In June 1982, it became known that the Soviet government was agreeing that His Excellency, Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius should return from exile to his diocese, and, at the same time Father Antanas Vaičius, Administrator of the Diocese of Telšiai, should be consecrated bishop.
On July 16, western radio broadcasts officially announced the news. Everyone waited impatiently for the exiled bishop to take possession of the Cathedral of the Diocese of Kaišiadorys. On December 25, 1957, Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis, a national and religious martyr, consecrated Father Vincentas Sladkevičius bishop without the consent of the Soviet government. In an attempt to subjugate the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Lithuania to its own interests, the Soviet government did not allow the newly consecrated bishop, who had already managed earlier to fall into disfavor with the government for his loyalty to the Church, to assume his duties. Bishop Sladkevičius remained in exile for twenty-three years, and a non-functioning bishop almost twenty-five years.
All that time believing Lithuania prayed for the bishop in exile: priests and faithful wrote petitions, and even went to the labor camps, and now . . . the exile has been allowed to assume the See of Kaišiadorys.
The solemn entry of Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius into his cathedral is one of the greatest victories of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, built on great sacrifices.
On August 8, 1982, early in the morning, the church in Pabiržė (Diocese of Panavėžys) was full of people wishing to bid farewell to Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius.
His Excellency Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius (third from left) entered the Cathedral of Kaišiadorys on August 8, 1982, during the singing of a hymn to the Holy Spirit. (From left to right) Bishop A. Vaičius, Bishop L. Povilonis, Bishop V. Sladkevičius and Bishop J. Steponavičius
Along the way to the Diocese of Kaišiadorys, hundreds of faithful from the parishes of Pasvalis and Pumpėnai met the exiled bishop. For these escorts, the priests of Pasvalis had to explain themselves at the Rayon of Pasvalis Executive Committee Headquarters.
The government allowed the arriving bishop to be greeted only at the gates of the Kaišiadorys Cathedral church yard. Regardless of the government's efforts to down-play the occasion as much as possible, the faithful gathered in very great numbers. The crowd, bearing flowers, filled the little street from the church yard to the main street. At 12:30 p.m. the cathedral bells began to peal solemnly. When the bishop appeared, the crowd laid flowers on the automobile and on the ground, applauded—each one expressed his or her joy as well as they could. From the windows and doors of the city's Executive Committee Headquarters, officials, militia and security agents watched the ceremonies. It was a good lesson for the government atheists of Lithuania: How vain their efforts are to discredit bishops and priests loyal to the Church!
Participating in the ceremonies were Bishops Liudvikas Povilonis, Julijonas Steponavičius and Antanas Vaičius. All concelebrated Holy Mass with Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius. During the Mass, the Bishop of Kaišiadorys himself spoke. Following is a summary of his sermon:
"Exactly fifty years ago, in 1932, here, in this cathedral, I stood as a little twelve-year-old boy behind the flag of the Ateitininkai (Lithuanian Catholic Action organization — Trans. Note). With childish but enthusiastic voices we used to sing the Ateitininkai hymn. Now, after fifty years, I again stand before you as the Holy Father's appointed Apostolic Administrator of Kaišiadorys, your bishop and shepherd. You gaze at me curiously, as if to say, 'What will you be like?' This question I shall not and I cannot answer. The answer will be given by my whole life, by history,and by the judgment of God. I can only tell you what I should be, according to the mind of Christ and the Church's assignment. This is best revealed by the telegram of our Holy Father Pope John Paul II, sent to the president of our country's episcopal conference, Bishop Liudvikas Povilonis. Our Holy Father, by sending such a meaningful, wonderfully encouraging telegram, showed our country unusual kindness. Now let us all hear the words of the Holy Father's telegram:
'Urged on by love and concern for the Church of Lithuania, most dear to us, we address our brother bishops this blessed day on which the new bishop, Antanas Vaičius, is being consecrated, who is to govern as Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Telšiai and the Prelature of Klaipėda. We share in the joy of that Catholic community, especially since at the same time, the honorable shepherd of souls Vincentas Sladkevičius assumes his episcopal role as Apostolic Administrator of Kaišiadorys.
" 'The bishop is truly a priceless gift of God given to the Church, for the bishop takes the place of the apostles, and by the imposition of hands and the words of consecration obtains the grace of the Holy Spirit and the sacramental character. By its power, in a noble and wonderful manner he represents Christ Himself, the Teacher, Shepherd and Bishop, and acts by the power of His Person, to gather the People of God in truth and holiness, and to care for them by prayer, preaching and performing all the works of charity.
" 'Priests, who are participants in the universal priesthood of Christ in order to minister to the People of God, on account of this participation in the priesthood and mission, should acknowledge the bishop as their father and listen to him respectfully. Finally, let the entire Catholic community, whose faith has been tested by the trials and tribulations of the truth, find in its shepherd protection for the soul, zeal and the strength to persevere in the Faith with the powerful support of hope and love, so that they might live worthily, practicing the Christian virtues, which complement the culture and knowledge of the nation.
