At the conclusion of World War II, the helm of the government of Lithuania was assumed by militant atheists who were determined to wipe out the Catholic Church. Lithuanians who loved God and country were confronted with the question: What will happen next? The priests of Vilkaviškis turned to their old and wise shepherd, Bishop Karosas, asking advice in the new situation.
"Whatever the government says, do the opposite and all will be well," the bishop replied. It only remained to put his advice into practice. Events unfolded as follows:
1946— the Theological Seminaries in Vilnius, Telšiai and Vilkaviškis were closed. Bishops Teofilius Matulionis and Vincentas Borisevičius were arrested.
1947— Archbishop Mečislovas Reinys of the Archdiocese of Vilnius (later to die in Vladimir Prison) and Telšiai Auxiliary Bishop Pranciškus Ramanauskas were arrested.
A third of Lithuania's priests was sent to the Gulag. Bishop Vincentas Borisevičius was executed in 1947.
1948-49 — convents were closed, many churches were converted into warehouses or used for profane purposes. Lithuanians were deported to Siberia en masse.
At the government's initiative, committees of twenty were set up to replace church parish committees. The committees of twenty were forced into unilateral contracts which discriminated against the faithful.
Church authorities were compelled to issue uncanonical instructions and to support the Soviet government's deceitful "struggle for peace".
Thus, Msgr. Juozapas Stankevičius, administrator of the Archdiocese of Kaunas and the Dioceses of Vilkaviškis and Kaišiadorys, informed priests that it was forbidden to instruct children, visit the faithful; children could not serve at the altar. Fatal concessions to the Soviet government were called "diplomacy". When a priest complained to the chancery that he was being attacked by the government, he was told: "You were stupid and did not know how to live!" Quite a few priests forgot Bishop Karosas' wise advice and began to adopt the chancery's new style.
During this period, national and church resistance was broken, while those who yielded to force dreamed up the slogan: "You can't knock a wall down with your forehead."
The terror continued during the rule of Nikita Khrushchev. Eleven priests again left for the Gulag. Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius was exiled (1959) as was Bishop Julijonas Steponavičius (1961). The newly built Klaipėda church was closed in 1961 and its builders were prosecuted.
In the 70's priests who ever so slightly deviated from secret Soviet instruction were forbidden to minister as priests. The KGB conducted a secret fight against the Kaunas Theological Seminary for the purpose of drawing more seminarians into its web.
The Beginning of Rebirth
1964-65 must be considered the beginning of the rebirth of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Priests slowly plucked up their courage and began to instruct children in groups here and there. Ever more often a courageous word resounded in sermons, urging the faithful to awaken from their sleep, fear and paralysis. The efforts of Commissar for Religious Affairs Rugienis to terrorize priests became less and less effective.
The year 1968 is very significant for the Catholic Church in Lithuania. That year, active priests vigorously discussed what methods should be used to fight against the arbitrariness of the government atheists. The outcome of these discussions: the decision individually and as a group to begin demanding a minimum of religious freedom.
In August 1968, Fathers Vladas Šlevas and Alfonsas Pridotkas of the Diocese of Telšiai each sent the USSR Council of Ministers a statement in which they raised certain instances of discrimination against the Church: the shortage of prayerbooks, interference with the theological seminary, etc. Both priests were berated by government officials and transferred to other parishes.
In the meantime, a group petition was being prepared in the diocese of Vilkaviškis regarding the tragic situation of the Kaunas Seminary, which states, among other things:
"Some thirty priests die in Lithuania every year, but because of
Fr. Juozas Zdebskis
the small quota imposed by the government, the seminary can graduate barely five or six priests . . . When applicants are accepted, the deciding voice belongs not to the seminary authorities, but to government officials . . . The time has come to demand that the seminary quota be abolished and that Soviet government organs stop preventing young men from entering the seminary."
This petition (December 31, 1968) was signed by sixty-three priests of the Diocese of Vilkaviškis.
