(Cardinal Vmcentas Sladkevičoius's July 12, 1988 sermon delivered at Marijampoli, celebrating the Solemnity of the Blessed Archbishop Jurgis Matulaitis.)
I have returned from a long journey. From the center of our Christianity, the Eternal City of Rome, I bring you the blessing and love of the Holy Father and for our land, the title, promotion, and honor of Cardinal.
To whom does this title, honor, and promotion belong? Not to me, my beloved, but to you, the entire Lithuanian nation. To Christian Lithuania. For her is this title of Cardinal, for her is meant this honor and distinction of Cardinal!
You are the possessors of this title and honor; I am only its bearer, carrying it in my hands and in my heart. I myself am not worthy of this noble title. You, or rather, our entire nation, by its six hundred years of Christian living, dedication, suffering, loyalty to the Holy See, its high moral life, and its beautiful Lithuanian Christian culture, has earned this honorable title, honor and distinction as Cardinal.
Now we can say that our nation is a cardinalatial nation. Saint Peter once said that you are a chosen race, a consecrated nation, a royal priesthood. If he spoke today, he would say, "You are a cardinalatial nation."
That this title of Cardinal belongs not to me but to you, that it is your property, the Holy Father himself wished to emphasize when he said:
"In your person, I greet and bless with love the Church of Lithuania and the entire Lithuanian nation. I dedicate the Catholic Church and all Lithuania to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom the Lithuanians love so much, and whom they call upon under the beautiful title of Mother of Mercy. This Marian Year, the appointment of a Lithuanian Bishop as a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, is Mary's gift for your nation. Be grateful for it, and know how to be worthy of it. May the Blessed Virgin Mary obtain for you from her Divine Son an abundance of His gifts and blessings."
When on Wednesday, in St. Peter's Square, in the sight of the Cardinals, the Bishops, and a great crowd of worshippers, Pope John Paul II placed on my finger the Cardinal's ring, my mind's eye was spontaneously presented with the scene from the Gospel in which we see Zachaeus trying to see Jesus, the Evangelist Luke writes, "He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was, but he was too short and could not sec him for the crowd; so he ran ahead and cliimbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. When Jesus reached the spot, He looked up and spoke to him: 'Zachaeus, come down! Hurry because I must stay at your house today.'"
This Gospel scene is remarkably reflected in the history of our nation. The Lithuanians, for many centuries, have desired to see Jesus. The pagan religion of the Lithuanians testifies that the Lithuanians sought God, worshipping Him in the mysteries of nature which reflect God's beauty, omnipotence and wisdom; they yearned for the true God, Him who in the words of the Apostle Paul, is "the image of the unseen God".
Alas, the Christian nations of those days not only failed to help the Lithuanians to find Jesus, but on the contrary, interfered, blocked Him off, just as that noisy crowd blocked Zachaeus.
Here is what Pope John Paul II writes about the situation in those days in his apostolic letter celebrating the six hundred-year jubilee of the Baptism of the Lithuanian nation: "Squeezed as in a vise between the East, from which the Slav peoples pressed close, and the West, from which came the powerful Teutonic Knights, your forefathers, already at the dawn of Thirteenth Century, had consolidated the structures of an autonomous state, and were tenaciously committed to defending its independence and freedom. This specific political and geographic circumstances explain why the Lithuanians for so long resisted accepting the Cross from those who came against them with the sword and threatened to reduce them to subjection." (No. 2)
Only in the Fourteenth Century, by Divine Providence, the Lithuanian nation reached the heights from which it could not only see Jesus, but also hear His voice - the Savior's Good News: "I must stay at your house today."
At the time when the Lithuanian nation received Jesus through the grace of the Sacrament of Basptism, the abundance of God's blessing filled our nation: Jesus remained in our midst, so to speak, at home. In this home, he has been living for six hundred years now, filling it with His blessings, generously distributing His gifts.
Our saints, whom we venerate, imitate and love, like Saint Casimir, like the Blessed Archbishop Jurgis Matulaitis, whose solemnity we commemorate so festively today, the countless martyrs who died for the Faith, whom we commemorate with wonder and with resolve to imitate them, the entire nation of believers, distinguished by simplicity and steadfast faith, has been clearly witnessing to everyone for six-hundred years now, that God assists our nation with His grace.
We see a new sign of this blessing in the elevation of one of her sons to the honor and duties of a Cardinal. He is, in all respects, the very least: born of poor parents, exiled for twenty-four years from his diocese, never having had contact with the bishops of other dioceses and other countries. So it is with reason that our fellow countrymen consider the appointment of a Lithuanian as Cardinal to be a recognition and promotion of the Lithuanian nation itself.
