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 persecu-tion 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.
Twenty years after Fr Vėlavičius died in 1997, the young Vincentas he had baptised – his cousin’s grandson – was preparing for his own priestly ordination, set for early January 2018. He did some research on his “uncle” priest, who had died when he was still a boy. What he found was remarkable. The Lithuanian museum that preserves the memory of the gulags had the story of Fr Vėla-vičius. Even more extraordinary, they had the tiny chalice and paten that Fr Vėlavičius used to offer the Holy Mass secretly when in the gulag. The chalice could be held in the palm of one hand; the paten about the size of a 50-pence coin.
The soon-to-be Fr Lizdenis wrote to the museum and told them that Fr Vėlavičius was his grandmother’s cousin, his mother’s godfather, that he had been baptised by him, and now was preparing for ordination.
The museum, which does not curate the ancient past but rather more recent history, agreed to allow him to use the clandestine chalice and paten for his first Mass.
A special host had to be prepared to fit the coin-sized paten.
And so the young Fr Vincentas used, in full freedom and solemnity, the chalice and paten that the older Fr Vincentas had used in the gulag. Which Mass was the more solemn?
The clandestine Mass of Fr Vėlavičius was stripped of ceremony but even the angels would have wept at its solemn circumstance. In the gulag could Fr Vėlavičius ever have imagined that the chalice he was using would one day be elevated in a church full of free people in his own Lithuania?
The Venerable Francis-Xavier Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận was named Archbishop of Saigon in 1975, when the Vietnamese communists imprisoned him for 13 years – nine of them spent in solitary confinement. He would later say that the secret Masses he offered from memory, under the cover of darkness in his jail cell, were the “most beautiful” of his life, even more than the solemn Masses he had once offered in his cathedral.
It is a venerable custom that priests arrange for a special chalice for their first Mass. Often it is a gift of his parents, or his parish. It can be quite ornate, fashioned from precious metals and jewels, or engraved. It is likely to be the most expensive gift he will ever receive.
In recent years, another custom has been revived, especially as dioceses accumulate the chalices of deceased priests. Often a newly ordained will be offered a chalice from a deceased priest and he will have it restored for use again.
No matter the custom, it cannot be that any priest ever had as precious a chalice for his first Mass as Fr Lizdenis did. As he carefully lifted the little chalice, he was elevating the history of holiness lived by Lithuanian priests. Cardinal Tamkevičius is part of that history. Fr Lizdenis and his fellow young priests are the new custodians of that history, intended not for a museum, but for a free Lithuania.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca