Every summer thousands of Lithuanian mothers prepare their children for their first confession and Holy Communion. This is a difficult task and a great responsibility that demands much dedication on the part of both the parents and the clergy. Soviet laws forbid priests to teach children in order that the atheists may all the more easily disseminate their ideas. A number of priests who lived through the Stalinist reign of terror do not want any conflicts with the authorities and content themselves simply with testing the children. Other priests are courageous and have resolved to obey God rather than men—risking their freedom, they teach children the fundamentals of the faith.
At the sizeable parish in Prienai, about 300 children are prepared every year for First Communion. It was the same in 1971. On July 16 the children, together with their mothers, gathered at the church in Prienai for catechization. As Father Zdebskis was teaching and testing the children, a group of officials forced their way into the church. They photographed the children, asked their names, and drew up a report. A commotion arose in the church. Scandalized by the self-will of the Soviet officials, the parents of Prie-nai appealed to the Control Commission of the Central Committee of the USSR:
"On July 16 of this year, we, the undersigned, brought our children to church so that a priest could test their knowledge—whether they were ready to receive First Communion.
"Suddenly a group of men and women forced their way into the church. It was the chairman of the executive committee, the secretary of the Young Communist League, several teachers and police officers, and others. The uninvited guests began to take over in the church: they photographed the children and asked their names. One frightened girl even fainted.
"The mothers could not help defending their children. A sad scene was taking place in the church. When asked not to interfere, the uninvited guests answered: 'We’re not causing the commotion—the women are.’
"Such behavior by representatives of the government brings dishonor upon the Soviet laws. We ask that the persecution of believers be stopped.’’
This petition was signed by eighty-nine parents and sent to Moscow. Unfortunately, Moscow did not reply to the Catholics of Prienai.
* * *
Interrogations of the children, their parents, and of Father Zdebskis were begun by the Prienai Procurator’s Office. Interrogator A. Pakstys searched Father Zdebskis’ apartment.
On August 26 the interrogator telephoned Father Zdebskis and asked him to stop by his office "for a while.” It was here that the priest was arrested.
When the people found out that the priest had been arrested, they came to the Procurator’s Office and demanded the release of the priest. They said: "If you are arresting the priest, then arrest us first, for we brought our children to the priest. It is his duty to teach the children and to
4 THE CHRONICLE / 1 test them.” From the Procurator’s Office the believers marched off to see the Party secretary, who, however, refused to see them. A wave of indignation swept through the entire parish of Prienai and far beyond its borders. On Sunday a crowd of people could be seen waiting in line to sign a complaint addressed to several Soviet agencies:
"To: The Procurator General of the USSR
The Party Control Commission of the Central Committee of the CPSU
The Procurator of the LSSR
A Declaration by the Believers of the Parish in Prienai
"OnAugust 26 of this year, our parish priest, the Rev. J. Zdebskis, was arrested.
"He had conscientiously carried out his priestly duties. He did no harm to anyone. We are convinced that the arrest of our priest is due to some kind of misunderstanding, and we therefore ask that the reasons for his arrest be examined and that the order be given for his release.
"The Rev. J. Zdebskis is accused of preparing children for their first confession. If he has committed an offense by carrying out the duties pertinent to his priestly calling, why does the USSR Constitution guarantee freedom of conscience and of worship? We believe that this arrest is a brazen violation of the laws of this Soviet state.
"We parents are unable to prepare our children for their first confession. We do not have the time since we work either in factories or on collective farms. Secondly, we have neither catechisms nor religious books. During the postwar years, our public officials did not permit the publication of even one catechism.
"Bearing in mind this lamentable situation of Lithuania’s believers, what can we parents do? We take our children to the priests and insist that they help us prepare our children so that they would know at least the minimum about the faith. A priest cannot allow an unprepared child to make his first confession.
"It is a requirement of the Soviet government that priests do not teach children but only test them, and then only one at a time. But can a priest test in two months’ time about 300-400 children, who come knowing almost nothing of the faith and confession? Besides, our priests have many other churchly duties, for the parish in Prienai is large, with about 8,000 Catholics.
"Our priest was arrested because of our requests and demands, and therefore we are very surprised, upset and indignant. Why disturb the regularity of work, why provoke the believers, why artificially create confusion among the people of the rayon?
"We think that our indignation and this protest are well-founded and will be acted upon, and that in the future similar events will not recur.
August 29, 1971”
The declaration was signed by about 350 persons. The people of Prienai themselves delivered the declaration to the Procurator’s Office of the USSR. A promise was given that the matter would be investigated.
