves in a wholesome Christian way. He taught us to sing Lithuanian songs, he attended our holidays and our song and dance groups. He shared our sufferings when we were summoned for interrogation on account of Christ, on account of Lithuania. He was an energetic supporter of the Friends of the Eucharist movement. We would not be standing here. We would not have assembled, we would not have learned to love the beauty of strict purity and abstinence or fidelity to the truth if we had not met Father Juozas on the path of life.
"Not by his own weak human power, but by the power of the Blessed Sacrament, he drew us to God and to the ideals of homeland.
"Father Juozas, in our association, you often emphasized the idea that everything God allows us to come into our lives He allows out of His great love for us, that even from the greatest evil, He knows how to extract maximum good.
"We all gathered here young and old we all feel in our hearts a deep wound. 11 would be difficult for us to understand that tide of hopelessness rising in our breast if we did not recall your words often repeated to us that a believing nation is guaranteed survival as long as it is suffering. And when a believing nation stops suffering, death is approaching. Looking at your casket in this way, we can understand and bear with this sense of loss. Dear Father Juozapas, when we look at your final resting place, this hillock in the Land of Mary which you loved so much, we are reminded of the recently published book of the Lithuanian poet Kazys BradQnas, Notes to the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania (Prierašai prie 1KB Kronikos). With your confrere Father Bronius Laurinavičius and other martyrs of the Lithuanian nation in mind, the poet writes:
"You who were pushed beneath the wheels,
You who were killed in the dark of night.
You who disappeared in the taiga, although unconquered —
Pray for us.
It is a bloody seal on an unproclaimed bull
By-passing heaven, you come home.
On the altar of earth lie the bones of saints
Pray for us.'"
No less a throng of people gathered in the church of Rudamina commemorating the thirtieth day after Father Zdebskis' death. The Associate Pastor of the parish of Alytus, Father Antanas Gražulis, spoke fervently to the assembled faithful:
"Father Zdebskis was a great defender of the Truth, of Love... But was it easy for him? No! He had the same human nature as we. Father Juozas once told me, 'You don't know how difficult it is... one would like to come to terms with life. I carry within me a great dose of fear, but when I pray fervently and make a meditation on death, I see where I must take my stand, in whose name I must speak, and then I understand that I am obliged to walk in the footsteps of Christ. And more than once, the desire has arisen to take vengeance on those doing wrong, but, 0 God, my knees which never buckled from fatigue, in this case brought me kneeling beneath the cross of Christ, so that joining my suffering with the suffering of the Savior. I could once again travel along the road assigned to me, I could, at peace and firm, stride along the road assigned to me.'
"Praying for Father Juozas, plumbing his life, each one of us leaving the church is obliged to make some specific resolutions. We all remember well the sermons he gave. May those thoughts, his saintly example and life, inspire us to self-sacrifice. Standing at the grave of Father Juozas, we understand that our nation needs not hypocrites or cowards, but saintly sons and daughters. We must learn from Father Juozas -- in difficulties, to embrace the Savior and to ask His help. We must learn, like him, to offer our daily burden to God as atonement for our own sins and those of others. We must learn to stand courageously in difficulty and danger under the cross of Christ. Let us think about it, plunge deeper, and walk the way of sacrifice and self-denial.
"The earthly journey of Father Juozapas Zdebskis has ended. May his blood spilled in the collision be, like the refreshing dew in a fallow field, for the good of the Church of Lithuania and the faithful."
"God let me bear everything that is burdensome like You on the cross, as a just penalty for the denial of Your love, for our sins and the sins of all." (Father Juozas Zdebskis)
Those words so suddenly and unexpectedly Became incarnate in painful reality;
- Only yesterday you offered the sacrifice to the Lord;
And here we are today kneeling at your grave.
In order not to perish in meaninglessness,
In the world man must
Not only a spectator be.
His to go and tame the earth.
And soak his bread in drops of perspiration,
That victory and joy
And every single failure and pain
He might accept as a gift.
