From Gulag to grace: Lithuanian bishop tells of predecessor’s secret ministry in Soviet Russia
Bishop Ivanauskas visits Divine Providence Parish in Southfield to promote cause, spread devotion to Blessed Tiofilius Matulionis
SOUTHFIELD — Lithuanian Catholics in the Detroit area got a visitor from the motherland this past weekend, who visited the region to promote the cause of the Baltic country’s next potential saint.
Bishop Jonas Ivanauskas of the Diocese of Kaisiadorys, Lithuania, gave a parish retreat at Divine Providence (Lithuanian) Parish in Southfield March 16-18 to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, meet and greet local Lithuanian-Americans and to promote the cause of Blessed Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis, a Lithuanian Catholic bishop who ministered in secret to Catholics in the Soviet Union.
“I’m a bishop of the Diocese of Kaisiadorys, a successor to Blessed Teofilius Matulionis, who in 2016 was beautified, just like Blessed Solanus,” Bishop Ivanauskas told Detroit Catholic through a translator during an interview at the parish March 18. “I’ve come to America to bless the Lithuanian people in the United States, visiting three parish in Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles and allow the people a chance to venerate the relic of Blessed Teofilius.”
Teofilius Matulionis was born in Lithuania in 1873, when it was part of the Russian Empire. After being ordained in 1901, he was sent to St. Petersburg to minister to the Roman Catholics in Russia, which was and remains a predominately Russian Orthodox nation.
“He was a priest who mostly served in St. Petersburg, Russia, and he wanted to be there on his volition,” Bishop Ivanauskas said. “After the revolution (the October 1917 revolution when the communist Soviet Union was established), the Church was persecuted. Teofilius was consecrated as a bishop in the underground in 1929, running the secret Church.”
Bishop Ivanauskas explained that Archbishop Teofilius (archbishop was a ceremonial title, given to him by Pope St. John XXIII in 1963, given his condition of looking after Russian Catholics) endured persecution and suppression while tending to his flock in the violently anti-religious Soviet Union.
While religion was more accepted in his native Lithuania, Archbishop Teofilius stayed in St. Petersburg (renamed Leningrad) to continue his ministry as a bishop in secret.
“His main mission was to make sure the Russian Catholics were being taken care of, but he couldn’t even declare that he was a bishop; nobody really was aware he was a bishop,” Bishop Ivanauskas said. “So he looked like a normal, everyday priest. They allowed him to be a priest, but there was no cathedral, no ceremonies of the office. It was a strategy of the underground church.”
Despite dressing like a “normal priest,” Archbishop Teofilius endured years of persecution, celebrating Mass in secret in people’s homes. Over the course of his ministry in Russia, he spent 16 years on and off in the Gulag, state-sponsored prisons for political dissidents and enemies of the state.
“In the Gulag, things were atrocious,” Bishop Ivanauskas said. “His circumstances were distant, cold. The Gulag was horrendous, the persecution and the environment was just awful. But bottom line, he believed in Jesus Christ. That was the foundational thing, his trust in Jesus Christ, even through all the things he underwent, all the persecution.”
On Jan. 9, 1943, he was appointed the bishop of Kaisiadorys in Lithuania, but the Soviet authorities arrested him three years later and sent him to prison for another 10 years. Upon his release in 1953, he was forbidden to exercise his office and was under house arrest.
Near the end of Archbishop Teofilius’ life, he was exiled to Seduva, Lithuania, after consecrating a bishop without government approval.
In 1962, Pope St. John XXIII gave him the personal title of archbishop; however, later that year during what was allegedly a routine medical visit, a state-sponsored nurse gave him an injection under the guise it was medicine. Two days later, he became sick and died later in the week.
To this day, many Lithuanian Catholics suspect he was poisoned by the Soviet government.
“Because he was a symbol of Christian belief, Christian faith, the people in Lithuania were demoralized, very sad when he passed away,” Bishop Ivanauskas said. “For those who knew him, again because things were so secretive back then, it was very distressing.”
The story of Archbishop Teofilius’ witness grew in Lithuania. In 1991, the Soviet Union fell and Lithuania became an independent country.
Archbishop Teofilius’ cause for beautification began in 1990 when the Congregation of the Causes of Saints named him a Servant of God, beginning the Diocese of Kaisiadorys’ process of pushing for Archbishop Teofilius' canonization.
On Dec. 1, 2016, Pope Francis signed the decree approving the archbishop's beatification, with Cardinal Angelo Amato celebrating the beatification Mass on June 25, 2017, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus of Vilnius in the Lithuanian capital.
Blessed Teofilius' remains are now venerated in Kaisiadorys’ Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Christ, and he is upheld as a hero and symbol of Lithuanian resistance to Soviet domination.
“Because of his faith, his lifestyle, the people felt he was a saint from day one,” Bishop Ivanauskas said. “Where he is buried, there are Masses and pilgrims in his honor, and generations of Lithuanians come to visit and be part of the Mass where he is buried.
“When he was beatified, there was a major celebration in Vilnius. The entire nation was extremely pleased and ecstatic about the declaration that he was now Blessed Teofilius,” Bishop Ivanauskas continued.
Lithuania only has one saint, St. Casmir, and two other blesseds, so the beatification of Archbishop Teofilius was a big deal for the entire Lithuanian community, said Fr. Gintaras Jonikas, pastor of Divine Providence (Lithuanian) Parish.
“I think Bishop Ivanauskas coming is a start for American parishioners to know about Archbishop Teofilius and his work,” Fr. Jonikas said. “A lot of Lithuanian priests were sent to prison during the time of communism. Growing up, they were my heroes. Archbishop Teofilius could have fled, could have left Russia when things got difficult, but he didn’t. He stayed during the difficult times.”
Fr. Jonikas’ own parents were imprisoned in a Gulag for 14 years and recalled how Lithuanian parents tried to raise their children to be Catholic in secret.
“Growing up, it was all about daily prayers, Sunday Masses, and trying to listen to God’s will,” Fr. Jonikas said. “Looking at Archbishop Teofilius’ life, I see a lot of difficulties, but if you know Jesus Christ, believe in Jesus Christ, you can see from the pictures that he was fighting the devil. Just as my parents had to be strong in their faith, their Catholic values, as they fought. That is what inspired me to be a priest, to proclaim the Gospel.”
Fr. Jonikas said Bishop Ivanauskas’ visit to Southfield allowed local Lithuanian Catholics to converse with a bishop from the homeland, learn more about Blessed Teofilius, venerate his relics, but most of all, learn how to better hold on to their faith and to constantly proclaim the message of Jesus Christ.
“As Bishop Ivanauskas said, Archbishop Teofilius is an example to us all on how to live your faith, to be a man of God, to accept God’s will and to have courage in the faith,” Fr. Jonikas said. “Today, when we have freedom, we take for granted the persecution others before us went through. But it’s important now more than ever to hold to our faith, to look out for each other, help each other, pray for each other. As we dedicate our lives to serving Christ, just like Blessed Teofilius.”