Moscow "consented" this year to reinstate Bishop Julijonas Steponavičius of the Archdiocese of Vilnius and Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius of the Diocese of Kaišiadorys, held in exile for over twenty years without a trial. Foreign diplomats often trust Moscow's good will, but in Lithuania, where believers endure daily the deceit and hypocrisy of state atheism, every gesture of "good will" from the Soviet government arouses concern. In this instance, the concern was aroused by special circumstances.
Moscow demanded, as a condition to reinstating the exiled bishops, that three new candidates, handpicked by the Soviet authorities, be consecrated bishops: candidates chosen not by Church authorities but by the Soviet government and submitted to the Holy See. It remained only to convince the Holy See that the new candidates were suitable for the posts and that the plan to reinstate the exiled bishops and appoint new bishops was a positive step and would be beneficial to the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Collaborators with the KGB performed this task well and in July, following the Eucharistic Congress in Lourdes, it became apparent that the Soviet government had nearly attained its goal: the candidates they selected for bishops had been or in the very near future would be named bishops by the Holy See. This news was perhaps the most distressing to reach the Catholics of Lithuania throughout the entire postwar period. The Catholic Church in Lithuania had experienced every possible persecution during the postwar years: bishops were imprisoned and even shot, hundreds of priests travelled the roads of the Gulag, the Soviet press slung mud at priests and the Church, the Soviet government's administrative machine quashed any religious activity as if with pincers, however, the Church did not perish but proved quite viable.
The most painful thing experienced by Lithuanian priests and believers during the postwar period was the Church's destruction from within at the hands of bishops and priests who collaborated with the KGB. This was worse than imprisonment, dismissal from positions and other repressive measures.
The priests of Lithuania will never forget how the Chanceries used to convey the Soviet government's orders to remove children from the altar and from processions, to renounce catechization and to stop visiting the faithful. Also, Lithuania's Catholics who
Bishop V. Sladkevičius and J. Steponavičius at the funeral of Fr. K. Caruckas, SJ.
suffered for the Church and homeland will never understand how a priest could speak to foreign countries about religious freedom or remain silent about persecution in Soviet Lithuania, how a priest wearing a cassock could "defend peace" in various peace movement forums. The believing citizens of Communist countries know the worth of such "peace" — it is trickery and deceit — and consider anyone who supports such an obscene lie a traitor.
Ever since the Philadelphia Eucharistic Congress (Transl. note, 1976) more astute priests have felt that the godless were planning a new blow against the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Certain clergymen zealously assisted in bringing these plans to fruition. It seems that the delegation of Lithuanian priests the Religious Affairs Commissar's agency sent to Lourdes served Moscow well by misinforming the Holy See about episcopal candidates.
In September the news spread that Bishop Liudvikas Povilonis was going to Rome in a week or two and would definitely bring back a Papal Bull authorizing the consecration of new bishops. When there seemed barely any hope of warding off this disaster,
Priests' Senates and clergy groups in all the dioceses again appealed to Bishop Povilonis, voicing their grave concern and explaining that the plan presented by the godless would certainly not serve the welfare of the Lithuanian Catholic Church.
When Bishop Povilonis left for Rome on September 23rd, priests who collaborate with the KGB stated:
"Now we'll teach Bishop Steponavičius and the 'activists'!. . The 'activists' are going against the Pope . . . They divide the unity of Lithuania's priests . . ."
Hasty preparations were immediately made to consecrate the bishops, but not a word about reinstating the exiled Bishops Steponavičius and Sladkevičius, as if the problem of these exiles had been solved in Lithuania.
On October 16th, the candidates for bishop visited Bishop Krikščiūnas, the exiled bishops and the Latvian bishops to invite them to the consecration ceremonies. The exiled bishops Steponavičius and Sladkevičius declined to attend the consecration ceremonies. Bishop Sladkevičius wrote the following letter to the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Kaunas:
"I sincerely regret to inform you that I will be unable to attend the ceremonies to which you have kindly invited me.
