- June 22, 2017
The persecution of the Catholic Church in Lithuania
The Church is celebrating the beatification of Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis – a priest and
a communist-era martyr. He is the first blessed of this period from Lithuania. The persecution of the Church in Soviet times was, however, of much broader extent.
“We will have the first blessed, however, there were certainly more martyrs in Lithuania during this period. Many of them will probably never be proclaimed the holy by the Church, but the memory about them is still preserved in the places where they worked. I could convince myself about that when collecting materials for my book. The priests who did not agree with the actions of Soviet authorities, who did not stop their pastoral work, were a great authority for the faithful. Of course, they often had to pay a huge price for this,” explains Dr Alina Zawadzka, the author of the book Polish Pastoral Care in the Vilnius Region during the Soviet Period (1944-1990).
The fight against religion was one of the basic assumptions of the communist ideology. It was obvious that the inclusion of Lithuania to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics meant the limitation of the activity of the Catholic Church and the fight against all manifestations of faith.
Repressions against the Church began in 1940 and intensified after 1944. The authorities used very different means to hinder the pastoral work. The administration was very useful for that. It was forbidden for the Church to keep parish registers, to issue certificates, as well as to baptise, marry or bury the dead until the appropriate documents given by governmental offices had been submitted by the faithful. Eventually, the acts issued by the Church were deprived of power of the law, but Catholics continued to baptize children, marry and bury the dead as their religion told them to do, without restricting themselves to observing the civil law. Another acute form of pressure was taxing. Churches were supposed to pay a tax of 1 percent of the value of a building, which in the case of monasteries or churches was a huge sum and it was impossible to pay it. The possibility of catechesis was also limited. Already in 1944, under the provision of the separation of the Church and school, a ban on teaching religion at schools was imposed.
Archbishop Mečislovas Reinys tried to intervene in this matter with the Soviet authorities, but he did not receive any response. During the conference of bishops in Ukmergė, the bishops prepared a joint request for restoring the teaching of religion at schools. It was then handed over to the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian SSR. The request was signed by the bishops of Kaišiadorys, Panevėžys, Vilkaviškis and prelate Stanislovas Jokūbauskas, who was the administrator of the Archdiocese of Kaunas.
Archbishop Romuald Jałbrzykowski and Archbishop Mečislovas Reinys wrote separate letters in this matter. In the face of the lack of response, the bishops ordered to transfer the teaching of religion to the churches and presbyteries as it was in the years 1940-1941. However, soon the catechesis was banned there too and those who continued it, risked persecution by the authorities. Since 1948 one risked being sent to labour camps for catechesis in church or even at private homes. The biggest conflicts between the Church and the state were provoked by the registration of religious communities. The plan of the state authorities was to decentralize authority in the Church and to make priests dependent on social committees. The committees which composed 20 people were meant to apply for registration. They acted as the representatives of the community and it could be said that they “hired” a cult worker. Of course, in the Catholic society, such plans could not bring expected results because of the loyalty of Catholics and the clergy to the hierarchy of the Church. These committees consisting of 20 people started to form only on the order of parish priests, who also waited for the instructions given by their bishops.
At the beginning, the bishops explained the refusal to register by the canon law and the lack of state laws regulating the registration process. The Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Vilnius Archbishop Reinys motivated the refusal of registration by the fact that the bishops did not know legislation under which the authorities demanded registration. The Archbishop also demanded the information about the consequences of the registration. Bishop Teofilius Matulionis, the Ordinary of the Diocese of Kaišiadorys, declared that such an order is inconsistent with the canon law and the bishop of Panevėžys Kazimieras Paltarokas said that the registration was pointless because all the data required for the registration could be obtained at the Curia.
“From the very beginning the Church opposed these administrative restrictions. The bishops in Lithuania attempted to defend the position of the Church together, remaining together with the faithful. Thanks to this, it was clear for the Catholics in Lithuania, how they should have behaved towards the authorities and which state orders were really unacceptable to the Church. These clear statements allowed the Church to maintain its authority and to maintain the importance of the Church, however, of course, it was obvious that they meant repressions of the bishops,” explains the historian.