It is, at the same time, a sign of the Holy Father's special love and esteem for Lithuania. All this I witnessed when I took part in the celebration of the installation of the cardinals. Wherever we went, we were met with applause and we could hear talk; but it was not my name which was mentioned, not my person. Everywhere was heard the word, "Lituania!" - Lithuania, its land and troubles, its children's sufferings, cross, and blood poured out for the faith.
During those solemn days, our language became one of the most important, even at the Vatican. When the prayer of the faithful was read, even though there were cardinals from all over the world, it was the Lithuanian language which was included among those in which the prayers of the faithful were read. It was the second one heard, after English. This is a sign that by orders of the Holy Father, we were especially honored and exaulted. I trust that this was felt by the entire people of Lithuania, those who remained here in the land of our fathers and forefathers, and the emigres. The Lithuanian language and the heart of the Lithuanian, till now still, so to speak, began again to pulse with its beautiful national life.
I would like to read from the letter of a Lithuanian girl living abroad: "I do not know your address, but I trust that these words will reach you. I beg your pardon for daring to write to you. You do not know me. I am Lithuanian, I was born and grew up in Scotland. My father was from Ireland and my mother was Lithuanian, so Lithuania is dear to me, even though I have not seen it, and may never see it. I am glad to read in an English-language Catholic newspaper that the Holy Father has appointed a Cardinal for Lithuania. This is a great honor for Lithuania and for all Lithuanians world-wide. I am writing this little letter today congratulating you on your new duties, and I wish you God's blessing and success in your work. I offer my good wishes, together with a prayer: May God and His Mother, Mary, keep you under their holy protection. With love and prayer, a Carmelite Nun who has chosen the name Mary Joseph of the Child Jesus." During the festive days, more than one Lithuanian abroad felt his Lithuanian roots.
I have assumed the obligation of guarding, defending, and maintaining not only the Cardinal's title, but also my entire nation, its faith, and the language of our fathers and forefathers, so that we might all be worthy of the title, a cardinalatial nation.
I well understand what a great responsibility and what great difficulties await me; I see my weakness and the limits of my strength which is known to everyone, but I trust completely as David did once, not in arms, not in my own powers, but in the Lord. God is my rock and my fortress.
I am strengthened by the words of God heard in the Scripture. "My grace is enough for you, for my might shows itself best in weakness."
Together with the Apostle Paul, then, I rejoice in my weaknesses, demotions, humiliations, unplesantness, persecutions and oppression for Christ. For being weak, I am strong.
I call upon the Lord: "O God, regardless of my weakness and that of the nation, make me and our nation a sign of blessing to everyone, everywhere. I commend myself and our little Lithuania to the protection of our dear Mother Mary and the intercession of Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis."
One time in Cana of Galilee, by the intercession of our Heavenly Mother, the great miracle of change took place, which evoked the cry, "You have kept the best until now!"
There are signs of change today manifesting themselves in our midst, in our country. Today you can carry the tricolor through our streets, you can, along with our beloved hymn, Marija, Marija, sing the national anthem. These are the first signs of change; we await more of them. We trust in the Lord.
There are too few of these signs of change for us, we have been wronged too much. With regard to religion, we have lost too much, so we cannot keep silent today and say nothing.
If today in our country, Lithuania, there are so many churches closed, if our capital, Vilnius, does not have its own cathedral, if the Church of Saint Casimir has been converted into a museum of atheism to despoil it, can we Lithuanians be silent and be satisfied with just those little crumbs thrown from the banquet table? The government atheists in their brazenness have tried to claim that we ourselves wanted to close churches, and even asked that they be closed, when in reality, it was Stalin and his followers who closed the churches. This is a public shame.
Today, as we celebrate the feast of our Blessed Archbishop Jurgis Matulaitis, with special devotion and spiritual uplift, we trust in the Lord's grace and the intercession of our heavenly Mother Mary, and the intercession of Blessed Jurgis.
We trust that the miracle of change, begun in our country, will manifest itself in all its beauty and wonder, and with all the reward which God, our Creator, has promisd for loyalty to the Church and for obedience and love for the Apostolic See.
Our first obligation is to recognize the words of our Heavenly Mother, "Do all that he tells you."
Let us do all that Jesus tells us; let us carry out what He teaches us through His holy Church.
In Rome, we were not only elevated; our Lithuania was in a remarkable way, magnified. From history, we know that Lithuanian warriors reached the Black Sea, and today, with this elevation to the Cardinalate, we have reached Italy. One parish in the land of Italy has become a Lithuanian parish. By the Holy Father's appointment of me to the Cardinalate, the 18,000 soul parish of the Holy Spirit has been assigned to our country, to Lithuania. There I offered Holy Mass and preached the word of God.
To conquer the world, we don't need wars, we don't need arms, we can conquer it in a much nobler and wiser fashion by our holy Catholic Faith, our loyalty to God, and to the Church.
There, in Italy, in my new Lithuania, my new Lithuanian parish, ending my remarks, I addressed the faithful, in spirit already our people,
"I have come to you so that I might bless you, so that together with you I might pray with you for your intentions and mind; I have come from a distant land, from my beloved Lithuania. It is a small nation, it does not have freedom, it is walking the Way of the Cross, but it is alive, it has its own rich national culture and its unshakeable Catholic Faith and loyalty to the Apostolic See. My country and church, it is true, is suffering. But they have not been broken and are not losing courage or hope. On the contrary, with a lively faith, they repeat with Saint Paul, 'We are in difficulties on all sides, but never cornered; we see no answer to our problems, but never despair; we have been persecuted, but never deserted; knocked down, but never killed; always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus too may always be seen in our body.'
"Today, the whole world is mindful of Catholic Lithuania, impressed with the deep faith of Lithuania. Our faith has been tried and proven by the blood of martyrs and the countless sufferings of confessors."
I finished my remarks, expressing the hope that we would become sharers in one another's spiritual rewards. "I wish and pray the Lord that your love and faithfulness to Christ and His Church, and ours, would merge into one powerful Credo, 'I believe'. Into one joy of the faith, striving for heaven."
Lord, I believe. Make me believe more fully. Lord, you know that I and my nation are resoved to love you with our whole heart and with all our strength. Help us to love you ever more and more. Mary, Our Blessed Mother, support this our prayer and our longings with your Divine Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This year, one joyful piece of news after the other reached Lithuania from the Vatican. During ad limina visit for the bishops of Lithuania to the Holy Father, His Excellency, Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius was appointed Chairman of the Lithuanian Bishops' Conference. Catholic Lithuania is sincerely happy with this decision of the Holy See. The appointment of a bishop who was in exile for long years to this high Church post inspires the clergy and laity of Lithuania for further struggle and loyalty to the sacred cause of Christ; it gives joy and strength.
It strengthens us in the knowledge that the path of struggle and suffering for the past decades, when in defense of the rights of Church and nation it was necessary to resolve not to fear pressures and persecution by the government atheists - and for more than one to take risks even at the cost of freedom and life ~ was right.
Soviet government agencies reacted otherwise. The Vice Chairman for Catholic Affairs of the Council for Religious Affairs in Moscow, Kuznetsov, meeting the Lithuanian bishops returning from Rome, clearly did not hide his dissatisfaction. He forbade them to continue to Lithuania before the return of Chairman Kharchev of the Council for Religious Affairs.
Taking the bishops to the hotel, he conferred for a long time, not with the bishops themselves, but with the unwanted travel companions assigned to them, Msgr. Antanas Bitvinskas and Father Pranciškus Vaičekonis.
After the original heat had cooled, the bishops were allowed to return to Lithuania Sunday, May 1, on condition that without the permission of Moscow, neither the new President of the Bishops' Conference, Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius, nor his Vice President, Bishop Antanas Vaičius, would assume their new duties.
Incidentally, Bishop Sladkevičius was greeted in Moscow by yet another surprise: When he left the hotel briefly with Bishop Vaičius, unknown individuals who broke into their room "checked" Bishop Sladkevičius' suitcase and made off with the official documents brought from Rome.
Nor did the Commissioner for Religious Affairs for Lithuania, Petras Anilionis, show any good will. On the contrary, he berated the new President of the Bishops' Conference, its first "unpermissable" move — the decision of the Bishops' Conference to change the administration of the Kaunas Seminary without asking the Commissioner. Only when he realized that the escalation of the conflict would present the well-publicized policy of restructuring and democratization to the rest of the world in a bad light, was the decision made to go along with these directives from Rome.
Hardly a month went by when once again, joyous news reached us from the Vatican: the President of the Bishops' Conference of Lithuania, Vincentas Sladkevičius, had been appointed Cardinal. A wave of joy rushed across Lithuania. Catholic Lithuania, after quietly seeing Bishop Sladkevičius off to Rome, greeted the returning Cardinal on the morning of July 7 with great enthusiasm and Lithuanian tricolors in the railroad stations of Vilnius and Kaunas. Particularly impressive was the welcome in Kaunas.
