March 4, this year, marked 500 years since the death of Saint Casimir, Prince of Lithuania. Our nation is celebrating this great jubilee under the difficult conditions of atheistic oppression; in the words of Pope Pius XII, "In circumstances more tragic than any in the history of Lithuania," these words are confirmed by the rampaging of the atheists as the Jubilee of Saint Casimir approached.
It was difficult for Catholic Lithuania, under the oppression of Czarist Russia. At that time, also, the veneration of our national Patron, Saint Casimir, was restricted. The censors of the Russian Czar struck from the old hymnbooks a hymn about Saint Casimir which our people had sung for two hundred years:
The land of Lithuania languished For seven years in subjugation. But God did her a great favor Granting a patron ready to help her. Saint Casimir came from heaven, The soldiers saw him in the sky. Afterwards, they beat the Russians so badly, Rescued the weeping people from captivity...
So sang our ancestors commemorating the Russian incursion of 1655 into Lithuania. In our days also, in preparation for the 500 Year Jubilee of Saint Casimir, when the bishops of Lithuania were officially allowed to publish a little Catholic Calendar, a booklet and a jubilee holy card, Soviet censors deleted from them a biography of the saint prepared by a neutral liturgical commission.
What were these latter-day censors able to find of an anti-Soviet nature in the biography of Saint Casimir? Why is the truth about Saint Casimir so feared? Clergy and faithful had hoped to see before the jubilee not only a little Catholic Calendar, but also a medal or noly card, especially since a postscript to the letter sent out by the bishops to the clergy had suggested using material from the calendar about Saint Casimir for sermons.
This calendar was sent to the publishers for printing in the summer of 1983, but its publication was delayed. The deadline for publication was postponed, and only a handful of priests received the calendar before the jubilee. For all practical purposes, they were unable to use it for the feast day. It will probably be necessary to wait forever for a prayerbook to appear.
The priests in Lithuania received seventy Saint Casimir holy cards apiece, a few medals, a few-score calendars; that, in comparison to the numbers of the faithful, was less than a drop in the ocean. However, this was just the introduction to the atheists' running amuck before the jubilee.
Even before the jubilee, a whole series of articles appeared in the periodical press, in which efforts were made to degrade the person of Saint Casimir, to insult him, and to distort the purposes of the jubilee itself. For example, "The Church has always used veneration of the saints for political and ideological warfare. Celebrations of Casimir's death and canonization are being organized by ultra right-wing activist bourgeois Lithuanian emigres and clerical extremists in the Catholic Church in Lithuania." (Kalba Vilnius—Vilnius Speaking, 1983, No. 10, p. 14).
Before long, religion itself or the desire to speak in one's native language will be termed politics, or a manifestation of clerical extremism. For appearance's sake (or to deceive the Vatican), permission was given to organize a jubilee committee, which as it later became known, was lucky to meet a couple of times.
All ot Catnolic Lithuania prepared tor the 50U Year Jubilee ot the Death of the Lithuanian Prince, Saint Casimir, its only officially declared saint.
The principal solemn inaugural services were planned for March 4, in the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul in Vilnius, where the mortal remains of Saint Casimir rest. That day, worshippers from all over Lithuania gathered in the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul. The church and the churchyard could not hold the people, and a large portion of them stood outside the churchyard. From early morning, Polish and Lithuanian prayers could be heard.
The main services began at noon. Holy Mass was offered by Their Excellencies, Bishops Liudvikas Povilonis, Antanas Vaičius, Julijonas Steponavičius and Vincentas Sladkevičius. The sennon in Lithuanian was preached by the Administrator of the Diocese of Panavežys, Father Kazys Dulksnys; Father Algirdas Gutauskas, Administrator of the Diocese of Vilnius, spoke to the Poles.
Nevertheless, in the faces of many of the faithful, one could see pain: A great number of them could not take part fully in the solemnities. In the churchyard, where a large crowd of the faithful were praying, silence reigned during the services that day—the
Vilnius Cathedral, converted by the Soviets to an art gallery in 1956. Three religious statues on the top of the cathedral were torn down in 1952, and the remains of Saint Casimir, Patron of Lithuania, were transferred to the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul in 1953.
loudspeakers were not working, even though for a whole decade now, the loudspeakers in that church have been working, even at the height of remodelling.