The Church started the registration only after the 19th June 1948 when the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian SSR issued the decree on the procedure of nationalization of prayer houses, monastic buildings and residential houses belonging to religious communities, and the Council of Ministers of the Lithuanian SRR adopted a resolution on the procedure of nationalization of prayer houses and monastic buildings.
Under this resolution, the municipal and district executive committees were obliged to nationalize churches and monastic buildings until the 1st of August 1948. In the face of such pressure the bishops ordered the registration of communities. Of course, many communities were denied registration, which meant the takeover of properties belonging to the Church. 50 priests were displaced from the dwellings where they lived without allocating them the alternative accommodation. In many flats, the space where the priests could live was limited. The church workers encountered a similar fate.
The authorities thought that it was the orders that were particularly dangerous for the communist regime. Already in the years 1940-1941 during the first Soviet occupation, the monastic buildings were nationalised and the estates belonging to the orders were confiscated. Since 1944 a new stage of repression began. The army occupied the monasteries, requisitioned property and food on the basis of the decisions made by the local executive authorities. Residents had from 1 to 7 days to leave the buildings. They were not given any alternative accommodation. The Franciscan monastery in Vilnius was taken over in such way. Eventually, all the orders were considered illegal organisations, and their members risked being imprisoned and being sent to Soviet labour camps if they continued their activity.
Fighting with the Church was, of course, not only led in legal, administrative and economic aspect. Arrests, imprisonment, sending people for forced labour and exile were a very important and widely used form of repression. The clergy could also face the death penalty. At the end of 1946, Bishop Vincentas Borisevičius was shot in Vilnius because of his refusal to cooperate with security services. The people who were not sentenced to death were dying too. In 1953, Archbishop Mečislovas Reinys died in prison in Vladimir in unexplained circumstances. Officially, there was no persecution of religion in the Soviet state. The propaganda was proclaiming religious freedom, that is why the people, who were arrested for pastoral activity, teaching of religion or even developing their own religious knowledge, were being accused of counter-revolutionary and anti-state activity.
In the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Penal Code, which was also in force in Lithuania, there was an Article 58, which concerned the counter-revolutionary crimes. There was written among others that: “A counter-revolutionary action is any action aimed at overthrowing, undermining or weakening of the power of workers’ and peasants’ Soviets… and governments of the USSR and Soviet and autonomous republics, or at the undermining or weakening of the external security of the USSR and main economical, political and national achievements of the proletarial revolution.”
The words of Aleksandr Solzhyenitsyn are the best commentary for this article: “In all truth, there is no step, thought, action, or lack of action under heavens which could not be punished by the heavy hand of Article 58.”
According to the data of the Ministry of Interior from 1958, in the years 1944-1953, 280 Catholic priests were repressed in Lithuania, which constituted about 37 percent of all priests. The kind of punishments is known in 173 cases. 35 people received the maximum sentences, which was 25 years of being sent to Soviet labour camps. These sentences were passed mostly in the years 1949-1952. Most of the sentences were 10 years of Soviet labour camps. There were 110 of such sentences. The years 1949-1950 were the period of the toughest repressions. 76 priests were arrested at that time, which was on average 6 priests each month.
Although the methods of fighting with the Church were changing, the people having ties with the Church were subjected to repressions until the end of the Soviet period. All, especially priests and nuns, were under constant surveillance. The authorities trying to recruit their associates and friends as agents. All were also subjected to psychological pressure and intimidation. The clergy who were religiously active, risked their life until the end of the Soviet period. The monument of Fr. Bronius Laurinavičius, murdered in Vilnius in 1981, is the reminiscent of that.
“Of course, the worst time was the period until 1953. It was when most of Catholic priests or Catholic activists were imprisoned. It was the time when a great distrust appeared because of the omnipresence of informers. The priests risked that their words could be used in the denunciation letter. It was not only about the sermons, but also about what was said during the confession. Gradually, the types of repressions were changing. However, they were not stopped until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each member of the clergy was under surveillance, and from the viewpoint of the authorities only a few priests were considered loyal,”explains Dr Alina Zawadzka.
*The quotation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was taken from the book Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society by Steven A. Barnes, published by Princeton University Press in 2011.
*The quotation of the fragment of Article 58 of RSFSR was taken from the World Heritage Encyclopedia published on the website of Project Gutenberg.
Translated by Magdalena Bobryk within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.