To a casual observer, it might appear that fresh breezes have begun to blow in the Catholic Church of Lithuania. In January, 1977, the Deputy of the Council for Religious Affairs, P. Makarcov, warned Party activists in Lithuania to treat priests more politely; and leaving for Moscow, he spoke of the easing of government policy with regard to the Church.
Before Easter, the authorities of the City of Šiauliai allowed the ringing of the bells of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, after twenty years.
At the end of January, 1977, the principal Mass on the occasion of the jubilee of the Servant of God, Bishop Jurgis Matulevičius, was celebrated by the exiled Bishop of Kaišiadorys, Vincentas Sladkevičius. A few years ago, on the occasion of the anniversary, even registered priests celebrated Mass in the sacristy at Marijampolė.
Priests in many places teach children catechism openly, with the government content to levy fines. No one speaks of trials such as those of Father Šeškevičius, Father Zdebskis, or Father Bubnis, nor does anyone believe that they could take place at this time What is the significance of all this?
Perhaps the Soviet government is demonstrating good will, and beginning to live up to what is written in the Constitution of the USSR and in the laws ascribed to international agreements: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Helsinki Final Act and elsewhere—things talked about for nineteen years, but never effected.
Perhaps it means the repeal of "untimely methods", which evoked a reaction from believers?
Perhaps it is a small victory for all those struggling for human rights, in Lithuania, in the Soviet Union, and throughout the world, since the Soviet government, with its ruthless administrative measures, has compromised itself rather badly throughout the world, and damaged the progress of its foreign policy?
Or perhaps this is a routine trick of the Soviet government prior to the Conference of European nations at Belgrade, where it will be assessed how the Helsinki Accords are being carried out?
The near future will provide accurate answers to these questions. However, even now it is quite clear that the Soviet government is not acting in good faith. The diminution of the persecution of the Church is merely a tactical maneuver by the Communist Party. If foreign governments to whom the USSR is bound by economic ties, for instance that of Jimmy Carter in the U.S., fight for the implementation of human rights, if the mass media of the world publicize how in the Soviet Union international agreements regarding human rights are shattered, then this temporary maneuver of the Communist Party in easing the persecution of the faithful could last for a very long time.
The lack of good faith is demonstrated by many facts in the Soviet Union. For more than thirty years the atheist government has been persecuting priests and faithful, basing its actions on secret instructions, which it kept from public view. On July 28, 1976 the Praesidium of the Supreme Court of the Lithuanian SSR made those instructions the law of the land, drastically curtailing the rights of believers. We can take no comfort in the fact that the aforementioned instruction of the Praesidium of the Supreme Court is so far still only on paper, because any day it can be implemented with all strictness.
On January 19, 1977, Vice Chairman Makarcevas of the Council for Religious Affairs instructed Party activists how to improve atheistic propaganda, and how to strengthen the monitoring of laws concerning religious cults.
The Soviet government occasionally allows the reprinting of prayerbooks which the Catholics need, knowing that if they are not allowed to be printed in the open, they will be printed underground.
Catholics have been allowed to publish one or two religious books which hardly reached the masses of the faithful, either because of limited editions, or because they were intended for priests; e.g., The Ritual, The Decrees of the Second Vatican Council, etc.
The government also allowed the Catholics of Lithuania to receive the Holy Father's gift of Latin breviaries and Missals. The Soviet government knows that these books will not improve the religious knowledge of the faithful, since the Latin texts make impossible the full participation of the faithful in the Sacrifice of the Mass. This car-load of religious publications sent from the Vatican certainly served the purposes of atheistic propaganda.
The Catholics of Lithuania are not allowed to publish the kind of religious literature which would acquaint the faithful with the basic truths of their religion, e.g., for thirty years after the war, the leadership of the Catholic Church in Lithuania was unable to obtain permission from the Soviet government to publish a catechism. The catechism appears exceedingly dangerous to the Soviet government, because it would be read by children and young adults, who must not learn anything about their faith.
The Soviet government has increased the number of those allowed to enter the seminary, but at the same time it has stepped up efforts to cripple seminarians spiritually. These efforts to recruit seminarians as spies and traitors show clearly enough the "good will" of the Soviet government. "Be a good priest, but help the atheists to destroy the Church," they say. One has to wonder and thank Divine Providence, that in spite of these massive efforts by the KGB, the seminary still produces many good priests, of whom the faithful can only be proud.
Some day the priests of Lithuania will write their memoirs concerning the price they paid to resist the efforts of the KGB, and not become grave-diggers of their nation and their Church.
Easing the persecution of the Church did not hurt the atheistic government much. In the first place, many priests and faithful, having experienced the heavy hand of persecution, have been disoriented in the present situation, and are not struggling to regain lost positions: to catechize children openly, to ring church bells, to make pastoral home visitations, to recruit young people for active participation in religious services, etc. To this day there are in Lithuania priests who are afraid to let boys serve Mass, or to participate in processions, e.g., at St. Anthony's Church in Kaunas, in the churches of Šiauliai, etc. To this day, some priests report to the rayon administration when there are to be religious festivals, or even retreats, and request permission of the administration of therayon for a few priests to come in.
Other priests fail to make use of pastoral resources which the rayon administration does not even forbid. For example in Kaunas, at the Church of the Resurrection, on Sunday evenings they do not even preach, even though large numbers of the faithful come to services. There are pastors who on the occasion of a funeral will not preach themselves, nor will they allow the assistant to preach. Diocesan chanceries take little interest in such matters, and fail to warn the transgressors.
The faithful, especially the educated, are overcome with fear of practicing their religion openly, of rearing their children Catholic, and refusing to submit to lies or pressure.
There is no doubt that the "good will" of the Soviet government would dissipate in a moment, if priests and faithful took firm steps to revitalize religious life. Those parishes, where youngsters begin actively to go to church, begin to experience various difficulties.
In the present situation of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, we urge all priests and faithful to shake off their fear and to struggle for the right to believe and to live in freedom.
We thank our brothers abroad for their active efforts to help the persecuted Church of Lithuania. We especially thank the young Lithuanians, about whose efforts to help their fellow countrymen in the homeland, we often hear about by radio.
We ask the governments of all nations to follow the example of U.S. President Jimmy Carter in constantly reminding the government of the Soviet Union to respect the rights of its citizens.
We especially ask our brethren abroad and all friends of Lithuania in the free world to bring up at the Belgrade Conference and on other occasions the question of the infringement of human rights in Lithuania, making use of the material in the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania.
Truth, freedom and humanism must triumph.
The Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania