Heroic cardinals paid dearly for their faith

The Catholic Register, 11 October 2019

Cardinal Tamkevicius has now joined that great procession of cardinals from behind the Iron Curtain who proved worthy witnesses in one of the great persecutions of the Church in history.

Pope Francis reminded the newest cardinals that the “readiness of a cardinal to shed his own blood (is) signified by the scarlet colour of your robes.” For one of them it was not a reminder but a memory.

“If a believer isn’t ready to suffer for his faith,” Cardinal Sigitas Tamkevičius said last week, “then he’s not much of a believer.”

Cardinal Tamkevicius, emeritus archbishop of Kaunas, Lithuania, was sentenced in 1983 to a decade in Soviet forced labour camps. He was released after five years due to international pressure. Tamkevičius had been convicted of “anti-Soviet” propaganda for establishing the Committee for the Defence of Believers’ Right in 1978. 

After Lithuania gained independence from the totalitarian Soviet empire in 1991, Tamkevicius was appointed archbishop of Kaunas. He is now retired and over 80, so he will not vote in a future conclave.

Ten years ago, on All Souls Day 2009, I spoke at an interfaith forum at the University of Toronto on religious persecution. I accepted the invitation because I wanted to meet the principal speaker on the program, Archbishop Tamkevicius. It was an honour to be in his presence then, and to this day I keep the poster of the occasion in the entrance to my rectory — a reminder of those heroic souls who have been, and are being, persecuted for the faith. 

I have another picture in my rectory, in the kitchen over the coffee maker, where I see it every morning. The newly-elected St. John Paul II is embracing Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who served as archbishop of Warsaw and primate of Poland from 1948 to his death in 1981. To this day in Poland he is known at the Primate of the Millennium for making the 1966 millennium of Poland’s baptism the centrepiece of a religious and national struggle against the evil Soviet empire.

Last week, just days before Cardinal Tamkevicius was given his red hat, it was announced in Rome that Cardinal Wyszynski’s cause had been approved for beatification. He was, with the exception of the younger Polish cardinal from Kraków whom he mentored, the greatest churchman of the 20th century. He battled the communists for more than three decades. He lived each day the biblical injunction to be wise like serpents and innocent like doves. 

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