The tiny chalice that tells the story of Lithuania’s heroic priests

Catholic Herald, 03 October 2019

The highlight of the consistory for new cardinals on October 5 will be the bestowal of the red hat on Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevičius, emeritus of Kaunas, in Lithuania, and emeritus of the Siberian gulag. I recently met a young priest of Kaunas who is an heir to that witness, by blood and chrism, family and ordination. But I will come to that later …

Cardinal Tamkevičius will join that great procession of cardinals from behind the Iron Curtain who proved worthy witnesses in the one of great persecutions of the Church in history. English Catholics boast about St John Fisher, who alone among their bishops stood fast under Henry VIII. Catholics in the former Soviet empire have a vast parade of St John Fishers. Fidelity was the norm, even at great cost.

Those names comprise an inspiring portrait of heroism: Cardinal Adam Sapieha of Kraków, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński of Warsaw, Cardinal Kazimierz Świątek of Minsk, Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac of Zagreb (already beatified), Cardinal Josyf Slipyj of Lviv, Cardinal Josef Beran of Prague, Cardinal Alexandru Todea of Romania, Cardinal Jozef Mindszenty, the Primate of Hungary. All of them are plausible candidates for canonisation.

In 2016, Pope Francis elevated to the Sacred College Fr Ernst Simoni, an Albanian priest who spent 28 years in a communist forced labour camp. Now add Cardinal Tamkevičius, too, to that honour roll.

In 1978, Fr Tamkevičius founded the Catholic Committee for the Defence of Believers’ Rights. In 1983, the communists arrested him and convicted him of anti-Soviet propaganda, sentencing him to the labour camps in Siberia. Then after the liberation of Lithuania from the Soviet empire, Tamkevičius was made Archbishop of Kaunas.

One of the other priests who founded the committee – which played a key role in rallying and inspiring Lithuanian Catholics under the Soviet boot – was Vincentas Vėlavičius.

Born in 1914, Fr Vėlavičius was subject to the first wave of Stalinist persecution after World War II, which ended with the Baltic states under Soviet occupation and annexation. On May 4, 1948, he was arrested and subsequently sentenced to 10 years in the gulag. He was imprisoned until the post-Stalin amnesty. On July 28, 1956, he was released and returned to Lithuania.

When Fr Vėlavičius joined Fr Tamkevičius in the defence of believers’ rights, he had already spent years in the gulag. He knew the potential of retribution; he had already been brutally subject to it. It was the bravery of such veterans of persecution that gave courage to Fr Tamkevičius.

Fr Vėlavičius would live to see independence and liberty restored to Lithuania. He died on February 21, 1997.

He was godfather to the daughter of one of his cousins. That daughter in turn had a son – also named Vincentas – and she had her son baptised by her own godfather. Now that son, Vincentas Lizdenis, is a priest of Kaunas; Sigitas Tamkevičius was his archbishop when he entered the seminary in 2013.

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