'We commend the Catholic family of Lithuania to the Mother of God, the Mother of Mercy, with a heart full of love conferring the Apostolic blessing upon the bishops, priests, youth, those called to the Lord's inheritance, and also to all those devoted to the worship of God and to all the faithful.'
" 'Pope John Paul II' "
"The Holy Father's telegram beautifully expounds the Church's idea of what a bishop should be to his diocese: He represents Christ Himself, the Teacher, Shepherd and Bishop. From now on I am your bishop, and on my shoulders falls the responsibility for you. Everything which touches your life will touch my heart also. All the storms which touch your life will first touch my head; all troubles, hardships, even all your mistakes, will find an echo in my heart.
"I have a most difficult and responsible task. But I am comforted by St. Paul's words to the Corinthians, where he says: ' . . . It was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, and to shame what is strong that he chose what is weak by human reckoning . . .' (1 Cor 1, 27.) Why, God grows our daily bread, the Eucharistic Bread, not on the oak, but on a thin white stalk, which after producing the grain is forgotten and even trampled underfoot. To be able to give you Christ's truth and the bread of love, I expect from you not emotional love, but prayer.
"Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. In the presence of the transfigured Christ, the Apostles said that it was good for them to be there. In the presence oi God it must be good, just as in the presence of the sun it must be light. It is the will of God that always, for everyone, it would be good. For this reason Christ came on earth; for this reason he instituted the Catholic Church, so that it might be the bearer of Christ's gooodness in the world. This is why there is an episcopal ministry in the Church, so that it might be possible to spread goodness. This is why the Holy Father says that the bishop is God's great and marvelous gift to the Church. Can one then fear the Church; can one fear the bishop? Can one remove a bishop from his ministry if he seeks only good? A wrong is done when a bishop is removed from his ministry, a wrong against the diocese, the Church, and all outside the Church.
"It is good that some mistakes are being rectified, even though not completely; we trust that in time they will be rectified fully. We have patiently waited and we continue to wait for certain matters to be reviewed with regard to the Church also. Is it fitting to keep the Church, as a doer of good, with rights curtailed, isolated from those areas where she could do the most good? Is it not time to remove the Church from the confines of restricted rights to those less restricted, so that it might do more good? The Church, and by the same token the episcopal ministry, was not established to hurt anyone. For this reason the Church can do much good in any political system, and it does. It is necessary only to give it a chance. The Church was established neither to support political systems, nor to subvert them.
"While I was unable to carry out my duties others bore the burden, and for that I am most grateful. I am also grateful to you, my beloved priests of the Diocese of Kaišiadorys, who have always been good to me. Divine Providence has given our diocese such noble bishops as the remarkable martyr, Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis. When you experience difficult times, you would remember those saintly bishops and this used to protect you from erroneous actions.
"Our diocese had the good fortune, at the time of the establishment of the Ecclesiastical Province of Lithuania, to begin its life and to get such wonderful shepherds. In our diocese the most beautiful shoots of Christian living began to spring up.
"However, our diocese had its sorrowful mysteries also. Then we suffered, prayed and waited, trusting in Divine Providence. Will our diocese have its glorious mysteries? That depends on us. Will we know how to arise from our weaknesses and turn our gaze towards Jesus Christ? Will we sustain our child-like devotion to Mary? Will that devotion be the property not only of Šiluva, of the Gates of Dawn (Aušros Vartai in Vilnius — Trans. Note), or Žemaičių Kalvarija, but also of Pivašūnai? It depends on us whether our diocese, having experienced the joyful and the sorrowful mysteries, will experience the glorious mysteries as well."
After Holy Mass, the youth of Lithuania began congratulating the bishop. It is unfortunate that not all were able to do so, for lack of time, since in the churchyard and in church, children and youth were standing in line waiting for Confirmation. In the name of the priests of the diocese, the bishop was greeted by Canon Stanislovas Kiškis.
Bishop Vincentas Sladkevičius thanked all who had sent him greetings and very emotionally, he thanked the Diocese of Panevėžys, which received him and protected him.
"The people of Panevėžys have shown me very great cordiality," said the bishop, "I hope to find even more cordiality among my own people, for this is the land of my father and my mother, here are my father's footprints in the sands of time, and my own as a child. That child-like attitude has remained in my heart," continued the bishop, "and in this spirit with this enthusiasm, with the help of the grace of God, I plan to join in the great work: To dedicate myself to God and the Church."
The Sacrament of Confirmation was administered by all four bishops. About six hundred children and youth were confirmed.
