Lithuania, The Catholic Church in
LITHUANIA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Republic of Lithuania is located in northeastern Europe, east of the Baltic Sea. The largest of the Baltic States, it is bordered on the north by Latvia, on the east by the Kalinigrad Oblast of Russia, on the south and southeast by Belarus and on the south by Poland. Benefited by a moderate climate, Lithuania is comprised predominately of lowlands, with numerous lakes. Natural resources include peat, while the nation's fertile soil produces such crops as grain, potatoes, sugar beets, vegetables and flax.
A grand duchy from the 13th century until 1795, Lithuania became subjected to Russia until claiming independence in 1918. Except for the years it was occupied by German troops during World War II, between 1940 and 1990, Lithuania was incorporated as part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Ethnic Lithuanians are Baltic Indo-Europeans who entered the region before the Christian era. Lithuania is the most nationally homogenous Baltic state: 80 percent of the population is Lithuanian, while the remaining 20 percent are divided between Russian and Polish.
Early History . The early Lithuanians followed a form of animism, based on belief in the supranatural character of natural phenomena and a cult of the dead. The region's first encounter with Christianity was likely through Western merchants, Christian Danes or Swedes, who at times entered Lithuania. The missionary journeys of Bishop adalbert of prague and Bruno of Querfurt at the turn of the 10th century ended with martyrdom for both in Prussia. Missionaries and knights came from North Germany c. 1200 and evangelized, partly by preaching the Gospels, partly by force. The land of the Prussians, to the west, was given c. 1230 to teutonic knights, recently expelled from Palestine, to evangelize and colonize. Meanwhile the Lithuanian tribes united and moved eastward into the former Kiev kingdom. Pressure from the German knights of the sword, founded in Livonia
in 1202, and from the Teutonic Knights in Prussia (both merged into one order in 1237), threatened the independence of Lithuania and forced Grand Duke Mindaugas to negotiate with the master of the Christian order of Livonia. In 1251 Mindaugas, his family and many of his retinue were baptized, and a delegation sent from Lithuania to Pope Innocent IV. The pope recognized Mindaugas as king and his coronation in 1253, and also established the Diocese of Lithuania immediately subject to the Holy See. Christian, a Teutonic Knight, became the first bishop of Lithuania. In 1257 Vitus, a Dominican, was consecrated as bishop for southern Lithuania. The populace was instructed in the faith by Franciscans, Dominicans and other priests (see dacia).
The desire for power among the Teutonic Knights, dissension among the princes and the strong adherence to paganism among the masses prevented an easy transition to the new religion. In 1263 a pagan faction murdered Mindaugas and assumed control of the region for the next century. Attempts to Christianize Lithuania during the 13th and 14th centuries were unsuccessful, in part because of the eagerness of the Teutonic Knights for territorial conquest. Lithuanians realized that to become Christian was to lose their freedom. The region's permanent conversion was effected by grand dukes jagieŁŁo and Vytautas. In 1385 Jagiełło united Lithuania and poland, through his marriage with Jadwiga, heiress to the Polish throne. Baptized with a number of Lithuanian princes, he was crowned King Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland on March 4. Early in 1387 he and his cousin Vytautas went to Vilnius, where nobles as well as many common people converted to Christianity. Jagiełło and his Catholic retinue translated several holy texts into Lithuanian and explained Catholic doctrine to the populace. Jagiełło founded the diocese of Vilnius in 1387; the diocese of Medininkai (later Samogitia) was erected in 1417, the same year all of Lithuania was converted. Both Vilnius and Medininkai were subjected to the metropolitan of Gniezno. Latin dioceses were erected in the eastern part of the grand duchy, along with a few eparchies under the Orthodox metropolitan of Kiev. In 1320 a Latin diocese was established in Kiev and in 1358 another in Vladimir, which was transferred to Lutsk in 1428.
Growth and Danger: 1387–1569 . When Catholicism became the state religion, Catholic nobles became leaders in the senate and in the administration of the state, and as a result mixed marriages were forbidden by law. A long period of peace under Kazimieras IV contributed much to the establishment of religion throughout both Lithuania and Poland. Kazimieras' second son, Kazimieras (casimir, d. 1484), was canonized and is venerated as the principal patron saint of Lithuania. Despite the spread of the faith among the upper classes, the small number of churches and priests, the lack of schools for higher education and the influx of the Polish clergy seeking better Benefices but unable to speak the language, left the common people ignorant of their faith and encouraged their reliance on pagan customs.
