The Primate of the Hungarian Catholic Church, the Archbishop of Estergon, Laszlo Cardinal Lekai, visited Lithuania in the middle of October accompanied by two Hungarian bishops, three prelates, three priests, and two Russian Orthodox bishops. This was the second visit made to Soviet Lithuania by a cardinal.
In its October 18 issue Tiesa (Truth) included only a few lines describing the visit.
Religious Affairs Commissioner Petras Anilionis had given instructions that the Hungarian Primate should receive at least as warm a welcome as had been given to the German Cardinal Bengsch. To achieve this, members of the Kaunas Cathedral Choir were even allowed time off from their government jobs.
On October 12 at 11:30 a.m. Cardiral Lekai and his entourage arrived at the Kaunas cathedral, where a large crowd of believers awaited. The cathedral bells rang, the crowd sang "Marija, Marija," and girls stationed the length of the cathedral covered the cardinal's path with flowers. Inside, Bishop L. Povilonis greeted the distinguished guest with a mention in his address of the approaching 600th anniversary (in 1987) of the establishment of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. The Cardinal, delivering the sermon in German, concelebrated mass with the two Hungarian bishops and six clergymen.
After the mass, only the seminarians were admitted into the cathedral sacristy. Father Bitvinskas, chancellor of the Kaunas Chancery, stood at the door and would not allow any other priests to enter. Was this not done so that the priests would not have an opportunity to meet and speak with the cardinal?
The crowd escorting the cardinal flooded not only the churchyard but also the street near the cathedral; applause and shouts of "Valio!" (Hurray!) rang out, followed by the song "Lietuva brangi, mano tėvyne" (Beloved Lithuania, my homeland), which has become the unofficial Lithuanian national anthem. When the crowd reached Maironis's grave, they once again sang "Marija, Marija." The police had to disperse them to clear the streets for traffic.
In addition to the Kaunas cathedral, the cardinal visited the cathedral of Panevėžys and St. Theresa Church in Vilnius.
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One radio station posed the question, "Would there be any benefit for the Catholic Church in Lithuania from the Hungarian cardinal's visit?"
The Soviet authorities decided to demonstrate to the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy that there is freedom of religion in Lithuania. It is uncertain whether they succeeded. The two exiled bishops were not present to greet the cardinal. The cardinal was not welcomed at the cathedral of Vilnius, which has been converted into an art gallery. And, was anyone allowed to recount for the cardinal the path of sorrows which the Lithuanian Catholic Church has been travelling since 1940?
Religious believers in Lithuania, in meeting with the cardinal, had a perfect opportunity once again to demonstrate their faith and patriotism and did not let it pass. They seem to be getting better in knowing how to use these opportunities to their advantage.
Also, the Russian Orthodox bishops who accompanied Cardinal Lekai were able to see that even in the Soviet Union one can gain more religious freedom if one fights for it. No doubt, they, too, benefitted in accompanying the cardinal to Lithuania. Lithuanian atheists were once again given a demonstration that their efforts to tear religious faith and nationalism from the hearts of the people are fruitless.
In addition, the Hungarian cardinal's visit reminded Lithuanian Catholics of two Hungarians who are especially dear to their hearts: the martyr Cardinal Mindszenty and Father Tihamer Toth. The former was a source from whom Lithuanians drew their spirit of sacrifice and of loyalty to the Church; the latter fed through his books the minds and hearts of Lithuanian youth, both during the period of Independence and the years following the war.
Any other Church leaders coming in the future to Catholic Lithuania will also be received with open arms, for they are a fresh breath of air from the West, a slight parting of the iron curtain to freedom.
It is a great pity, however, that the Ordinaries of Lithuania do not have the right to freely invite members of the Church hierarchy of their choosing but must be contented with those whom the Soviet government designates. After all, Cardinal Lekai came at the invitation of Moscow and the Patriarch of all Russia, Pimen, and not at the request of the Lithuanian Ordinaries. If the Soviet regime permitted, perhaps even advised, the Patriarch to invite a Catholic cardinal, it did so only with the hope of gaining from the visit considerable benefits for themselves. It is difficult to believe that its hopes were fulfilled.