During dinner the once exiled bishop was greeted by his brother bishop-in-exile, Julijonas Steponavičius. Here we present his greeting almost in its entirety:
"A very fitting commentary on the beautiful and pleasant celebration today—namely, the solemn entrance of His Excellency into his own cathedral, his return to his true duties—is provided by the words of the Savior: 'You will mourn, but your mourning shall be turned into joy.' (Jn 16,20)
"The entire Church of Lithuania mourned, seeing that throughout most of the post-war era, the Diocese of Kaišiadorys was without its bishop, for its true shepherds were prevented from fulfilling their pastoral duties. The clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Kaišiadorys, who were orphans for thirty-five years, without their father and shepherd, also mourned. Mourning, too, was their true shepherd, who for twenty-five years was separated from his own, and had to live in remote loneliness. Today that sorrow has turned to joy. But this day of joy dawned for you, Your Excellency, after long suffering, pain and concern. Apparently, in the plan of Divine Providence, it is ordained that the shepherds of dioceses born in pain should tread the path of sorrow, should drink the cup of pain to the dregs.
"The beginnings of the Diocese of Kaišiadorys were painful. As Canon Kiškis mentioned, after World War I, after the establishment of independent Lithuania, in 1920, Vilnius was seized. The Diocese of Vilnius was divided into two parts. When in 1926 the Ecclesiastical Province of Lithuania was being established, from one part of the
Diocese of Vilnius was established the Diocese of Kaišiadorys. Its first shepherd, Canon Juozapas Kukta, was an exile; in 1922, with three Lithuanian activists, he was banished to independent Lithuania. The beginnings of the new bishop's administration were not easy. Not only was there no cathedral, but Kaišiadorys did not have at that time any suitable parish church. After World War I, in place of the planned parish church, a cathedral sprang up, and in 1926 it was consecrated.
"After the death of Bishop Juozapas Kukta, the Apostolic See appointed as Bishop of Kaišiadorys Teofilius Matulionis, a real martyr, who suffered sixteen years in the camps and died outside the borders of his diocese. And Divine Providence led you also, dear Excellency, to the See of the Diocese of Kaišiadorys by way of sacrifice and suffering. When Bishop Teofilius Matulionis, unable to perform his duties, was looking to his diocese's future, his eye fell on you. He found a way for the Holy Father to appoint you bishop and consecrate you. Unfortunately, you were never allowed to work among your own. Living in exile, you were considered a leper. Someone passed the word that it was dangerous to meet with you; and the clergy, succumbing to this fear, began to be afraid even to visit you.
One incident comes to mind: An honorary canon of the Diocese of Kaišiadorys, who is no longer among the living, once asked me, 'Is it possible to visit our bishop? I'm afraid that someone might inquire why I was there and what we talked about.'.
"O course, hearing this, I asked, 'How come you're not afraid of talking with me? You must know that they consider us both alike.' The inquirer blushed; he never did visit His Excellency.
"What was the leprosy whose contagion frightened the priests so much? It was attributed to you, Your Excellency, and to me, who shared your fate. That leprosy consisted of faithfulness to Christ and His Church, love of God and of souls, concern for the diocese's present and future, concern for the seminary, and concern for the attitude and behavior of some priests.
"Nor do I think I shall be mistaken in saying that all those things for which you sacrificed yourself, suffered and worried about while in exile, today, now that you have come forth from exile, they will be even more precious to your soul and your heart. For God and for souls, for Christ and for the Church, for the well-being of the Church throughout our land, the good of your own diocese, you will offer all the powers of your body and the strength of your soul, tirelessly working and sincerely praying, keeping in mind the words of St. Paul: 'Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice." (Rom. 12,15)
"Today I wish to rejoice with everyone, because the possibility has presented itself for you to return to your episcopal duties. I rejoice that you have returned to your own, and that I have not blocked your progress, nor, over your dead body, taken Kaišiadorys. I thank you because even though I am still considered a leper, you have deigned to invite me today to this beautiful celebration, and have not erected a stone wall between us.
"Therefore,on this beautiful and joyous day in your life, accept my sincere greetings and prayers as a former sharer in the same fate in life. I wish that, strengthened by the grace of the Almighty, you might lead your diocese in the spirit of unity and lead everyone along the path of the spirit of the Church.
"Someone has classified our priests into the reactionary and the progressive, extremists and sensible, and recently, a new term has cropped up: the opposition and the loyal. Such classification is foreign to the Church. For the Church, every priest is, in the words of St. Paul, a servant of Christ and a bestower of God's grace, taken from among humans and set before them. I would wish that in your diocese there be no so-called reactionary priests, nor progressive, neither extremists nor sensible, but that all priests be servants of Christ and faithful sons of the Church.
"And finally, I wish that having been tried by sacrifice and suffering, for your steadfast priests, you would shine with courage and loyalty, and would strengthen the weak and doubting. May the good Lord strengthen your bodily powers and the powers of your soul, so that together with all the bishops of Lithuania, and with the priests of your diocese, you might labor in a holy and salutary fashion for the good of the Church in our country and the good of your diocese, and may the Good God bless your prayers and works."