Faith helped Lithuanian bishop survive gulag

  • November 6, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - A persecuted priest in the then Soviet-occupied Lithuania, Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevicius says it was his daily, secret celebration of the Eucharist in his prison cell, as well as his love for God and compassion for others, that helped him survive and grow stronger in his faith.

Tamkevicius was keynote speaker at a Nov. 2 multi-faith reflection on being persecuted for your faith at the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre. He spoke of his struggles as one of the leading figures in the underground Lithuanian Catholic Church and how he was able to forgive his persecutors through prayer and God’s love.

Tamkevicius said he harbours no anger or hatred towards his tormentors, because “most guilty” was the inhumane system of Soviet communism.

“All the things we suffered and experienced were a gift of God that led us to freedom,” he told The Catholic Register.

The archbishop also recounted how he held the Bible in his hands every day and secretly celebrated the Eucharist in his cell.

“This was my source of strength,” Tamkevicius, 71, said through an interpreter.

Tamkevicius was the editor of the Chronicle of the Catholic Church for 11 years. It documented abuses by the Soviet regime in Lithuania. He was arrested by Soviet authorities and received a 10-year prison sentence, serving six months in prison and about five years in hard labour camps. Tamkevicius was intentionally sleep deprived and drugged during seven months of interrogations in jail but never revealed who was part of Lithuania’s underground Catholic Church.

He was later exiled to Siberia and finally set free in 1988.

Tamkevicius told The Register that as a young seminarian he and his classmates were taught how to make wine from raisins. This was how he was able to celebrate Mass in prison: by saving the raisins he received from his jailors, placing some in a cup of water and letting the raisins ferment for two days. A piece of bread served as the Eucharist.

Other speakers from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions spoke on how to perceive and respond to persecution according to their religious beliefs, including Rabbi Aaron Katchen, Hillel of Greater Toronto’s associate executive director, and Muslim journalist Raheel Raza.

Also from the Catholic tradition, National Post columnist Fr. Raymond de Souza spoke of numerous examples of Christian persecution during the 20th century.

De Souza said, echoing the late Pope John Paul II’s observation, that the late 20th century was the “great springtime of hope,” but also a period that saw the greatest number of Christian martyrs.

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