The believers also appealed to the Procurator of the LSSR and to Rugienis, the commissioner of the Council for Religious Affairs. He spoke angrily: "I know Father Zdeb-skis!” The parishioners answered: "We know him at least as well.”
On August 30 Father Zdebskis was taken to Vilnius. Already early in the morning there was a crowd of people near police headquarters waiting for the time when the priest would be driven away. Security agents photographed the people and wanted to disperse them. "Why are you standing here? Do you want to see a miracle?” "More than a miracle!” answered the people. At 4 p.m., as the crowd of people wept, Father Zdebskis was seated inside a car and driven away.
On September 3 Father Zdebskis’ apartment was searched thoroughly a second time. Someone was spreading rumors that Father Zdebskis had been arrested not for teaching children but that a radio transmitter had been found in his apartment, etc. Since even government officials were saying such things, apparently the intent was to deliberately compromise the arrested priest even more so that the believers would not dare to come to his defense.
* * *
In the latter half of September, the believers from Prienai took another petition to Moscow, one which resounded widely throughout the entire world:
"To: The Central Committee of the CPSU The Supreme Soviet of the USSR The Council of Ministers of the USSR A Petition from the Believers of the Parish in Prienai
"The newspapers and the radio try to convince us that there is religious freedom in the LSSR, but in reality this is not so.
"We are not permitted to publish religious books— we have never seen any. We do not even have any small catechisms. The last printing was in 1940.
"Often we cannot hear mass because we are forced to work on Sundays, even though Church laws forbid it.
“We lack priests. Every year about twenty priests die, but barely ten are allowed to enter the seminary. In addition, we know the difficulties those who enroll in the seminary experience from government officials.
"Our priests are being arrested for preparing children for their first confession. On August 26 our priest, the Rev. J. Zdebskis, was arrested for catechizing, and we are now awaiting his trial.
"All this compromises in our eyes the Soviet Constitution and the laws.
"We therefore ask the government of the Soviet Union: give us true freedom of religion; give our priests the freedom to perform their duties without interference and without fear; arrange to have our priest, Father J. Zdebskis, released from custody.
September 12, 1971”
The petition was signed by 2,010 believers. This was a courageous protest by the people against religious persecution.
The government had not foreseen that the believing people were like a temporarily inactive volcano. We cannot foresee the future consequences. One thing is clear—Lithuanian believers shall fight for their rights!
How intensely the people reacted to Father Zdebskis’ arrest can be seen from certain facts. During the religious festival of the Nativity of Mary in Šiluva, about 200 people made offerings for masses to be said for Father Zdebskis’ intention. Having lost their pastor, parishioners from Santaika appealed to the General-Secretary of the CPSU asking that Father Zdebskis be released because the bishop had no one he could appoint as pastor of the parish in Santaika:
"We, the undersigned Catholics, appeal to the Central Committee requesting that attention be directed to the difficult situation of believers in Lithuania.
"Our government officials do not permit all those who wish to enter the seminary to do so, and therefore the number of priests is rapidly decreasing. The bishop already lacks enough priests to take care of all the parishes. We have heard that during this past year, the parish in Lankeliškiai has been deprived of its pastor, and just this month we too were left without a permanent pastor. A priest who has to commute from elsewhere will not be able to take proper care of our spiritual affairs. This hurts us deeply and is arousing mistrust of the government’s policy.
"Hardly had Father Šeškevičius, who was convicted for the performance of his priestly duties, returned from the prison camp in Alytus, when Father Zdebskis was once again arrested in Prienai for having, as we heard, prepared children who were brought by their parents for their first confession. If this is a crime, then how can we even think about freedom of conscience and of religion?
“We Catholics lack prayer books and pray from tattered ones. Several years ago, we received several prayer books published by the government, in jest, as it were... It is essential that every Catholic be able to obtain a good prayer book. Wo do not even have the Bible to read from.
“It is most regretful that the rights of Catholics, as though they were Negroes, are being flagrantly violated, and we ask the Central Committee to see to it that government officials would not interfere in seminary matters; that permission would be granted to our spiritual leadership for publishing annually a sufficient number of prayer books, the Gospels, and other religious books; and that Father Zdebskis would be released from custody. The bishop will then be able to appoint him or another priest as our pastor.
September 26, 1971“
The petition was signed by 1,190 Catholics of Santaika.
* * *
Weeks and months raced by, but the day of Father Juozas Zdebskis’ trial was constantly postponed and diligently kept secret. Late in the evening on November 11, like lightning the news flashed through the parish in Prienai: “Father Juozas will be tried tomorrow in Kaunas!”
The morrow would reveal the true nature of the Soviet government’s attitude in regard to the believers.