On January 8, 1969, two Vilkaviškis priests, Fathers Juozas Zdebskis and Petras Dumbliauskas, sent a joint statement to the Council of Ministers of the USSR regarding the restrictions placed on the Kaunas Theological Seminary. The party and the authorities long unaccustomed to such "insolence" from priests, sent chekists to in-
Fr. Sigitas Tamkevičius
vestigate the "offenders". Following interrogations and intimidations, Father Juozas Zdebskis and Sigitas Tamkevičius were forbidden indefinitely to perfom their priestly duties and ordered to find employment. Both priests worked for one year in land reclamation. Father Lionginas Kunevičius, who attempted to defend the punished priests, was also ordered to surrender his certificate of registration; and when he disobeyed, he was drafted for several months by the military.
Government repressions against priests, far from stopping the religious movement, even helped it grow.
In 1969 the priests of the Dioceses of Telšiai, Vilnius and Panevėžys continued to assail Soviet agencies, demanding freedom for the Church.
In the meantime, the young people organized in secret, held closed retreats, and deepened their religious outlook. Slowly, the convents which had been driven underground began to recover and work more actively. In 1969, the "Friends of the Eucharist" movement was formed and assumed a vital role in the spiritual rebirth of the Catholic Church in Lithuania.
In 1970, three churches — in Sangrūda, Gaurė and Batakiai — were burned down in succession. No one doubted that this was a form of blackmail by government atheists, whose purpose was to convince all that the fight for Church rights was senseless.
On September 9, 1970, Father Antanas Šeškevičius was convicted of instructing children. Following a search, Father Juozas Zdebskis was arrested in 1971, and was convicted on November 12th of instructing children. That same day and for the same "offense", Father Prosperas Bubnys was put on trial. Three priests in labor camps were to convince eight hundred who were free that the Soviet government must be obeyed more than God, but the opposite occured: Most priests, concurring with Father Antanas Šeškevičius' words spoken at his Molėtai trial, that "God must be obeyed rather than men" (Acts 5:29), instructed children even more zealously. Believers throughout Lithuania began to collect signatures to a memorandum which the world will later call the "Memorandum of the 17,000 believers".
The Tenth Anniversary of the Struggle for the Catholic Church's Freedom in Lithuania
This year marks a decade since the start of the stubborn struggle between rightless Lithuanian priests and believers, and government atheists backed by the KGB, the government's administrative apparatus and mass communications media. Here are the highlights of this fight:
On February 7, 1972, Lithuania's priests and believers sent the Soviet authorities, through the United Nations, a memorandum bearing 17,000 signatures, which described the servile situation of the Catholic Church in Lithuania and demanded that freedom be restored.
The Soviet government forced Lithuania's Ordinaries to condemn the momorandum, but failed to stop the movement for Church freedom.
On March 19, 1972, the first issue of the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania was published, standing up like David against Goliath in the name of Almighty God. It assumed one of the
Students of the Theological Seminary in Kaunas, on their way to services at the cathedral.
most important roles in the rebirth of the Catholic Church in Lithuania.
The self-immolation of Romas Kalanta on May 4, 1972, and the youth demonstrations which followed for several days had no ties with the religious rebirth movement, but it undoubtedly helped the religious rebirth.
In an attempt to pacify the priests, the Soviet government replaced the chekist Religious Affairs Commissar Rugienis with the more flexible party staffer Kazimieras Tumėnas, but his mission failed.
In 1972 a correspondence seminary began to take shape in Lithuania. This was a reaction against the activities of the KGB at the Interdiocesan Kaunas Theological Seminary. The thought took shape among the clergy that a situation in which young men rejected by the KGB could continue their studies and be ordained, was intolerable. Today, the correspondence seminary has adjusted even more to conditions of persecution and causes the Soviet government great anxiety. The establishment of this seminary was one of the most positive steps in the life of the postwar Catholic Church in Lithuania. Its initiators were young men barred from the seminary by the KGB.
On November 19 and 20, 1973, the KGB struck a severe blow against the underground of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Many successful searches and several arrests allowed the government atheists to boast: No more prayerbooks, the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania is destroyed and the faithful of Lithuania will again become silent as the grave. Fortunately, this did not happen.
Lithuania's religious and national rebirth was greatly served not only by the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, but by the entire free (underground — Tr. Note) press. One after another, new publications made their appearance: Aušra (The Dawn), Dievas ir Tėvynė (God and Country), Tiesos Kelias (The Way of Truth), Rūpintojėlis (Suffering Christ), Perspektyvos (Perspectives), Alma Mater, Laisvės šauklys (Herald of Freedom), Vytis, (The Knight), Ateitis (The Future), etc. All the publications, although imperfect and reaching readers with difficulty, banded idealists together, opened vistas of freedom, aroused the awareness and courage of Lithuanians.
During the last ten years the nuns have done beautiful work. Some of them have actively joined the struggle for the freedom of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, others have quietly instructed children, brought young people together, others still have supported the active members with their prayers and sacrifice. It is difficult to express our gratitude to those who have done and still do the Lord's work with perseverence and sacrifice. It is with good reason that the KGB moved into action persecuting convents, spying upon them, attempting to recruit agents in convents, etc.
From 1970 to 1975 the Soviet government demanded that all Lithuanian parishes renew the unilateral "contracts", imposed on them by force in 1948, which give the faithful nothing, but only impose obligations on them. It is very unfortunate that most of the clergy lacked sufficient awareness and determination: This government campaign was almost completely successful, although currently there are several dozen parishes in Lithuania which have not renewed their "contracts". As a rule, all erroneous steps and all concessions were first made by opportunist and career-minded priests. With resistance then broken, it was easier for the Soviet government to bring other priests into line.
On August 1, 1975, the Helsinki Final Act provided the militant Catholic Church in Lithuania with a strong basis to demand basic human rights. "Give us what you have publicly pledged before the whole world!"
In August, 1975, Lithuanian youth, mostly Friends of the Eucharist, went to Siluva in an organized group to beseech the Mother of God to pardon the nation's sins and to ask for the grace of rebirth. Over a period of five years, this youth procession so frightened the Soviet authorities that they used the military, the KGB, the militia and trials to stop it.
On July 28, 1976, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian SSR adopted a decree confirming the "Regulations for Religious Associations". For several years government officials had remained completely silent about those regulations to avoid protests by priests and believers. The confirmation of the regulations proved that the Soviet government not only had not renounced its struggle against believers, but was legalizing the discrimination which had been carried out over many years.
In the summer of 1977 when the new Constitution of the Lithuanian SSR was being drafted, Lithuanian believers, priests and even Ordinaries submitted their suggestions in writing, but the party completely ignored them and Article 50, which discriminated against believers, was left in the Constitution: They are granted the right "to perform religious ceremonies", while atheists are granted the right "to conduct atheist propaganda".
On November 13, 1978, the Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights was founded in Lithuania. Priests and believers greeted the Committee's founding with joy, but there were those who awaited the swift arrest of Committee members. Lithuanians in Lithuania and in the West must be thanked for understanding and appreciating the activities of the Catholic Committee.
The spiritual rebirth of Lithuania's believers was greatly served by the new Pope, John Paul II, who has many times shown particular attention to Lithuania. The Holy Father's example, as well as his encouraging words have inspired and still inspire Lithuania's priests and faithful to defend energetically the rights of the Catholic Church and remain faithful to Christ.
In 1979, 522 Lithuanian priests and two exiled bishops voiced their solidarity with Document No. 5 issued by the Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights and their opposition to the "Regulations for Religious Associations". This mass protest by Lithuania's priests indicated that Lithuania's clergy had not been broken or confused, excluding a small number of KGB collaborators. Perhaps that is why the KGB began to recruit seminarians, even more intensively, in the hope that in the future Lithuania's priests would be divided and crushed.