It appears that the loudspeakers stopped working the day before, at the behest of the committee which had inspected the church. The sermons were inaudible not only to the crowd of faithful in the churchyard and beyond, but even to the priests in the sanctuary. One is led to think that this is no coincidence by the fact that this year, in Marijampolė, during the commemoration of the Honorable Servant of God, Jurgis Matulevičius (A candidate for beatification— Trans. Note), the door to the pulpit "accidentally" slammed shut, and no one could find the keys, so that the sermon had to be preached to the packed church from the altar steps.
All of this was the harbinger of sad events. It was not without the interference of the atheists that the main services for the Jubilee of Saint Casimir were held simultaneously for the Lithuanians and the Poles, even though, from time immemorial, they have taken place separately, and especially on those occasions when neither the Lithuanians alone nor the Poles alone can be accomodated in church.
As a result, less than half the people had the opportunity of participating intelligently in the services. The worshippers crowded in the churchyard and the street were actually the objects of derision. One wonders where those ordinary people found so much patience to watch for three hours and see nothing, to listen and not hear anything—and the devotion to pray individually in silence— for the most part, the rosary.
During the opening ceremonies of the Jubilee, the telegram of Pope John Paul II, sent to the bishops and to all participants in the solemnities, was not read. Someone "accidentally" saw to it that Bishop Povilonis would not receive it until he returned from the services, and it was not proclaimed during solemn services the next day.
On the eve of the Jubilee, in the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul, where many worshippers were already gathered, not a single sermon was preached, and not a word was mentioned about the next day's solemnities. Permission was not given to invite more priests to hear confessions. People were inconvenienced in lines at the confessionals, not only the day before, but also on the day of the jubilee celebration: Some of them stood in line before the confessional from 10:00 AM until 5 or 6:00 PM. The priests of the Archdiocese of Vilnius received no announcement concerning the ceremonies March 3, inaugurating the jubilee.
Nevertheless, in spite of the dearth of publicity, many priests came to the celebration; however, after the main services, not one of them was allowed to celebrate Mass in the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul. Everything was done to prevent the young people who had come for the solemnities of March 3, from praying together. In the old town, at the Church of Saint Casimir (Now a museum of atheism), militia and security forces stood constant guard. The atheists constantly racked their brains for ways to de-emphasize the Jubilee of Saint Casimir. Sad to say that it was not only the rank-and-file laity from whom they received assistance.
Since the children and youth were in school March 3, and could not participate in the ceremonies, they gathered on Sunday, March 4, to pray at the Tomb of Saint Casimir in Vilnius. Throughout Lithuania that day, for fear that the youth might go to Vilnius or participate in solemn services in their own parish, various attempts were made to keep them in school. At the time of the principal Mass, different activities were organized in the schools: quiz games, hikes, etc., in which it was compulsory for all students to participate, and they were threatened that if they stayed away, they would have to write explanations.
In spite of all the interference, at about 6:00 PM, in the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul in Vilnius, at the Tomb of Saint Casimir, hymns and poems rang out:
Our nation promises you, Saint Casimir,
On the tombs of our heroes and the blood of our martyrs!
On all the castle ruins we will light a new flame!
Lithuania will not give in to any oppressors!
The Nemunas (river) was silent for ages in chains,
The Nemunas longed for freedom and for storms...
Let the lightening split the black night of despair!
Let the rains come and wash away the silt of our faults!
Our nation promises you, Saint Casimir,
To stand firmly under the cross,
And await the dawn...
The believing youth of Lithuania, gathered from various places, prayed. The program took about two hours, after which, asking Saint Casimir to protect their homeland Lithuania, all knelt down for the rosary. During the program, overt and covert KGB agents murmured in church and scanned the praying youth with angry stares.
Outside the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul, the parking lot was full of militia cars. Concerned, the people said to each other, "They're probably going to arrest people... but for what? Surely it's not forbidden to pray freely?"
After the evening Mass, the young people dispersed to their homes. Every participant was watched by the vigilant KGB all the way to the station, where they waited until everyone boarded trains or buses, and departed.