Coming to the railroad station to greet the returning Cardinal of Lithuania were Their Excellencies Liudas Povilonis, Juozas Preikšas, and Antanas Vaičius, the faculty of the seminary, and a group of priests and seminarians. Waiting on the platform, festively dressed, were the faithful who had come from various places in Lithuania: Kaunas, Telšiai, Ukmergė, Kybartai, and Marijampolė. Waving in the station was the Lithuanian tricolor and two Papal flags, and colorful signs: "We thank God and the Pope for the Cardinal!" "The Pope really loves Lithuania!" "For the living, there are no graves, and for a living current, there are no dams." "They're burying Christ, but Christ lives!"
Those assembled greeted the Cardinal as he alighted from the train with the hymn "Marija, Marija." Wearing national costume and wearing wreaths of rue and flowers, girls greeted the Cardinal with bouquets of multi-colored flowers, among them symbolically included flowers of the field and sheaves of rye, chanting words of greeting. In the eyes of more than one high Church dignitary appeared tears of joy and holiday festivity. These were historic moments: Lithuania greeting its first Cardinal.
After dedicating Lithuania and the Church to the protection of Mary in prayer, and singing the national anthem and "Lietuva brangi," the faithful escorted Cardinal Sladkevičius, the bishops, and the priests to the seminary. Here again, the Cardinal was greeted by the assembled faithful. For about two hours, Lithuanian songs and hymns rang out in the courtyard, and prayers were said for the priest-prisoners Alfonsas Svarinskas and Sigitas Tamkevičius.
After the Cardinal had rested and refreshed himself after his journey, the faithful accompanied him to the Cathedral of Kaišiadorys, where the clergy and a large throng of the faithful awaited him. At noon, Cardinal Sladkevičius, together with Archbishop Povilonis and Bishops Preikšas, Vaičius, Krikščiūnas and Michelevičius, offered a Mass of thanksgiving to God.
In his remarks, the Cardinal read greetings from Our Holy Father, John Paul II, and urged the faithful to justify his wishes that they would always and everywhere to be faithful to the Will of God.
In Moscow, the reception for the returning Cardinal was not warm this time, either. The Chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs, Konstantin Kharchev, immediately presented the Cardinal with his first assignment from the Soviet government: to separate the Archdiocese of Vilnius from the Ecclesiastical Province of Poland, even though the Annuario Pontificio does not mention any such, and the Archdiocese of Vilnius as a Metropolitan See is directly Dejure responsible to Rome.
The Catholics of Lithuania, feeling no real interference by the leadership of the Church of Poland in the ecclesiastical affairs of our country, does not consider this question important!
On July 12, 1988, on the Feast of the Blessed Archbishop Jurgis Matulaitis, all of Lithuania converged on Marijampolė as it had the year before, this time, not just to pray at the tomb of the Blessed, but also to congratulate the Cardinal. Before the celebration, young people dressed in national costume and carrying the Lithuanian flag and Papal flag, left to meet the returning Cardinal Sladkevičius.
The streets leading to the church were full of people, all of them waiting patiently until they would be able, by stormy and sincere applause, shouts and hymns, to express their loyalty and love for the Chief Shepherd of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. In a procession in which all the bishops of Lithuania, about two hundred priests and a crowd of thousands of faithful participated singing "God is Our Refuge and Our Strength", His Eminence Cardinal Sladkevičius was escorted into the church of Marijampolė, where he presided over services celebrating the Blessed Archbishop Jurgis Matulaitis.
During the sermon which Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevičius himself preached, the solidarity of the crowd of the faithful showed itself several times
Cardinal Sladkevičius at Mass in St Theresa Church, Vilnius.
in applause, so unusual in churches of Lithuania. The faithful admired their Cardinal's humility, and his deep love of country and people. After Mass, with the Cardinal leading, bishops, priests, and faithful prayed at the casket of the Blessed Archbishop Matulaitis, and recited the litany in his honor.
The joy of the holiday was dampened somewhat by the fact that except for the people from Marijampolė, delegations of the faithful which had come from elsewhere were not allowed to greet their shepherd publicly in church. When the services were over, hundreds of the faithful accompanied the cardinal to the rectory, at the door of which they held a special kind of rally. Verses replete with gratitude to God, dedication to the Church and determination, alternated with folk-songs and hymns.
Understanding well the difficult and responsible duties of the Cardinal of Lithuania, the people renewed their resolve to be faithful to the Church of Christ, through her legitimate superiors.
After greeting their shepherd, Cardinal Sladkevičius, the faithful did not leave the church, churchyard or streets for a long time. The solemnity of the Blessed Archbishop Jurgis Matulaitis, July 12, lasting almost until evening, recalled by its size and its joyous holiday spirit, a national holiday.