Already early in the morning the staircase of the courthouse up to the third floor and the yard were teeming with people. Flowers could be seen in the hands of many persons. Everyone was waiting for the arrival of Father Zdebskis. Police officers were scurrying about in the vicinity. As the hour of the trial approached, they started to "put things in order”—to forcibly push the people outside. They even bloodied a woman they were pushing. The Catholics were ejected, and their places in the courtroom were taken by an enormous group of security agents. Besides them, there were witnesses in the courtroom—children, their par-parents, together with the employees of various agencies brought over from Prienai. A theatrical performance had to be played out—a public trial was taking place... to which the security agents were admitting only atheists. Without a doubt, the authorities did not want to popularize this trial.
The arrests of the faithful were begun on the staircase. One youth was arrested because he made a remark to the policemen questioning why they were allowing only atheists inside and not the believers. The youth was punished with fifteen days in jail. One priest who had accompanied Father Zdebskis’ mother was arrested in the corridor and taken away to security headquarters for interrogation.
Outside, near the courthouse, the crowd continued to grow. The police began to arrest those people who could be seen with flowers in their hands and forcibly crowd them into paddy wagons. There was a great deal of confusion and shouting. The police were given the order to disperse the crowd, which consisted of about 500-600 persons. After the crowd had been rudely dispersed, they began to arrest certain individuals. A priest who happened to be passing by was arrested and charged with organizing the demonstration. Throughout the day the policemen stood guard on Ožeškienė Street and did not allow people to assemble. "Why are you standing here like pigs!” was one of the ways the police officials knew of "greeting” the people. People were even being chased out of the nearby stores. "Chase the sanctimonious grannies out of here,” shouted a policeman who had run into one shop. Most of those arrested were released in the evening. One person was taken to a psychiatric hospital and later was punished with fifteen days in jail.
On that day the people admirably demonstrated their solidarity with the priest who was on trial, whereas the mob of security agents and policemen showed how the Soviet government takes into consideration the rights of believers.
In order to keep the Jewish nation living in fear, each month King Antioch of the Syrians would kill those he felt were still faithful to the laws of God; however, many chose to die rather than betray their faith (1 Mach. 1).
Father Zdebskis’ trial had the same purpose—to keep the nation under an atmosphere of fear so that no one would dare to demand more freedom.
Persecution arouses fear; however, someone’s self-sacrifice, made in God’s name while suffering for one’s faith, rouses the people into thinking about and fighting for the greatest human values.
* * *
The People’s Court of Kaunas Rayonconsisted of presiding People’s Judge V. Gumuliauskas and People’s Assessors [Mrs.] Palaišienė and Vasiliauskas. [Miss] Černiauskaitė served as secretary. Procurator A. Miliukas, "Public” Prosecutor S. Ratinskas, and Defense Counselor A. Riauba participated in the trial.
The judge read the minutes of a faculty meeting of the secondary school in Prienai, which had been called to elect the "public” prosecutor. Then after announcing Father Zdebskis’ biographical data (born in 1929 in Naujiena Village, Kapsukas Rayon) and the charges, the judge began questioning the accused. (Some excerpts are presented) :
"Have you ever been convicted by a court?”
"I have been.”
"On what charges?”
"For the same thing. Later the Supreme Court reversed my conviction.”
"Has your right to perform priestly functions ever been revoked?”
"That is something I am unable to tell the honored members of the court because in my mind it is unclear to this day why my rights were revoked.”
"What have you to say about the charges against you?” "I must state that I do not agree with the charge that I organized the teaching of the children. I did not organize it—that would have been just about impossible due to a lack of the time needed for going around to the homes or travelling to the villages. The testing of children who are preparing for their first confession goes on all year long, and whoever wants to may come. But in the summertime, during vacation, when the children have no classes, then it is most convenient for them; that’s why a larger group of children formed spontaneously.”
"How many children would be in the groups?” "Sometimes one or more...”
"Could there have been as many as one hundred?” "Yes,” he answered joyfully, "at times there may have been as many as one hundred. To my delight there are quite a few conscientious parents who prepare their children very well. These children can be allowed to receive the sacraments as soon as they are questioned. There are also untalented children who cannot be allowed to receive the sacraments for as long as they have not learned the tenets of the faith.”
"The interrogator has written down that some children came for instructions for as long as two weeks.”
"That could have happened.”
"Were the children registered?”
"No. I spoke with whoever came. To avoid confusion, after the examination of their knowledge, they were given a certificate, that is, a permit to receive First Communion. There were some children who could not answer the questions at first. Then I would explain things to them.”
"Where did they find out that such instruction of children was taking place in the church?”
"Usually an announcement is made in the church during the sermon that parents should taken an interest in their children and should teach them religious truths, and that during vacation is the most convenient time to bring the children, after preparing them, to have their knowledge tested.”