"The fundamental reason is that our situation — mine and that of Bishop Julijonas (Steponavičius) — remains unchanged and we are still held under conditions of exile. It is improper to pretend we are free when we still are not. By attending the ceremonies we would create the impression that our situation has already been regularized, when it unfortunately still has not.
"The urgency of the consecration forces us to suspect strongly that the intention is simply to use us and again brush our matter aside.
"Undoubtedly, it would be a fine and meaningful gesture of brotherly solidarity if all three of you were to demand officially that the consecrations be postponed until your banished brethren resume their assigned duties.
"With brotherly respect and love,
October 20, 1981 Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius"
On October 14th, Father Pranciškus Juozapavičius, Pastor of the Kaunas Archcathedral, informed eight deans at the Telšiai Chancery that Vatican Radio would announce on October 16th the names of the new bishops and the date of their consecration, and an announcement of the consecrations would be made in the Kaunas Cathedral on October 17th. With great trepidation, priests and more active believers awaited that Saturday's Vatican Radio broadcast.
Priests announced at the Panevėžys Cathedral, St. Michael's Church in Vilnius and elsewhere that the new bishops would be consecrated on October 25th at the Kaunas Archcathedral.
On October 17th, the bishops-elect began their retreat in Palūšė, but terminated it several days later because it was learned that Bishop Povilonis did not bring back the bulls of consecration. The news immediately spread throughout Lithuania: everyone rejoiced that the plans of the godless had probably collapsed. Prayers of thanksgiving were offered to God for saving the Catholic Church in Lithuania from a great misfortune whose consequences were difficult to predict. Moscow had wanted to set off a large bomb: stun Lithuania's priests and believers with the fact that the Vatican blesses not those who fight for the Church, but KGB collaborators.
The Soviet government's purpose in choosing the candidates for bishop was not only to have suitable collaborators for many years to come, but also to destroy the prestige of the Holy See and undermine the militant spirit of priests and believers. If carried out, Moscow's plan would have eloquently declared that the Holy See does not value the blood of Lithuanian bishops spilled for the Faith, does not value all those who trod or are still treading the Gulag's road of suffering, does not value the persons through whose efforts the Catholic Church in Lithuania is again reviving, but supports those who, caught in the KGB's web, being not shepherds but hirelings, cause unimaginable damage to the Church and the faithful.
"Why fight, why try, if the Holy See does not champion the fighters but upholds those who betray the holiest things?" the question, like a terrible temptation, would have sprouted in many a mind. Would many have understood that the guilty party is not the Holy See but the KGB collaborators who, under the guise of Lourdes "pilgrims" and other names, continually deceive the Holy See?
Furthermore, it appears that the Soviet government did not seriously intend to reinstate the exiled bishops, its primary goal being to obtain as rapidly as possible new bishops to its advantage. If the Soviet authorities wished and had decided to allow the exiled bishops Julijonas Steponavičius and Vincentas Sladkevičius to resume their duties, they should have informed them of their decision before Bishop Povilonis left for Rome. However, not a single Soviet government official made any mention of this. Only an occasional priest collaborating with the KGB spread disinformation that the exiled bishops were already able to resume their new posts, but did not wish to do so.
The Soviet government's plan was probably as follows: exploiting the Holy See's desire to have the bishops reinstated, to promote the candidates for bishop it considers useful, and then "bargain" with the exiles: we'll allow you to work if you work for us. Obviously the exiled bishops would never have agreed to such conditions: after so many years of suffering to degrade themselves before the nation and the faithful, to act against their consciences, to betray their most sacred convictions! And the 1969 history of the exiled bishops' "reinstallation" would probably have repeated itself. Twelve years ago, the Soviet authorities also promised to allow the exiled bishops to resume their duties, but demanded a tribute of lies and obedience.