The plight of the Church in Lithuania has significantly deteriorated since Yuri Andropov assumed power. The best priests are being blackmailed, threatened with imprisonment, and the like. People collecting signatures to protests are being rounded up and penalized, and the faithful — children as well as adults — are being investigated. Atheistic propaganda and anti-clerical libel are widespread. The press and television explain that children under eighteen may not serve Mass, participate in processions or sing in choirs. People are being interrogated and penalized for organizing Christmas celebrations (in Simnas, Prienai and Kybartai) and All Souls' Day processions.
Teachers and in some places even militia lurk about the churches to see whether children are not being prepared for First Communion, Sometimes, children are stopped in the street on the suspicion that they are on their way to catechism class. The more government atheists persecute the Faith within the country, the more they try afterwards to convince public opinion abroad of the complete freedom of religion in Lithuania. They let bishops out of Lithuania for ad limina visits to Rome and put priests in jail.
Peace delegations of priests travel about to various congresses, while in Lithuania there is the greatest pressure to comply with the so-called Regulations for Religious Associations, which are intended for the complete destruction of the Church.
Efforts of the Church in Lithuania to regain its constitutional rights appear humanly speaking, to be hopeless; the government is not responding to any protests, nor is it replying to petitions signed by scores of thousands; the faithful are discriminated against; the ranks of the clergy are thinning, and the number of parishes which have no priest is increasing.
At this critical moment, Lithuania is losing two of its most zealous priests, Father Alfonsas Svarinskas and Sigitas Tamkevicius.
Keeping in mind all of the above, the question arises in the mind of more than one person: Was it necessary? Was it not possible to get along without this sacrifice?
Of course, these two Lithuanian priests could have avoided arrest and imprisonment if they had been blind to the injustices perpetrated against the faithful, if they had remained deaf to the voices of those calling for help, and, in the words of the old
Father Sigitas Tamkevičius
Lithuanian expression, rested quietly under the broom, keeping their own comfortable spot, as more than one is doing today. But is that everything? As true shepherds, they could not act otherwise.
Some consider them imprudent for such boldness. Seen in the same light, perhaps, were those who in the days of Czarist oppression wrote petitions to the government asking that the Lithuanians be allowed to print books in the Roman alphabet, and our book carriers who smuggled such books over the border and distributed them to the people, since they paid the price, many of them ending their days in Siberia. Did not their struggle appear
Father Alfonsas Svarinskas
pointless and unwise to the "clever ones" of those days, who wondered whether a handful of heroes could possibly hold out against the gendarmerie of the Czar's giant empire?
It was laughable then even to think about a press or national freedom. Yet the struggle was not in vain. Moreover, some considered Bishop Teofilius Matulionis of Kaišiadorys unwise when he wrote a strong protest to the German occupational government for arresting young people, especially underage girls, during a religious festival, since that, too, was grounds for arrest. Also considered foolish were those who, during the German occupation, hid and protected Jews slated for extermination, as did Father Stakauskas and Father Paukštys. They risked their freedom and their lives. They took the risk because they were true shepherds.
To Father Alfonsas Svarinskas and Father Sigitas Tamkevičius, currently in prison, Harnack's words apply, "There is something greater than freedom; it is truth." Yes, they could not put up with lying, of which there is so much among us today, and they struggled for the truth, thereby losing their freedom.
Everyone is probably acquainted with the statement by the world-renowned Jewish scientist, Albert Einstein, "I was never interested in the Church, but now I feel a great respect and sympathy for it, because only the Church has the courage and tenacity to defend the truth and human freedom. As a lover of freedom, I thought that when Hitler seized power in Germany, at least the universities would defend freedom, since they are, after all, the disseminators of truth. But the universities were silent. Then I thought that freedom would be defended by newspaper editors, who used to write powerful articles in behalf of freedom. But after a few weeks, they too fell silent. Only the Church stood in Hitler's way the whole time, when he wanted to crush truth and destroy freedom." It is like this in Lithuania today, It is mostly the priests who are struggling against the lies being spread by every means.
Those who consider them out of order or extremists, should remember that these priests are not unique, nor are they the first. In his day, when the Czar of Russia wanted to drown Lithuania in vodka, the Bishop of the Samogitians, Motiejus Valančius, established temperence societies. When the government forbade these, he issued a letter to priests urging them not to obey such interdicts; for this he experienced much unpleasantness from the governor.
Poet Baranauskas' friend of younger days, Father K. Kairys, was exiled to Eastern Russia and died there when he was just twenty-nine years old, because he had blessed a new high school without the government's permission.
Father Mykolas Krupavičius also wore the chains of imprisonment for writing two memoranda protesting the schemes of the occupier, and his inhumane treatment of people.
Father A. Lipniūnas ended his life in the Stutthoff Concentration Camp, because he spoke out in Saint Ann's Church in Vilnius about the occupation authorities who wanted to buy our young people with tobacco and liquor.
During the Hitler era, about 4000 priests who would not cornpromise with untruth were exterminated. At all times, even the darkest, it was a priest's hand which bore the torch of truth for companions in suffering — this is the priest's vocation. When others waver, he must stand firm. When others are silent, he must speak up. When others grovel, he must resist. When others become negligent, he must intercede for the nation, uniting his suffering with the redemptive Passion of the Lord.
It is no secret that today, even among priests, some turn up who knuckle under, saying, "We can't blow against the wind"; they are silent when they should speak, they close their eyes in the face of injustice. Some of them do so because they are trying to preserve their earthly dwelling, and do not wish to attract the government's displeasure. They do not wish to be transferred to a lesser place. They often lable the most zealous priests as extremists.
Bishop Valančius and Bishop Matulionis were extremists. The Servant of God, Archbishop Jurgis Matulevičius wrote in his diary, "God grant that we be caught up with that one great idea: to work, to struggle and to suffer for the Church, ... to offer our lives to God and to the Church; to become worn out with work, suffering and battles for the Church; that we might have that great courage,undaunted by any obstacles posed by the world and its powers, not succombing to any fear, to go to work courageously, to enter the battle for the Church, where this is most needed; that is, where the secular government is persecuting the Church and the religious orders, restricting the Church and its organizations and agencies, so that we might fear that one thing, to die not having suffered anything, not having labored, not having worked for the Church, for the salvation of souls, or for the spread of the glory of God.. ."
Such extremists were Father K. Kairys, Father A. Lipniūnas, Msgr. Mykolas Krupavičius and those 4000 priests killed by the Nazis.
Such extremists were all of our book smugglers, who preserved the Lithuanian printed word. Such extremists were also Socrates and Plato, who was exiled from Syracuse, and Gandhi . . . such extremists are our priest-martyrs Father Alfonsas Svarinskas and Father Sigitas Tamkevičius. They are a noble breed.
History is not always able to appreciate at the time. It often pronounces its judgement late, but it does make its pronouncement.
The weakness of others must be counterbalanced by the courage and sacrifice of the brave. At one time, Giovanni Papini wrote, "I do not ask for bread or sympathy; I ask only for the small atom of truth..." One is lead to believe that our priest-martyrs Father Alfonsas Svarinskas and Father Sigitas Tamkevičius did not ask for bread or sympathy either. They only asked for the truth, that we might understand everything directly.
The entrance to the University of Upsala is ornamented with the words: "It is good to think freely, but even better to think rightly." Are we thinking lightly about our martyr-priests who have been arrested, about the entire current plight of the Church?
Pope Gregory VII said, "I have loved the truth and hated untruth, and so I die in exile." Our priests, Father Alfonsas Svarinskas, and Father Sigitas Tamkevičius are in prison because they loved the truth and hated untruth, because they understood correctly their duties and responsibilities.