Easter morning calls to mind early morning processions, the peal of bells, and exalted hymns. Joy emanates as the Good News of the Risen Christ and the apostles' encounters with Him is proclaimed. Easter is joyous, but there is no Easter without a Good Friday – Jesus' crucifixion, and without a Holy Saturday – the Great Silence. These days precede the Resurrection. But how do the faithful experience and celebrate Easter when they stand in the shadow of death?
Such was Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis’ Easter experience. Incarcerated nearly 16 years inprisons and labor camps, he celebrated 15 Easters in captivity. His first Easter was spent under the most hostile conditions. In 1923, during Lent, Father Teofilius was arrested together with Bishop Jan Cieplak and other priests in Saint Petersburg. The Soviet Secret Police brought them to Moscow for interrogations. Their sentences were handed down at 3 am on Palm Sunday. One of the priests, Msgr. Konstanty Budkiewicz, was sentenced to death. He was offered the possibility to leave the country, but he refused, saying that he cannot abandon his flock.
After the verdicts had been pronounced, the priests were confined to the same cell including Msgr. Budkiewicz. He remained calm as if nothing had happened. When one of the priests suggested that the prelate should prepare for death, Budkiewicz answered that he was at peace. With tears in his eyes, he reassured his confreres of his firm belief in the Resurrection. Father Teofilius was in the same cell and a witness to Msgr. Budkiewicz's deep faith. All this transpired during Holy Week.
On Holy Saturday, Msgr. Budkiewicz was separated from the group and placed in solitary confinement which meant that his execution was imminent. On Easter morning, in all the churches throughout the world,
these words were being read: "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, …" (Jn 20: 1), and at 4 am the prelate blessed his executioner and his two assistants and whispering a prayer turned to the wall. Early Easter morning a shot echoed through the prison. The prisoners witnessed the loss of a faithful follower of Christ, a confessor, and martyr. During that Holy Week in 1923, they intimately experienced the Passion of Christ, and Easter morning, upon hearing the fatal shot, they faced the greatest test of their faith in the resurrection of Christ and trust in God’s final victory. This Easter experience of Father Teofilius enables us to understand and appreciate his own consecrated life and ultimate martyrdom. His steadfast determination never to renounce his pastoral duties or to abandon his flock was sealed during his first Easter in prison.
FORGE OF MARTYRS
From today's perspective, that Moscow prison cell was a forge bringing forth martyrs for the Church. Venerable Teofilius is already recognized as a martyr, and the beatification processes of his three cellmates, Msgr. Budkiewicz, Bishop Cieplak and Bishop Anton Malecki have also been initiated.
While incarcerated, Archbishop Teofilius was often unaware of the precise date of Easter Sunday. In the camps, each day was a normal working day and the daily agenda was the same. (After the end of his first imprisonment, Archbishop Teofilius anticipated his subsequent incarceration and learned to calculate the Easter date by the method developed by mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855).
One year in calculating the particular Easter date, Venerable Teofilius made an error. In his letter of April 14, 1954, from Vladimir prison he wrote to his brother’s family, “calculating the Easter date using the ‘Gauss Remainder Method’ resulted in a mistake.” That year Bishop Teofilius’s Easter greetings were sent two weeks early. Only after receiving greetings from Lithuania did he realize his error.
On the occasions in which he managed to secretly celebrate Easter Mass, such was an extremely rare grace and spiritual gift. The Easter message of Christ’s Resurrection was harbored in the hearts and minds of the prisoners, while hauling heavy logs through the forests and swamps, languishing in solitary confinement, or lying helpless on a sickbed.
The celebration of Christ’s Resurrection is not merely a colorful procession, a joyful Alleluia, or an Easter egg contest. It is the witnessing of a Christian life, which can at times be demanding and challenging both physically or spiritually. At such moments of trial, the realization that Christ overcame evil gives us the strength to persevere. Such was a deeply grounded belief held by the soon-to-be beatified Archbishop Matulionis, whose example ought to sustain our faith as well.
Translated from Artuma (April 2017), a Catholic monthly for the family published by Caritas in Lithuania. Draugas news.
Additional information about the Venerable Archbishop can be found in Lithuanian at www.teofilius.lt. An english version of the website is forthcoming.