Pope Francis will visit Lithuania on September 22 and 23. The two-day apostolic visit will take him to Vilnius and Kaunas. The Holy Father’s schedule includes a stop to pray at the former KGB headquarters in the center of Vilnius, the Baltic nation’s capital. For 50 years, the Soviets planned and carried out crimes in this building, and Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis, whom Pope Francis beatified last year on June 25, was imprisoned in its basement.
Historians use the term “blood lands” to refer to Lithuania. This country by the Baltic Sea is among those that suffered most from the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Even now many in the country recall that historical pain for its impact on their own and their families’ lives. After half a century of occupation, Lithuania in 1990 became the first of the former Soviet republics to declare the reestablishment of its independence.
One year ago, on June 25, 2017, the archbishop and martyr Teofilius Matulionis was declared blessed at a solemn Mass in Cathedral Square in Vilnius. He is one of the first martyrs of communism from the ex-Soviet Union to be raised to the altars.
“The beatification of Teofilius Matulionis is international recognition not only of him, but also, in his person, of Lithuania’s painful history,” Vilnius Archbishop Gintaras Grušas has said. “What a wonderful testimony we find in one of Bishop Teofilius’s letters, where he thanks God for being so good as to let bishops and priests be sent to prisons, forced labor camps and exile, since in that way, he writes, ‘where the sheep are, the shepherds are too.’”
Having spent 16 years in prisons, Archbishop Matulionis willfully dedicated his sacrifice to the glory of God. He was convinced that hatred is the least appropriate response to evil. His own response to his oppressors was always forgiveness.
In the homily at the Mass of Beatification, Cardinal Angelo Amato noted that: “The long and painful periods he spent in prisons, in concentration camps, in forced domicile, little by little exhausted his strong fiber of courageous witness to the Gospel. But the privations and tortures did not bend his will. The hostility of the Nazis and the Communists had no rational basis. It was merely the fruit of their hatred toward the Gospel of Jesus and the Church.”
Today Archbishop Matulionis is particularly relevant in light of his missionary vocation. Nothing could hold him back from missionary work in Russia – neither the Bolsheviks’ threats of brutal treatment, nor the offer of a safe and much more peaceful life in America. On becoming the bishop of Kaišiadorys, he wrote to Pope Pius XII in a letter how he longed to overturn every stone in his diocese and stir up vibrant missionary activity there.
During Soviet times, Lithuania’s bishops acted deliberately to avoid becoming tools in the hands of the authorities, and for that reason faced continual brutal repression. They not only refused to collaborate, but also actively defended the rights of believers, writing letters of protest to the top officials in Soviet Lithuania and the whole Soviet Union. They exhorted priests to not cease teaching children the catechism, to not flee or go into hiding, to stay with the faithful and serve them no matter what happen.
From 1944 to 1946, Bishop Teofilius sent Soviet officials many notices of dissent: against the closure of churches, arrests of priests and persecutions of believers. He did so without fear of possibly being exiled again. In 1946, though now 73 years of age, Teofilius was again arrested and sent for 10 more years to Soviet labor camps.
In 1962, Pope John XXIII granted Bishop Teofilius the title of archbishop for his special loyalty to the Church, and he was invited to take part in the Second Vatican Council. That same year, however, the archbishop was injected with an undetermined substance and died within days.
Teofilius Matulionis was literally a priest and bishop of the Universal Church, one who served people of many different nationalities – Lithuanians, Latvians, Belarussians and Russians – especially in the forced labor camps where he was interred.
The motto on his episcopal coat of arms reads Per Crucem Ad Astra – “Through the Cross to the Stars”. Bishop Teofilius’s extraordinary fortitude and faithful trust in God inspire people today. He viewed everything with deep interior peace. It was not indifference or resignation: right up until his death he was concerned for the triumph of truth, and fought for it. But he accepted everything that happened to him with an open heart: the rank of bishop as well as the persecutions and calumnies and imprisonments and torture and exile. His way was to always do what he could, and then add: “Your will, O God, be done.”
Archbishop Teofilius started the first perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in Lithuania. “In adoring, he learned Heaven while here on earth. We too can learn holiness in the same school that Blessed Teofilius attended – the School of Adoration,” Archbishop Grušas notes.
Pope Francis, a year after the beatification, will himself visit Lithuania in September. In the Apostolic Letter declaring him a blessed martyr, the Holy Father described Teofilius Matulionis as “a Shepherd according to the heart of Christ, a heroic witness to the Gospel, a courageous defender of the Church and of human dignity.”
Indeed, in Archbishop Matulionis’s ministry, both fundamental pillars of the Catholic Church shine out: St. Peter the Apostle’s pastoral spirit and St. Paul the Apostle’s missionary zeal.
The Church in Lithuania celebrates the Memorial of Blessed Teofilius Matulionis on June 14.