Not only the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul, but also every parish, prepared to commemorate as fittingly as possible, the Jubilee of its Patron, Saint Casimir. Although the celebration of Saint Casimir could be held only in church, nevertheless, any celebration of the jubilee in a more solemn fashion still looked threatening to the atheists. Unable to ban the commemoration of Saint Casimir, they tried by various advance warnings, directives or direct restrictions, to see that the jubilee celebrations in the churches would be as low-key as possible.
In February, the Commissioner for Religious Affairs, Petras Anilionis, sent the Chairpersons of Rayon Executive Committees and to those responsible for ideological work, communications in which ways and means were spelled out for spying on jubilee celebrations in individual parishes. Rayon Executive Committees were required to promulgate a special instruction for the so-called Committees of Twenty of religious associations, or at least to their chairpersons. In some rayons, parish committee members were told that the celebration of Saint Casimir had to be purely religious in nature, without any national overtones. It was emphasized that priests from other parishes, or those who had matriculated from the correspondence-course seminary, were not allowed to participate in the celebrations.
Along with all the directives to the Chairmen of Rayon Executive Committees or their assistants for ideological work, separate individuals were appointed who were supposed to spy on religious services, March 4, in all churches, and even churchyards.
On February 23, 1984, Vice Chairman Makštutis of Alytus Rayon summoned the priests of the rayon to give them instructions on how to celebrate the Saint Casimir Jubilee in the churches. The Vice Chairman warned them that the day of the celebration, there were to be no demonstrations or parades, hence, not even a procession. He urged them to adhere strictly to the advice of the bishop given generally to all parishes, not to do anything on their own; and he reminded them that the government knew well that on the feast day, priests would have to read the bishops' letter to the faithful in church.
Garliava (Kaunas Rayon)
On February 16, 1984, some officials with written orders visited Šidiškis, a resident of the Village of Mastaičiai, and hauled away a statue of Saint Casimir, which was being prepared for erection in the churchyard.
On March 1, 1984, rayon church committee chairpersons, district chairpersons and their representatives were summoned to the Prienai Rayon Executive Committee. Rayon Executive Committee Vice Chairman Morkvėnas told them how the Saint Casimir Jubilee was supposed to be celebrated, forbade them to allow outside priests into church, to organize processions or parades.
The faithful of the parish of Prienai were preparing to erect an oak statue of Saint Casimir in the churchyard, in commemoration of the 500 Jubilee Year of Saint Casimir. The rayon government, arguing that the statue was allegedly unartistic, would not allow it to be erected in the churchyard.
Igliauka (Kapsukas Rayon)
On February 23, 1984, the Vice Commissioner for Religious Affairs, Jozėnas, told the pastor, Father Vytautas Urbonas, how the Jubilee of Saint Casimir was supposed to be celebrated. He demanded that there be no "excesses or placards" in the ceremonies, because all that, in his words, was simply the legacy of Father Alfonsas Svarinskas.
On March 4, 1984, the children and young adults of the Raseiniai Rayon were required to provide an honor guard at the urns, so that they would be unable to participate in the Saint Casimir celebration.
On March 4, 1984, at noon, a compulsory hike into the woods was organized for the pupils of four schools in Varėna. That day, only the boldest came to church.
Žilinai (Varėna Rayon)
During the principal Mass, March 4, in Žilinai, a track and field day, compulsory for all schoolchildren, was organized.
Linkmenys (Ignalina Rayon)
Parents were warned that on March 4, they should not allow their children on the altar because they would be under surveillance. The parents, frightened by the threats, did not take their children to church.
HOLY PATRON OF LITHUANIA, we the children of our Catholic homeland, seeing the raging of the atheists during the days of your jubilee, understand that the path you broke to sanctity, your spiritual testament—to be loyal to the holy Catholic Faith—are especially appropriate in the difficult trials of the Twentieth Century. Thus in all sincerity, we resolve to be even more faithful to the Catholic Church, the Pope of Rome and our ancestors.
Pope John Paul II receiving a gift from Lithuania during a 1980 visit to Rome by Bishop Liudvikas Povilonis, Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Kaunas and the Diocese of Vilkaviškis.