"Were you the only one to announce this, or did other priests announce it as well?”
"Whoever preached the sermon, he would also remind them.”
"Were you the only one who taught the children, or did other priests teach them also?”
"Since I was the youngest at the church in Prienai, I had to carry the greater work load, for the pastor has many other duties.”
Father Zdebskis was charged with being the first among the priests to catechize children.
"I was not the initiator of the practice of preparing children to receive the sacraments. That would be conferring too great an honor upon me. Other priests are also fulfilling their obligation to teach, which has been imposed upon us by Christ and the Church. I would be a slanderer if I said that they do not teach. Each one must answer to his own conscience how he fulfills this obligation.”
Afterward, the underage witnesses were questioned. After asking their name and surname, the judge would urge:
"Tell the whole truth to the court. Do you recognize him? Turn around and look!”
Some of them answered, "I recognize him”; others said, "No.” One boy who had looked for a long time at the priest standing there and smiling at him replied: "He’s changed a lot.” When the judge questioned them about what the priest had taught, some said, "Prayers,” and others said, "He didn’t teach. He only asked questions.” Still others answered, "He taught us not to break windows, pick pockets, fight, or steal, but to obey our teachers and parents.” The judge asked at what times the lessons had started and ended, and when intermissions had occurred.
Some children gave the times, others answered that they could not remember. When asked by the judge what they had studied from and where they had received the catechisms, almost everyone answered that his mother or grandmother had one. The more timid children cried or remained silent. Father Zdebskis stood up for each child, but the judge kept reminding him: "Remain seated!”
After this, they began questioning the parents.
Witness R.: "I instructed my child myself and took him to the priest to be tested.”
"Did the child want to go, or did you just take him?” "Our parents took us, and I also took my children.” The defense counselor: "Were you coerced into taking him whether you wanted to or not?”
"No. I took him in good faith.”
The parents who were witnesses were questioned a great deal as to how often they had taken their children to see the priest, what the priest had talked about, how many children were in the groups, etc.
Later, representatives of the local authorities of Prienai were questioned.
The witness Kučinskas: "In early July, the executive committee received reports from the inhabitants that a priest of Prienai was teaching religion to children in the church. We went to the church and found about fifty children and several women. Father Zdebskis was expounding to them. When we arrived, he called for an intermission, and we went to the sacristy for a talk. We warned him that he was breaking the law with such actions, but he replied, "I have taught before and will continue to teach. When the laws of God and the Church conflict with those of the state, one must preferably obey God,” and he paid no attention to our warnings. One week later I went there once more with the commission, and Father Zdebskis was teaching again. A report was drawn up.
"Was Father Zdebskis tactful?”
"Yes, he was tactful. He even joked at first: 'Perhaps
you’ve come about your children? If you wish, I am ready to help...’”
"And both times you drew up a report?”
The witness M. Naginevičius: "On July 9, 1971, I was included in the commission concerned with the teaching of children in the church. There was a group of children and mothers in the church. Father Zdebskis was expounding to them. We explained to him that the organized teaching of religion to children is a violation of the laws, and he answered that he was aware of this, but that he had been teaching the commandments of God and would continue to teach them...”
After a recess, the judge read aloud the documents of the case proving the "guilt” of Father Zdebskis.
From page 3 of the proceedings: "A report by the chairman of the Prienai RayonExecutive Committee written to Rugienis, the commissioner of the Council for Religious Affairs, states that on July 8 of this year, the retired priest Zakaryza was found in the parish church of Prienai with a group of fifty children. After being warned, Zakaryza had declared: Tve been teaching, and I will continue to do so. I am only doing what God has commanded.’ On July 9 Father Zdebskis, after being warned, stated the same thing. Father Zdebskis was warned that he was disregarding the laws.”
From page 20 of the proceedings (from Father Zdebskis’ previous place of employment): "The chairman of the Lazdijai RayonExecutive Committee writes that in Kapčiamiestis there has been an increase in religious activities under the influence of Father Zdebskis: they go around carrying crosses and crowns, even though they have no right to do so. They are attracting the Young Pioneers and the Little Octobrists, and are enrolling them into rosary societies. Father Zdebskis has a Java motorcycle and rides around from house to house. He visited one Communist family and said that he could even baptize their child at their own home if they so desired.”
All these documents—the complaints, photographs, warnings—made up the fifty-three pages of the proceedings. After they were made public, Father Zdebskis asked to be permitted to present his motives as a concluding statement.
The legal arguments began.
"Public” Prosecutor S. Ratinskas, who heads the dormitory of the secondary school in Prienai, said in his presentation that Father Zdebskis knows the laws forbidding the teaching of religion to underage children, but he ignores these laws, basing his action on the premise that he must obey a higher law. The laws are not to be abused. Zdebskis was undoing what was being taught in the schools.
The students are finding it difficult to assimilate the school’s program; they were having doubts... The Church was frightening the people. It has no experience in practical life... The religion primer is not pedagogical because it discusses disoluteness... The teaching of religion in the church was carried out in an organized manner because there had been an announcement about it during a sermon... There is a seminary for studying religion. Up to ten candidates are allowed to enroll there annually, but when that many are not to be found, three to four are accepted, and this entirely satisfies the needs of the believers, for their numbers are continually decreasing. The state is not hampering the believers...
The prosecutor concluded his presentation by relating some slanderous gossip about Father Zdebskis.
A summary of the procurator’s presentation follows: Parents and guardians are completely free to teach children about religious matters. Those who interfere with the performance of religious rites are punished. The Declaration on Christian Education of the Second Vatican Council states that, in addition to the parents, the state also has rights regarding children. Father Zdebskis violated the law governing the separation of Church and State. During July and August in 1971, he organized and systematically carried out the instruction of minors—a total of about 200-300 children—and therefore, punishment must be imposed on him in accordance with the appropriate article of the law.
Afterward, the procurator tried to prove that Father Zdebskis did in fact organize and teach the children. According to the testimony of the witnesses and the words of the accused, Zdebskis, an offense had really been committed and had been fully proven. The instruction of children was also carried out by Father Zakaryza, but because of certain circumstances the Procurator’s Office had halted the criminal proceedings against him. In conclusion the procurator asked the court to sentence Zdebskis to the loss of his freedom for one year in a regular-regime prison camp.
Defense Counselor Riauba argued that Father Zdebskis had not organized the instruction of the children. He had only announced publicly that parents should show some concern about their children’s knowledge of religion. There had been no coercion. In the addendum to the Criminal Code, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the LSSR has indicated how the article regarding the separation of Church and State is to be applied, stressing the factors of organization and systematic execution. Execution alone is not enough. Besides, some of the children came only once. Is that systematic instruction?
The defense counselor recalled to the court Lenin’s injunction against offending the believers, but the procurator had done just that, basing his action on the unfounded rumors about Father Zdebskis. As he concluded his presentation, the counselor asked the court not to apply Article 143 of the Criminal Code to Father Zdebskis but to reserve the right for the executive committee to penalize him with a fine of fifty rubles.
After this, Father Zdebskis made his final statement. His presentation was interrupted several times by the judge, who would not let the priest state his intended ideas; therefore, we are presenting here the written text of the Rev. Juozas Zdebskis’ statement:
"Between two laws
"The right to live when one may not be born I
"On August 25, 1971, I was arrested and criminal proceedings were started against me because this past summer I taught children the tenets of the faith at the church in Prienai. In one of the documents of my case it is recorded 'About seventy children and about fifty parents were found in the church. He is being charged with the violation of Article 143, section 1, of the LSSR Criminal Code, which refers to the separation of Church and State. The charge was announced during his arrest.’
“How do I justify my actions? I must repeat the same motive I stated in the church when a group of atheists who had come into the church asked me whether I knew that the teaching of children was forbidden. The answer must be given in the same words with which the first messengers from Jesus explained to the Supreme Court: “We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).
1. Thus, the answer to the question of why I taught children the tenets of the faith is essentially provided by Christ’s command: 'Go therefore... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Matt 28:19). This command encompasses all people, both adults and children without exception. To teach—not one’s own wisdom, not the way of life suggested by some philosopher, but the kind of life Christ demands of us, emphasizing especially His greatest requirement: to consider no man your enemy. Not one of those who have set themselves up as teachers of the art of living, has dared to make such a demand. Not even the Communist party.
2. The Roman Catholic Church has repeated this demand of Christ as a juridical person in three paragraphs of its code of laws (Codex Juris Canonici,pars. 129, 130, 131).
3. The command to teach children the tenets of the faith and the way of life indicated by Christ is being put into practice by the children’s parents, who have a natural right to do so. If the parents want their children to study music, they seek a music teacher; if mathematics, then a teacher of mathematics, and similarly.
"Thus we priests find ourselves between two laws.
"It seems that a state could have no other purpose in enacting laws other than the welfare of its citizens, which is impossible without freedom of conscience, without the right of parents to nurture their own children. The constitution of the USSR recognizes the freedom of conscience and the rights of parents regarding their children. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been signed. All this was quite comprehensively presented a year ago in equivalent proceedings against the Rev. A. Šeškevičius. Because the present case also does not concern only one individual—the accused—but concerns the Catholic Churh as a juridical person in a certain geographic area, it is therefore perhaps unnecessary to repeat all this again.
"It is worth remembering the latest official explanations regarding this matter. L. Brezhnev, the General-Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, stressed the following in a report at the Twenty-Fourth Congress: 'Violations of an individual’s rights or insults to the dignity of citizens cannot be allowed. For us Communists, adherents of the most humane ideals, this is a matter of principle.’ (Pravda, editorial, August 29, 1971).
"Rugienis, the commissioner of the Council for Religious Affairs, in an official interview with the editor of an overseas Lithuanian newspaper, Jokūbka, emphasized that in Lithuania there is complete freedom of religion and of conscience. No one has the right to even inquire about anyone’s religious convictions. That is how Jokūbka depicts the religious situation in Lithuania in his book Tėvų žemė[Land of our Fathers], which was published earlier this year in Chicago. The same thing is also stated in the booklet Bažnyčia Lietuvoje[The Church in Lithuania], which recently appeared in Lithuania in the Italian and the English languages. It would seem that not only the previous year’s, but also this year’s official explanation of this matter sounds identical—that there is total freedom of religion in Lithuania.
"Freedom, to the Catholic Church as a legal entity, should mean the ability to function. For example, if one is permitted to live, then one is also permitted to breathe, eat, etc. If there is official permission for priests to exist, then, by the same token, they are allowed to perform their basic functions, that is, to offer sacrifice, to forgive sins in God’s name (to judge), and to teach.
"It follows that I am being tried for the performance of the duties pertinent to my calling.
"A glance at the pages of documents of this case reveals that my characterizations written by atheists from my various former places of employment also accuse me of having carried out my duties.It is unfortunate that I did not find there any characterization from the chancery of the Curia. Would it also have accused me of performing my duties?
"It is also necessary to indicate to the court the psychological circumstances which doubtless influenced the actions for which I am being tried.
"These circumstances were created by the facts of life brought about when either the atheists themselves or certain institutions failed to observe the very same lawwhich refers to freedom of conscience according to which I am being tried today.
"The word 'atheists’ is being used here as the most suitable in this matter, because an atheist—whether he is an operative of the security forces or whether he works in administration or in the field of education—acts the same in this regard—as one who wages a fight against God.
"The laws of the USSR solve the problem of freedom of conscience by separating the Church from the state. Unfortunately, due to some atheists, the Church perceives itself as being not separated from the state but on the contrary, as subjugated to the interests of the atheistsand even that, quite often by means of guile and deceit.
"For the same reasons, the believers feel they are "outsiders”; they feel themselves unequal before the law.
"The facts which are widely known by the public cannot be unknown to the Procurator’s Offices. Why do they remain silent?
"Let us bring to mind one or two facts which are relevant to the case at hand.
"First of all, the inequality of believers before the law is illustrated by the fact that the atheists have their own press and schools, but the believers are not permitted this.
"If priests are being punished for preparing children for their first confession, then one is inclined to ask whether even one atheist has been brought to trial for violating the rights of believers on the basis of the supplement to Article 143 of the Criminal Code which was promulgated in 1966? After all, there have been such violations. For example, one year ago a teacher from the secondary school in Vilkaviškis was dismissed from work because she was a believer and therefore had no right to function as an educator or to even work elsewhere. Is this not a violation of the freedom of conscience? And this is not a solitary occurance in our environment.
"Another aim of the atheists is to have the public, especially the youth, students, and office workers, stop attending mass. They probably sense intuitively that it is easiest to know God face to face; they can feel that everything we call the working of grace, and at the same time the steadfastness of one’s faith are inseparably linked with the Mass. In other words, there is freedom of conscience; however, the inner culture of the people, and especially of the youth, is not to be nurtured. There have been a number of instances when teachers either did not allow students who were participating in funeral services to enter a church or made them leave it. Is this not a transgression against the freedom of conscience? These and similar facts which are widely known by the public cannot be unknown to the Procurator’s Offices. Why do they remain silent? Is it a wonder then, that believers do not feel equal before the law?
"It is particularly incomprehensible to believers why the authorities have failed to respond to any of the believers’ petitions in which the existing irregularities as far as the believers are concerned were pointed out to the government. It had been announced in the newspapers, after all, that the appropriate agency must respond to petitions within one month’s time. The action taken by the believers in connection with this case might serve as a fitting example. This past summer when the children were being taught the tenets of their faith and a group of atheists came into the church and began to furtively photograph the children and to ask their names, then the mothers came to the aid of their children. There was an uproar in the church—it takes so little to affect the psychology of the masses, in order that something similar to the events in Kražiai during the days of czarist oppression might recur. (One would ask whether all this increases the people’s respect for the constitution?) After this occurrence, eighty-nine parents wrote a joint complaint to the Control Commission of the Central Committee of the CPSU demanding that 'the tormenting of the believers be stopped.’ There was no official reply to the petition, even though a return address had been given.
"In the face of such and similar facts, the question naturally arises whether the community of believers is outside the bounds of the law? Should one be surprised if it occurs to the public that the freedom of conscience granted by the constitution and the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc., are only propaganda? Likewise with the 1966 addendum to Article 143 of the Criminal Code concerning the penalties for violating the religious freedom of believers; and also Rugienis’ interview by Jokūbka; and the publications Tėvų žemė [Land of our Fathers], Bažnyčia Lietuvoje [The Church in Lithuania], and others which concern the freedom of conscience.
"Why do the Procurator’s Offices remain silent seeing all this? Do certain secret lawsexist which contradict the official laws and are unknown to the public?
"Let us look further.
"In a number of instances the actions of the atheists reek of unmistakeable guile and deceitin regard to the requirements of conscience. Why is none of this being punished? More than once, the atheists’ actions in regard to believers were similar to the behavior of the fifteenth-century Duke of Gloucester depicted in the writings of Shakespeare. In attempting to attain the throne of the King of England, he secretly murdered all his competitors, but was capable of appearing in public with a prayer book in his hands.
1. Do not the atheists’ guileful efforts to undermine the Church from within violate the freedom of conscience? —this in a country whose constitution guarantees the freedom of conscience—by creating the impression that the bishops are at their posts, that instructions are being issued from the bishop’s chancery, even though actually the assignment of priests to their places of ministry and many other instructions are dictated by the atheists in the hope that the situation of the Catholic Church in Lithuania would begin to resemble that of the Russian Orthodox Church.
2. Do not the efforts to compromise certain priests and even bishops in the eyes of the believers and even in the Vatican reek of guile? For instance, is it the wish of believers that the energetic and healthy Bishop V. Sladkevicius be listed as 'sedi datus’in the Vatican’s register of the world’s bishops?
3. Is not guile indicated by the fact that although a theological seminary exists only four or five candidates are allowed to be admitted annually, and hence, graduated, when twenty to thirty priests die every year in Lithuania? Equally indicative are the efforts being expended to keep especially talented and refined students and professors out of the seminary.
4. The same can be said about the teaching of children. Although they are permitted to receive First Communion, what is the significance of the requirement that children be questioned one at a time? (for no such juridically formulated law exists) How can children be prepared one at a time in those parishes where one is faced with several hundred little children in the summertime? The parents rightfully expect help from us priests in this matter. And what is one to do? Should the children be allowed to receive First Communion unprepared? A person cannot love what he does not know. Is it possible that a guileful attempt to quietly wrest the children from their parentslurks here? Then the atheists would be able to say that we have freedom of conscience—the people themselves are renouncing the faith.
"But then such freedom of religion is like being allowed to live when one is not permitted to be born.
"Honorable Judges, I am inclined to think that you, too, like many people of the younger generation today have come to know God from Biblijos linksmybės[Pleasantries from the Bible] and from similar books, rather than the God who died for us on the Cross; thus, even though you have advanced degrees in your field of specialization, it is doubtful if at this moment you could pass the kind of examination on religious matters that the children take before their First Communion.
"Upon recalling this fact alone (since, in the words of Rachmanova, you too are among the people produced by 'the new people factory’), we must forgive you for holding this trial and pray for God’s forgiveness. On that day, as I have already mentioned, when the disturbance was created in the church, I later asked the children: 'Children, should we hate these people?’ They answered: 'No!’ 'And what is the most important command Jesus gave us?’ 'To consider no man your enemy,’ they again replied.
"Again recalling those facts, a few of which I have mentioned as examples, which are widely known by the public and which the Procurator’s Offices cannot be unaware of, I would like to ask: why is all this tolerated, while I am being tried, having been charged with violating the freedom of conscience? How can a citizen be punished on the basis of laws which, as we see, are not observed in many instances even by certain state institutions? That such charges are being brought against a priest is already a violation against the freedom of conscience, exactly like the efforts to take children away from their parents. Perhaps I could have been accused of violating the freedom of conscience had I taught them without their parents’ knowledge.
"Can it be that the state itself is forgetting the requirements of its own constitution by tolerating all this?
"Finally, the very article on whose basis I am being tried appears to lack distinct contours.As an example, we can recall an identical case in 1964 in which, also for teaching children, I was sentenced to one year in prison. Then, several months later, the order was given by the authorities to release me and to overturn the conviction. In the statement of acquittal was the following explanation: 'It has been determined that there had been no coercion of the children.’ Yet the court had known this when I was being sentenced to imprisonment. Coercion of the children had not even been mentioned in court. During the trial, Article 143 had been explained in the following way: it is forbidden to organize and to teach religious truths in school (not in church). Even though I had not been charged with the above, the court nevertheless proceeded to try me. How is one to understand this? And if I was later acquitted, why am I once again being tried under the same article? This time too, the court is aware that the children were not coerced. This is also attested to by the petition sent by the parents to the USSR government regarding this matter, pointing out that the children were not being instructed in school, that they were being taught in accordance with the wishes of their parents.
“For when the circumstances are the same, a law cannot be interpreted in one way at one time and differently on another occasion.
“I have also been unable to determine where 'the regulations designated by law’ have been promulgated. Neither the interrogator, nor the juridical consultation office of Vilnius have replied to this question.
“What can be concluded from all this?
"Looking from a human, shortsighted viewpoint, in similar situations one is always inclined to repeat the words of Jesus: 'Father... remove this cup from me’; yet in truth, we priests should thank youfor this and similar trials. These facts force our consciences to speak out. They don’t let us fall asleep, they force us to make up our minds, they place us between two possibilities.
“One possibility is to choose the so-called path of 'peaceful cooperation with the atheists’:to attempt to serve two masters, to toady to the designs of the atheists—that a priest perform his duties but be innocuous to atheism; that he himself would drive away the youth from the church and not allow them to participate in the rites or in processions; that he would not let them serve mass; that when preparing children for First Communion he would be satisfied if they only know their prayers, although they lack understanding of the mystery of the Mass, the center of all Christian life; that the clergy would not stop to consider what the country’s situation will be in ten or twenty years! This means that priests should not carry out the duties pertinent to their calling, that they must resolve to struggle with their conscience as they concern themselves merely with the dinner menu. The priest must try to forget that the children will nevertheless be told of God, but of a God who really does not exist.(I too do not believe in the God which is portrayed by our local press and radio.)
"You have shown me thousands of youths behind bars. Not one of them knows the God who should be loved and who loves us. No one has spoken to them of such a God; no one has taught them to find happiness in doing good to every human being, even to an enemy. I know very well that if we priests shall not speak about this, the very stones will begin to exclaim, and God will hold us responsible for their fate.
"This is what peaceful cooperation with atheism means in our surroundings, which is something that believers living abroad cannot comprehend.
"The second possibility is to be the kind of priest that Christ had in mind by resolving to carry out the duties Christ and Church Law demand, and at the same time accepting whatever Providence wills one to experience, choosing—as is evident in this case— windows with bars, exactly like the interrogators said: 'You didn’t want roast duck, so now you’ll eat prison bread.’
"And yet, if we priests are not tried in court here and now, in time our nation will judge us! Eventually the Supreme Being’s hour of judgement will come. May God help us priests to fear it more than these trials of yours.
"I again recall those thousands of youths behind bars. In their childhood they did not know how to obey their parents... This land along the banks of the Nemunas is dear to me. I know very well that it will no longer exist if its children will be incapable of obeying their parents. I spoke to them about this. I told them that this is something God demands of us.
"If this is a crime according to your conscience, then pronounce me a fanatic and judge me, but in doing so you will also be judging yourselves!
"I ask the court to consider the aforementioned psychological circumstances and not to forget that the decision of this court may force the community of believers into thinking that some paragraphs of the constitution are there simply for propaganda purposes. Can one respect the requirements forcing one to go against one’s conscience?
Can there be respect for a law that punishes one for performing one’s duty?
“There still remains for me to repeat the words of the first Apostles, which were already spoken to the court: 'We must obey God rather than men.’ ”
A two-hour recess followed the Rev. J. Zdebskis’ statement. Returning after lengthy deliberations, the court handed down the following verdict in the name of the LSSR:
“Zdebskis, Juozas, the son of Vincas, born in 1929, is adjudged to have committed an offense under the provisions of Article 143, section 1 of the Criminal Code of the LSSR, and is sentenced to be deprived of his freedom for one year, which sentence is to be served in a regular-regime corrective labor colony. August 26, 1971, will be considered the onset of the sentence.”
On December 9, 1971, the Collegium for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court of the LSSR ruled that the Rev. J. Zdebskis had been justly found guilty and that his sentence was appropriate for the crime committed and suited his character.
At present (1972) the Rev. J. Zdebskis is serving his sentence in Pravieniškės.
May the self-sacrifice of those suffering for the faith rejuvenate the land of our fathers!