An official portrait of Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis by Polish artist Zbigniew Gierczak for his beatification is based on a photo taken in prison in 1933. Courtesy Lithuanian Martyrs Parish

Lithuanian martyr stood up to the Soviet regime

By 
  • April 6, 2018

Russian poison attacks are nothing new — just ask the Lithuanians. 

Their most beloved 20th century Catholic martyr was poisoned by way of injection, following a beating administered in his own apartment by Soviet secret police in 1962. The murdered archbishop was nearly 90 years old when the KGB finally got him.

Blessed Teofilius Matulionis, who died “in odium fidei” (because of hatred for the faith), has been approved for sainthood. He will likely be canonized before the year is out, though no date has been announced so far. As Lithuanians around the world wait for the event, Matulionis expert Roma Zajanckauskiene has been touring Lithuanian parishes across Canada to share her research into the martyr’s life.

“He had a very big impact on Lithuanians,” Zajanckauskiene told The Catholic Register.

Matulionis spent nearly 16 years in Soviet prisons and labour camps and watched the best priests of his generation either worked to death or killed for trivial or absurd reasons. While in prison he formed a bond with Orthodox, Protestants and other Christians imprisoned for their faith.

One theory about why the Soviets wanted the old man dead in 1962 is that they didn’t want him attending the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII had given Matulionis the personal title of archbishop earlier that year. But Moscow had already denied him permission to go to Rome for the ecumenical council.

Years after his death, his body was exhumed and tests showed he was poisoned, a method of killing that most recently was in the news with charges that Russians used poison in an attempt to kill a former double agent and his daughter in Britain.

In Matulionis’ case, Zajanckauskiene believes the Soviets feared the bishop’s ability to hold them to account. In his letters to party officials, Matulionis was adept at quoting Soviet law and the Soviet constitution. Kept under constant surveillance, Matulionis was remembered and loved all over Lithuania even as the Russians tried to integrate the tiny nation into the Soviet system.

“He loved the people. He was concerned about the peasants and low-class people,” explained Zajanckauskiene. 

Where many priests at the time dealt with penitents quickly in their confessionals, Matulionis would spend a minimum of half an hour with each person who came to him for confession. Though he had grown up in a relatively comfortable, middle-class family, he had witnessed famines in Russia, where he had pastored Lithuanian Catholics in the 1920s.

“He saw a lot of farmers. He saw how hard their life was,” said Zajanckauskiene.

From prison, the Lithuanian bishop would write heavily censored letters to friends and family hinting at his condition in coded language. He called himself a “free prisoner” and sly references to a “dove in a birdcage” would let people know he was all right.

Zajanckauskiene runs a small museum of sacred art in Birstono, Latvia, which was once a rectory where Matulionis lived and ran an underground curia for his Diocese of Kaisiadorys. 

For her PhD thesis on the life of Matulionis, she tracked down hundreds of letters the bishop sent from prisons to ordinary Lithuanians.

At Lithuanian Martyrs Parish in Mississauga a row of stained glass windows commemorates five martyrs who died at Soviet hands. But the Matulionis window at the end of the row is garlanded around the edges to mark his status as the first martyr killed by the Soviet system and acknowledged by the Church with sainthood. He has been named a patron saint of persecuted Christians and teachers. His episcopal motto was “Per crucem ad astra” (Through the cross to the stars).

What Zajanckauskiene finds remarkable is Matulionis’ embrace of ecumenism before the Second Vatican Council.

“The blood of Christians spilt in Russia was called the best foundation of the Church. During that time of persecution, a sincere communication and the true spirit of ecumenism was born among the imprisoned priests belonging to different Christian confessions,” Zajanckauskiene wrote in an English summary of her PhD thesis. 

“Attention must be paid to the fact that ecumenism in the Catholic Church was officially mentioned only at the Second Vatican Council, therefore such an authentic burst of communication, coloured by the experience of captivity, was truly prophetic.”

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