By the mid-16th century, most of Lithuania's influential noble families had become followers of calvinism or arianism, while several merchants and townsmen adopted lutheranism. While most rural folk remained loyal to the Church, they were pressured by their landowners to accept the new beliefs. Soon a vigorous Catholic counteraction began, led by Cardinal Stanislaus hosius, bishop of Ermland. The conversion of Prince Mikalojus Radvilas in 1567 brought many leading noble families back to the Church. Also effective in turning the tide were the jesuits, who entered East Prussia in 1564 at the invitation of Hosius and arrived in Vilnius in 1569 at the call of Bishop Valerijonas Protasevičius.
Great Development: 1569–1795 . The Jesuits opened their first college in Lithuania at Vilnius in 1570; nine years, as a university, it became the only institution of higher learning in northeastern Europe, a situation lasting until 1755. As an important Catholic center of learning, the influence of the University of Vilnius stretched beyond Lithuania to Sweden, Kiev and Moscow. The Lithuanian Jesuits formed their own province in 1608 and continued establishing colleges in the country, with 21 colleges by 1756. Jesuits were also active as theologians, confessors of bishops and princes, preachers and writers of theological, polemical, ascetical and devotional literature. Due to their efforts, Catholic written works such as
the catechisms of St. Peter Canisius (1585) and Ledesma (1595) were translated into Lithuanian. The Jesuits also popularized Lithuanian hymns and religious customs, such as the singing of the rosary, the chanting of the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, solemn processions and pilgrimages. Dramatic productions in Jesuit schools were highly esteemed. Of the other orders engaged in education and in literary work, the piarists, basilians and vincentians were the most active.
Several bishops played a significant role in the development of the Lithuanian Church. Merkelis Giedraitis, bishop of Samogitia (1576–1609), was responsible for building new churches, teaching the faith to the common people and increasing the number of native clergy. Jurgis Radvilas, bishop of Vilnius (1579–91) and cardinal (1584), founded the first major seminary in Vilnius in I582. In the same year a second seminary, the Seminarium Pontificum, was established there by Gregory XIII to train missionaries for the eastern territories. Seminarians for the Diocese of Samogitia were also trained in Vilnius
until their own seminary was opened, first in the Jesuit college at Kražiai (c. 1620), then at Varniai (1740). In 1611, after Smolensk fell to Lithuania, a Latin diocese was established there; in 1636 it received its first bishop. After Smolensk was retaken by Moscow in 1654, there remained only three parishes on the Lithuanian side. Nevertheless, the diocese survived until 1798; the bishops of the diocese resided generally in Vilnius.
For the union with Rome of members of the eastern churches living in Lithuania, see brest, union of; isidore of kiev.
Under Czarist Control: 1795–1918 . In the partitions of Poland and Lithuania, almost the entire Grand Duchy of Lithuania fell to Russia while lands south of the Nemunas River went to Prussia. The authoritarian attitude of the Russian rulers—even toward the popes— hindered free communication with Rome. To Russianize the Lithuanians, the czars tried to convert them to the Orthodox Church through the abolition of Catholic schools, the dissolution of almost all monasteries and religious orders, and continual state interference in religious matters.
In 1798 Czar Paul I created a new church organization with a Catholic Church province of Mogilev containing six Latin-rite and three Eastern-rite Catholic dioceses, among them the existing dioceses of Samogitia and Vilnius. Pope Pius VI could do nothing but give a post factum approbation. In those lands incorporated into Prussia, Pius VI created a new diocese with its seat in Vygriai, later moved to Augustavas, and in 1818 to Seinai. At St. Petersburg the Collegium Ecclesiasticum Romano-Catholicum was founded in 1801; a kind of consistory, it was composed of Catholic priests but completely controlled by the government. The Catholic Academia Ecclesiastics, at which many Lithuanian priests studied and taught until 1917, was moved from Vilnius to St. Petersburg in 1842. Although the Holy See tried to help Catholics in Russia by signing a concordat in August of 1847, the agreement went unobserved and Catholics continued to be treated harshly.
The increasingly oppressive czarist regime sparked revolts in Poland and Lithuania in 1831 and 1863, that were brutally suppressed and resulted in even greater restrictions. In 1864 the episcopal seat was moved to Kaunas to allow the czar closer supervision of the bishop. However, these new laws only served to increase Lithuanian nationalism and resistance. Church leaders such as Motiejus Valančius, Bishop of Samogitia (1850–75), stood out as courageous and dauntless champions, promoting the Lithuanian language and culture and helping Lithuanian Catholics survive persecution without suffering great harm.
