Before and after the Russian Tsarist regime control and Communist
occupation of Lithuania, the Catholic Church was always a defining
center of gravity for the small but proud Baltic state.
Recently, MercatorNet headlined this recall of political victory in the pivotal year 1989, written by former president Vytautas Landsbergis.
I was then in the Lithuanian liberation movement, Sajudis, just recently elected to lead its Council…
Sąjudis already had its own Seimas, elected by the
politically active society as an alternative democratic parliament of
the Lithuanian people, more representative and legitimate than that
appointed by the local Communists with Moscow’s approval. The Sajudis Seimas
convened on 15-16 February 1989 in Kaunas and adopted a “Declaration on
the liberation of Lithuania from unlawful Soviet captivity”, a
liberation which had already begun and “would not stop at half-ways”.
It was a heady time. The year before, Fr. Sigitas Tamkevicius was
released from a Siberian prison camp, where he’d spent five years of
cold, hard labor for the ‘crime’ of being a Catholic priest. But the
irony is that he was sent away on trumped up charges. In fact,
Tamkevicius was one of the original founders of The Catholic Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Believers in November 1978.
The Committee acted publicly by publishing about 50
documents, but did not seek any political goals. They are invaluable
weapons in the struggle for religious freedom. The Soviet government
silently tolerated the activity of the Catholic Committee, but later
lost its patience and began to terrorize the members of the Committee.
By then, he was already the main force behind the underground publication Kronika,
(The Chronicle), typing up in secret the accounts of persecuted
Christians and smuggling them to sympathetic colleagues who transported
them to the West for publication.
In the Baltic countries, the Communist authorities always found the
sources of dissident publications within two years. The Chronicle
published for 16 years in stealth, out of the reach of the furious
officials who searched for the source. The only reason Tamkevicius was
taken captive was his activity in ‘The Catholic Committe for the
Defense of the Rights of Believers’, along with some trumped up charges.
I know this from having the good providence of spending time this
weekend with his Excellency Sigitas Tamkevicius, S.J., Archbishop of
Kaunas, Lithuania, and President of the Lithuanian Bishops Conference.
He was in Chicago to celebrate the millennium of Christianity in
Lithuania, together with Chicago Archibishop Francis Cardinal George
and the sizeable Lithuanian community.
The time with him was precious. What was the tipping point for his
arrest and punishment, when the Communists couldn’t track the source of
Kronika? The ascendancy to higher power, he explained, of Yuri
Andropov, who cracked down severely on dissidence. “He said all
dissidents had to be eliminated” said Tamkevicius, who was sent to a
remote camp in Siberia.
During his five years there, he was allowed minimal contact with the
outside world, maybe two pieces of mail a month, with very strict
censure. Authorities showed him a list of those who had sent him mail
he’d never receive. He had to labor in metal works, sometimes switched
to making gloves, always with six fences surrounding the camp, made of
wood, metal and electric fixtures in a mix of enclosures.
“What sustained you?” I asked. “How did you endure this harsh imprisonment?” ”My faith”, he said, as if it were a given.
For him, it is a given. The materialism and consumerism
today poses almost more of a threat to the soul than persecution, he
said matter-of-factly. Which reflects the thinking of Popes John Paul
II and Benedict XVI on consumerism and the West, both of whom knew
persecution first hand.
The Chicago Lithuanian community celebrated their faith with
Archbishop Tamkevicius this weekend in a series of events which
culminated in that liturgy with Cardinal George. Vytautas Landsbergis
was an honored guest.