In 1980, believers and priests in Lithuania began a broad campaign for national temperance. The Soviet government was not kindly disposed toward this campaign, and hindered it. The establishment of a Temperance Society was forbidden, while the Ordinaries of Lithuania, who in the beginning showed fine initiative, withdrew from this campaign, due to Soviet government pressure. (Only the Administrator of the Diocese of Telšiai did not succumb.).
A very significant event in the life of the Catholic Church in Lithuania was the establishment of Priests' Senates. The Soviet government immediately perceived the danger and began an indirect fight against Priests' Senates. It is very unfortunate that nearly all Lithuanian Ordinaries in office, excluding the Telšiai Administrator (The exiled bishops supported the Priests' Senates and blessed them.), under pressure by the KGB and the Religious Affairs Commissar, did not support the Priests' Senates; but they continue to exist. Even if Priests' Senates were formally abolished, there would still remain in every diocese nuclei of priests which would play a vital role in diocesan life and the struggle for Church rights. A vivid example is a document from the Priests' Senates of all the dioceses (May 3, 1981) against government interference in the administration of parishes and the instigation of parish committees agains priests.
Aware of the continual growth of religious rebirth in Lithuania, the Soviet government has increased not only its propaganda campaign, but is engaging in direct acts of force. Recently, the news sadly resounded throughout the world of the KGB organized "pig plague" (In 1981, Soviet authorities used the pretext of quaranting a non-existent "swine fever". Translator's Note) against Lithuania's believing youth, whose purpose was to stop the procession to Siluva. The KGB, the militia and even the military were used in this campaign.
The KGB is especially afraid that more and more young people are showing an interest in the Faith and that this youth is already capable of banding together.
After a decade of struggle for freedom of the Church, it is already possible to reach certain conclusions:
In view of the extremely difficult conditions, the achievements are truly great: the Soviet government has expanded the seminary quota, priests have begun publicly to instruct children, to allow them at the altar. The presence of young people has increased in churches, the majority of priests ignore the discriminatory "Regulations for Religious Associations", no longer fear losing their registration certificates, etc. Instead of the sad prospect that the Catholic Church in Lithuania would be reduced to the level of the Russian Orthodox Church, it has renewed itself spiritually in ten years and it has improved in quality.
Everything which has been attained was obtained not through "diplomacy" or "docility", but at the price of active struggle and sacrifice. God blessed the dedication and sacrifice of many a Lithuanian. What is clear is that those who in Lithuania consider themselves "diplomats" manage to negotiate something from the Soviet government only when that government is confronted with massive opposition from people. To sit, waiting for better times and fearing to knock one's head against the wall, has always been and will continue to be fatal for the Church.
The fight for the Church's freedom would have been highly ineffective if our brethren in the West would not have supported it via the mass communication media, organized prayer and other ways. Lithuania's Catholics are deeply grateful for this help to all radio stations, newspaper editors, information services and all who have in one way or another proclaimed to the world the hardships of the discriminated Lithuanian Catholics, or prayed for Lithuania.
One of the most painful facts in the fight for the Church's freedom was the collaboration of some Lithuanian clergymen with the KGB, whose temerity and various compromises made in the name of unchristian "wisdom" nearly touched on betrayal. This type of clergy has totally compromised itself in the eyes of Lithuania's faithful.
A very delicate future problem is the appointment of new bishops. The KGB is doing its utmost to misinform the Holy See. It must be admitted that it has been partly successful. For instance, in a letter written to Lithuania following the Pope's postponement of the consecration of three new bishops, one serious Lithuanian priest deplores that hierarchical matters have become entangled in "people's personal whims." The author of the letter calls Lithuania's active priests "destroyers" who did not permit those "who can and only want to do good" to solve the matter of bishops. The contents of the letter leads to the conclusion that someone in Lithuania is a masterful manager — misinforming even Lithuania's emigrant elite living in the West.
For a successful fight for Church freedom in the future it is vital that Lithuania's priests and believers not feel "all alone", but receive moral support from the free world. Of vital importance is the Holy See's support which would provide those fighting for the Church's freedom with the opportunity to adapt to the most complex circumstances.