The Interwar Period: 1918 to 1940 . Lithuanian independence was restored by the legislature on Feb. 16, 1918. Poland's seizure of Vilnius two years later caused bitter enmity between the two countries, which had formerly shared a common destiny. Because of the dispute over Vilnius, relations between Lithuania and the Holy See became strained. Normal relations were finally restored in 1925, after Pius XI appointed Archbishop Jurgis Matulaitis (1871–1927) as apostolic visitor to Lithuania, and then established the country as a distinct ecclesiastical province. The Archdiocese of Kaunas became a metropolitan see, with suffragans Telšiai, Panevėzys, Vilkaviškis and Kaišiadorys, and the Prelature nullius of Klaipêda (Memel), all created in 1926. (Part of the territory of the Metropolitan See of Vilnius was restored later to Lithuania.) With the signing of a concordat on Dec. 10, 1927, relations with Rome were completely regularized, although tensions remained between the governing party and the Holy See.
Catholic life now progressed rapidly. Religious education was made compulsory in the country's public schools. There were three seminaries and, from 1922, a Catholic faculty of theology and philosophy at the University of Kaunas. Catholic intellectuals founded the Lithuanian Catholic Academy of Science, while Catholic students and academicians participated from 1910 in public life as members of Ateitis (Future). Numerous noteworthy members of the laity also supported the Church.
World War II and Occupation . In 1940 Lithuania became the first Roman Catholic country to come under Soviet rule when it was annexed to the USSR. The new communist government began a policy of secularization that included the abolition of religious instruction in public schools and the end of government support for religious institutions. It also instituted civil marriage, legalized divorce and abolished religious holidays. The Catholic press was closed and Catholic societies outlawed, and priests were recruited to work for the political police. Thousands were arrested or deported, including many active clergy. By 1941 the communist regime had closed virtually all Catholic institutions and confiscated the Theological Seminary in Kaunas.
The Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941 was met by large-scale anti-Soviet uprising in Lithuania. Initially, the Church hierarchy welcomed the departure of the Communists, urging the people to remain calm and carry on under the new occupation. As the Nazis showed relatively little interest in purely religious matters, some seminaries were reopened, and religion was allowed back into the schools. In March of 1942 the Germans deported Archbishop Romuald Jałbrzykowski (1876–1955) of Vilnius, replacing him with Archbishop Mečislovas Reinys (1884–1953) and marking the end of Polish control over this historic diocese.
Nazi genocidal policy posed a moral challenge to the people of the Baltic States. By the end of 1941, the majority of the Jews living in the area, nearly a quarter million from Lithuania's culturally vibrant Jewish community, were dead. Attempts by Church leaders to request German and Lithuanian military commandants to intercede on behalf of the Jews, as well as proposals by the Lithuanian bishops' conference to address the Jewish issue fell on deaf ears. The bishops also protested the forced resettlement policies of the Nazi and in 1943 successfully opposed the planned killing of the disabled and mentally impaired. Hundreds of Lithuanians, many of them Catholic laymen and religious, assisted the persecuted Jews in many ways. However, in the end only several thousand Jews survived the war in Lithuania, and the relative attitude—collaboration, resistance or indifference—of Lithuanian society, as well as that of the Church during the Holocaust, remained a controversial response. The accounts of survivors revealed that many who risked their lives to save Jews were motivated by a desire to do their Christian duty; on the other hand, some clergy did not escape the prevailing anti-Semitic attitudes partly motivated by the widespread belief that Jews had been active supporters of the hated Soviet regime.
The Church under Communism . Following Germany's defeat, Soviet armies returned in 1944 and under Josef Stalin immediately reactivated their atheistic and anticlerical policies. Soviet propaganda portrayed the Church as fascist, and an agent of the West. This spiritual oppression occurred against a backdrop of economic losses and violence within a totalitarian system alien to the religious traditions of Lithuania. The horrors of Stalin's rule represented a nadir in the modern history of the region. Mass deportations between 1945 and 1953 sent hundreds of Catholics, including several bishops, westward, or to Siberia and other remote regions of the USSR. Collectivization and a particularly bitter anti-Soviet guerrilla war raged in Lithuania during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Prohibitive taxes were levied against the Church and religious instruction in churches was banned. Church properties were nationalized and the buildings "leased" to the religious communities. In 1946, after Church leaders spoke out against the government's introduction of a system of government-controlled religious communities designed to subvert the parish system and undermine the clergy, Telšiai Bishop Vincentas Borisevičius was arrested and executed, Archbishop Reinys was exiled and the outspoken Bishop Teofilis Matulionis (1873–1962) of Kaišiadorys was imprisoned. By mid-1947, Kazimieras Paltarokas (1875–1958) was the only active bishop remaining in Lithuania.
Indicative of the greatly altered status of the Church in Lithuania, under Communist rule, was the decline in the number of churches, which dropped from 716 in 1940 to 604 by 1965. In all, about a third of the country's Catholic clergy were imprisoned or deported during the late 1940s. All the 324 chapels open in 1940 and all monastery churches had been closed by 1948. The 1,448 priests that worked in the country in 1940 had dropped to 869 by 1965.
A brief respite from oppression occurred under the government of Nikita Khrushchev (ruled 1953–64). In 1956 two bishops were restored (two others had died in prison); many priests and about 30,000 laymen were allowed to return to Lithuania. In 1955 two new bishops, Petras Maželis (1894–1966) and Julijonas Steponavičius (1911–92) were ordained and assigned to Telšiai and Vilnius respectively. For the first time since the war, limited official contact with the Holy See was permitted, and some Lithuanian clergy—although no bishops—were allowed to attend the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately, Khrushchev's "thaw," as it was known, was short-lived, and repressive policies were again in place by the late 1950s, albeit without the mass terror of the Stalin years. By 1961 bishops Matulionis, Vincentas Sladkevičius (1920–2000) and Steponavičius were exiled from their dioceses, and a number of priests arrested. Atheist propaganda was reactivated. Even as the Soviet government sought to normalize relations with the Vatican, and the Holy See sought an "opening to the east," the Lithuanian Soviet regime launched an anti-Catholic campaign which reached its height in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Church Resists . In response to Soviet repression, a Catholic dissident movement emerged and gained strength in the 1970s. Its main vehicle was the Lietuvos Katalik[symbol omitted] Bažnyčios Kronika ("The Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church"), which was one of the most important samizdat publications in the Soviet Union between 1972 and the late 1980s. Along with the Catholic Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Believers, organized in 1978, it detailed abuses of religious freedom, as well as the violation of human and national rights in Lithuania. Despite arrests, imprisonment and harassment of Catholic activists by the KGB, Soviet authorities were unable to eliminate the dissident movement. Catholic resistance to Soviet religious policy also opened up a split within the Church between elements in the hierarchy and clergy, who favored accommodation with the Soviet regime, and the Catholic dissident movement, which was closely allied to the growing Lithuanian movement to restore national sovereignty.
The upheavals of the Gorbachev era (1985–1991) in the USSR altered the role of the Church in Lithuania. The most egregious restrictions on religion were lifted in the late 1980s and effectively eliminated by 1990. Imprisoned Catholic activists and exiled prelates were released and allowed to resume their work, and Pope John Paul II appointed bishops to the country's diocese. Bishop Sladkevičius, named the country's first modern cardinal in June of 1988, joined other Church leaders in actively advocating for greater religious and national rights as embodied in the Lithuanian reform movement until his death in 2000. The Cathedral of Vilnius, which had been turned into an art gallery by the Soviets, was returned to the Church, and by 1989 virtually all legal restrictions on the Church were removed.
In March of 1990 the Lithuanian government proclaimed independence from the USSR. Under its constitution promulgated on Oct. 25, 1992, freedom of religion was guaranteed and traditional religions were granted government support. Among the new government's tasks, in the wake of decades of communist rule, was the need to restore Church property seized by the Soviet government, although lack of available government funds made this a lengthy process. Meanwhile, Church life began to return to normalcy. The Holy See opened a nunciature in Vilnius in 1992, and in May of 2000 signed accords establishing the juridical status of the Church in Lithuania. In September of 1993, Pope John Paul II visited Lithuania. Catholic instruction was once again permitted in public schools, and a number of private Catholic primary and secondary schools opened during the early 1990s. The Theological Seminary in Kaunas was expanded, and a new seminary opened in Telšiai. A rejuvenated Catholic press issued several popular periodicals, the largest being Katalikų pasaulis (Catholic World). In 1992 the Vatican appointed a career Vatican diplomat, Audrius Bačkis, as archbishop of Vilnius, that archdiocese now recognized as part of the Lithuanian ecclesiastical province.
By 2000 there were 649 parishes tended by 658 diocesan and 951 religious priests, and over 100 brothers and 990 sisters worked actively in the country, although an increase in evangelical Protestant and fundamentalist groups continued to challenge the Church's evangelical efforts. Although their numbers decreased dramatically as a result of the Holocaust, Lithuanian Jews opened a new synagogue in Vilnius in 1990. Reminded by this of their nation's role in the Holocaust, Church leaders publicly apologized in 2000, both for the indifference of some Catholics, as well as for all crimes committed against Jews by the Lithuanian people as a whole. Reemerging into capitalist society provided Church leaders with other causes of concern; during a 1996 statement, the Lithuanian Bishop's conference stated that problems such as organized crime, a declining birth rate, drug use, alcoholism and increased promiscuity would lead to "social depression, distrust of the government, and political indifference." Echoing these words, the pope noted during his 1999 ad limina visit with Lithuanian bishops, that after vanquishing communism, their task was now to battle "the seductive power of secularizaed and hedonistic models of life."
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