- Such is the pronouncement of the Most High!
To go where, sunken in despair.
Lost at some complicated cross road.
Your earthly brother calls for help.
And you hurried to where help was needed.
Where danger threatened lonely sheep,
That like the Bonus Pastor You might join
Them all wi th binding ties.
- Perhaps somewhere a soldier's bottomless fear
Can be made light of by a military order?
Perhaps some exiles' days grow long?
Perhaps to touch your pain
With one's own love? ...
And so from north to southernmost lands
With protecting hand and open heart
You offered yourself as a sacrifice,
For in your heart with sacred resolve you felt:
"Tu es sacerdos in aeternum."
And yet across your path more than once
Appeared the gateway to eternity,
And the shade of unexpected death
Would pass you by.
And yet you always repeated to all:
- The plans of the Most High are not the plans of men!
It was not you the great moment was seeking,
In your sacrificial chalice was lacking but one drop,
And on the final page it is not written:
Your will be done! I am ready, Lord!
Like a lightening flash the final moment
Opened to sorrow all our hearts.
And like a constant prayer we repeat to ourselves
- God only knows whether on earth
on in heaven you are more needed?
So we fervently pray the Lord on our knees,
That in eternity's light you would be happy.
That having felt again your help.
Young and old would be blessed!
Father Juozas Zdebskis was born in 1929, in the parish of Mindaugai, in the District of Marijampolė. There were three children in the family. A sister died as a pre-schooler and two children grew to maturity: a son, Juozapas and a daughter, Marija. Juozas attended the elementary school in Kalvarija. In 1948, having completed his intermediate education, he entered the seminary in Kaunas. Here he spent five years of studies. On September 21, 1952, on the Feast of Saint Matthew, Bishop Kazimieras Paltarokas conferred priestly orders on Juozapas Zdebskis.
His first parish was Šiluva. Later, he worked in Raseiniai and at the Jgula church in Kaunas (currently closed by the atheists and converted into a picture gallery). While in Kaunas, he pursued higher studies in Theology. He served as pastor in šiūpiliai, associate pastor in šakiai, and pastor in Kapčiamiestis and Gudeliai where, for catechizing children, he was sentenced to a year in prison.
Prison did not break the priest's spirit: he actively worked for the good of the Church. Seeing the sad future facing the Catholic Church in Lithuania on account of the drastic limitations imposed on the numbers of
Father Juozas Zdebskis (second right), with other charter members of the Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights (from left), Fathers Vincas Velavičius, Alfonsas Svarinskas, Sigitas Tamkevičius and Jonas Kauneckas.
those allowed to enter the seminary (at that time, only five candidates were being accepted even though approximately twenty priests a year were dying), together with Father Sigitas Tamkevičius, he wrote a petition in which he demanded that more seminarians be allowed to be received into the Kaunas Seminary.
For this activity, the Soviet government took away from Father Zdebskis and Father Tamkevičius their registration certificates and the right to function officially as priests.
Both priests were obliged to work as laborers in land reclamation for a year. Possessed of inexhaustable energy and self-sacrifice, Father Zdebskis continued, in the time he was free from physical labor, the work of the apostolate he had begun.
At this time, his activités embraced almost all Lithuania. The Soviet government, seeing that the punishment had not produced the necessary results, again allowed him to work as a priest in a parish.
Working in Prienai, he was one of the first in Lithuania to assemble children and youth, allow them to serve at Mass, direct closed youth retreats and to be a zealous helper to the Friends of the Eucharist. In Prienai, he was arrested a second time for catechizing children and sentenced to a year in camp. Also sentenced at that time for catechizing children were Fathers Antanas Šeškevičius and Prosperas Bubnys. (Reported In Chronicle of Catholic Church in Lithuania, No. 1 Trans. Note)
After returning from prison, he served as pastor of Šlavantai. The authorities thought that a priest working in such an out-of-the-way parish would have no opportunity for broader activities. Father Zdebskis, however, would not stop: In the active struggle for the revival of the Catholic Faith in Lithuania and for the defense of basic human rights, he tried to involve as many priests and laity as possible.
In 1978, Father Zdebskis actively participated in the creation of the Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights and became a member of that committee.
When most priests sat at their studies and books, when in the evenings families gathered quietly around the dinner table, Father Zdebskis tirelessly travelled roads known to him alone. He seemed never to tire and never to stop... If he ran out of time to visit a sick person with the sacraments during the day, he would go at night. If because of bad road conditions he was unable to drive, he would go on foot... Often Father Zdebskis would travel hundreds and thousands of kilometers to be able to visit and provide with the sacraments young men serving in the Soviet Army or people suffering on a sick-bed in some out-of-the-way village, often elderly people neglected by their own relatives.
As a priest, he used to reach exiles in the depths of Russia. He used to bring the light of Faith to the faithful of Tadzhik, Armenia, the Volga Basin and other faithful who, because of the oppression of the Soviet government had been left with churches and without priests. During almost all the trials of prisoners of conscience, he could be seen at the courtroom entrance.
Unable to break the priest's spirit by trials, warnings and threats, the Soviet government took measures of terror against Father Zdebskis: Under suspicious circumstances, and by unknown methods, he was burned (some parts of his body suffered third-degree burns). Allegedly because he was driving after drinking (Father Zdebskis was a strict abstainer), his drivers' license was revoked. On several occasions, accidents were set up. A long series of raids and interrogations followed.
Father Zdebskis ministered to the parish of Šlavantai for eleven years. Lately he had been assigned as pastor of the parish of Rudamina, where he worked until his tragic death.
This year, Father Zdebskis would have celebrated his thirty-fifth anniversary in the priesthood, but God knows better what we need.
The death of Father Zdebskis deepky shocked the whole of believing Lithuania. The loss of every priest is a wound to Lithuania, but the loss of Father Zdebskis is particularly painful.
You will yet return...
... I ike a sword-blow the unexpected news
reached the heart on a sword's-point of pain...
I do not wish to believe my ears!
And how are we here...
It's not fitting for you to join your hands in the casket!
But you have not died:
your lightening suddenly flashed,
For slowly to extinguish you had not time.
(Who can say why, -
or from love-
Your heart broke?)
Is it not all the same?-
For no one understood
your "eccentricities" ever,
And You -like a guilty child-
shamefaced I y defend yourself:
"But it is out of love for my brethren
that I exceed all moderation..."
You never knew "I cannot",
the easy ways
or ease you did not seek.
"That's how it must be!)-
The price -unimportant!
You begrudged not freedom or...
life itself! (.. .Who knows,
what you bought for it?
you offered this dreadful fate?...)
Is it not because - You alone - oft
held held the keys
to firmly-fastened hearts,
And could speak to them of love
I ike no one else...
And by your words...
Yes, by your words,
for you uttered them not just with your lips,
But with the fire of love and sacrifice.
You knew how to be Samaritan to all,
for after all, you were a priest!
that's why streams of healing balsam
from your lips and heart
ran into the depths of plundered hearts...!
High -like a hawk- you soared, And invited us
to rise to Love's Sun!
O how those dizzy heights tempted us!
Only... we did not always
have nerve enough
Our weak wings
against the wind to test...
Don't blame us!-
we are so weak
Rather -obtain for us
just a small spark
of sacrifice and love-
resolve and courage,
That we might not forget
in passion's clamor
the way you showed to us.
From there now teach us
"to Iive not for self",
"to suffer in innocence" without fear,
"not to refuse Love
whatever it requests",
And "next to our condemned
Beloved boldly stand"...
You will yet return-
You cannot otherwise!
For wayward sons
go and come not back...
For full are the roadsides
Of wounded paupers,
Of robbed and
"Priests" pass by and "Levites"-
AlI who know not love,
who love uncertainly
And do no longer see
in your soiled face
the marks of indelible
0, how difficult!- -
looking into your mirror,
The truth is so stern,
We must love
as Christ commanded!
For no other Gospel
Nor are there any enemies-
In all the earth!
There are - only wounded hearts,
Without light- -
We all owe it to them,
if "we have not exceeded moderation",-
At your grave I did not stand-
I did not pour earth
on your clear eyes...
Forever may that look
I did not bring a flower
budding in the frost...
They are not needed,
when your blood produces blossoms-
I did not come to bow my head - - -
But now you know,
what no one else will know - - -
And what I had not time on earth to tell you.
But even now I have not said it all.
And so today I do not say adieu,
For you will yet return-
you cannot otherwise.
that you might be the nearer...
You speak more loudly now.
And your words
seek their way into my heart
I ike a refreshing dew,
and shine clearly-
like lightening bolts,
So that no one can
any longer stifle them.
Just don't grow distant!...
Just don't grow quiet, please!
And your clear gaze
I don't wish to forget...
Let it be for me
but a beacon on the way!
on which you stopped
as though to rest the Morning of Eternity....
Blaze up and burn-
In deeds and words alive!
And bloom as the blossom
Of sacrifice and love!
That slumbering while we
await the wedding banquet
we not run out of hearts'
fragrant oil -
now perfectly loving-
You will yet return!
You cannot otherwise...
For how will we do here?
... So long
the saints' road to Lithuania,
Washed by baptismal waters and
of innocent victims! - -
Let Pain Speak
(To have been delivered at the grave of
Father Juozas Zdebskis, February 10, 1986)
Like a bolt from the blue, the news of Father Juozapas Zdebskis' death struck Lithuania... How one would have liked to believe that it was a rumor, since after all the KGB disseminated similar inventions before the trials of Fathers Sigitas Tamkevičius and Alfonsas Svarinskas. Unfortunately, details of the incident came into focus; from all quarters the sad confirmations flew and the last glimmering doubts were extinguished... On February 5, the Feast of Saint Agatha, Martyr, Father Juozas' Zhiguli had collided with a milk truck on the road between Varna and Eišiškės. The driver, Algis Sabaliauskas, Father Juozas Zdebskis sitting next to him and passenger Miss D. Šidlauskaitė were killed. A fourth passenger In the Zhiguli was injured and taken to the hospital in Šalčininkai.
We stand in the churchyard of Rudamina, at the grave which will soon embrace the earthly remains of this apostle of Jesus. The church and the little hill over which the two towers rise cannot hold all the faithful. From Klaipėda and from Ukmergė, from Šiauliai and Druskininkai, Vilnius and Kaunas, thousands of people, over a hundred priests, with Their Excellencies Bishops Juozas Preikšas and Vincentas Sladkevičius and just as many youth. The laity, men and women, young and old, mourn unabashed before the casket of the deceased.
Lord, God. what do you wish to tell our nation by this pain? Were we unworthy to have in our midst someone like Father Juozas? He bore us on his hands, and in his heart.
Nowadays, we proudly proclaim that the first Lithuanian book was the catechism; he defended our right to open the catechism, paying for it with his freedom in labor camp. He showed us a God who is near, dwelling in our midst. He gave us Jesus, present in our love for one another. When everything was frozen in the grip of overbearing brutality, terror and fear, when all of us waited like rabbits to scatter at the first sound, he would secretly gather us into small groups, he would organize meetings, open the Friends of the Eucharist rule-book, and we would hear: "With God on our side who can be against us? ...Nothing therefore can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried, or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked. ...For I am certain of this: Neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8, 31,35-39)
Oh those little rule-books primitively reproduced in carbon copies! The simple requirements of love and prayer for one another with the general intentions for the month at the end! They caused a revolution in our lives and are doing so to this day! Do we still have them? Do we keep them like a baton in the good race to be passed on to those whom Jesus wishes to draw to Himself though us? We remember that feeling of strength and unity that pleasure of risk which used to permeate our meetings and make them similar to the agapes of the first Christians. We remember those humble homes and apartments in which they transpired, at times ending with a visit from the KGB and a journey to the interrogation offices.
You, Father Juozas, taught us to trust and to depend, not on our own, but on the courage from God and to overcome Satan's deceit and his attempts to recruit us. Having deeply meditated on the Lord's words, "...insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to Me," (Matt 25,40) with priestly concern leaned over our much-abused homeland, Lithuania.
You taught us beautiful Lithuanian songs. You were for us the textbook of the unadulterated history of Lithuania. It was from your lips that many of us learned the meaning of the yellow, green and red flag, February 16 and Vytis... (The knight errant - national symbol of independent Lithuania -- Trans. Note)
Nor was it cheap politicking. Never did we see you succumbing to that hatred for our violent occupants, so difficult to avoid. By word and deed you constantly urged us to see them as our unhappy brothers, whom our practice of heroic virtue, our constant loyalty and our suffering offered to the Redeemer must save. You did not attack the external manifestations of the devil, nor did you teach us to shout, "Down with the Soviet government!" "Russians, out of Lithuania!" You went for the very essence and urged, "Down with slavery to sin!" "Freedom for Christ in Lithuania!"
Just as the Lord gives us His Body and Blood on the altar, turning it into food for us, so you, following the example of your Master, gave us your time, your rest and your health. You used to reach the poor exiles thousands of kilometers away and recruits being pushed around in a foreign army, with Confession, Mass, Communion, and refreshment from the homeland. No obstacles, no dangers, could prevent you. In your face, always glowing with the bright calm of eternity, we saw the face of Christ. Pressing to your heart in confession, in our difficulties, we felt the heart of Christ beating.
And so today, regardless of all those who have abandoned the priesthood, regardless of those who have not abandoned it but travelled abroad to defend the Afghan "peace", regardless of all this, we utter with sacred respect the word "priest", because Father Juozas, we knew you.
Today your body and soul are no longer vulnerable to the trials by the Pilates and the Caiphases, and the accusations of hypocrites; they are no longer under the jurisdiction of the "powerful of this world".
Today we can speak boldly and thank you for the work which you allowed Jesus to accomplish in you and in us: for the youth organization, for your self-sacrificing activity in the Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights, for your innovative work in the missions, for your popularization of abstinence and temperence, supported by fervent prayer and personal example.
While mourning on this day of separation, we take comfort in the idea you instilled that a relationship with good friends does not break off even when the latter go to the Lord. That idea which sums up your whole life is wonderfully well expressed in the quotation from Scripture, inscribed on your tombstone, "Love does not come to an end!" (1Cor i nth. 13,8)
We believe and we know that you, Father Juozas, having been nearest our troubles and hurts in this earthly life, together with Fathers Bronius Laurinavičius, Karolis Garuckas, Virgilijus Jaugelis, together with Danutė Burbaitė, that champion of the purity of the land of the Dzūkai (One of the ancient peoples making up the Lithuanian nation Trans. Note), will continue to love us with the love of God. And we, supported by it, resolve that the ideal of the little insignia of the Pensive Christ will not fade from our hearts. We wi11 not forget our resolutions at the end of the retreats you conducted. In our families, in our children, the seed sown for the future of our homeland by your sweeping motions will grow. And if the seminary of Kaunas did not allow a single seminarian to come to your funeral, that does not mean there were no seminarians at your casket.
We pray, and our consciences are sure, that on the Last Day, Jesus the Judge will say to those standing at His right Hand, "Come, you who my Father has blessed... For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me." (Matt 25,34-36) -- then we will stand before you. we whom you fed, gave drink to, sheltered, clothed and visited, and we will take you where you have been leading us by your whole life, and even by your tragic death. May God receive, thank and reward you!
Friends of the Eucharist