Blessed Teofilius Matulionis (1873-1962)
Angelo Card. Amato, SDB
1. Martirium propter aerumnas carceris. Death due to the hardships of imprisonment, such was the martyrdom of Blessed Teofilius Matulionis, Archbishop of Kaišiadorys. The long and painful periods he spent in prisons, in concentration camps, in forced domicile, little by little exhausted his strong fiber of courageous witness to the Gospel. But the privations and tortures did not bend his will. The hostility of the Nazis and the communists had no rational basis. It was merely the fruit of their hatred toward the Gospel of Jesus and the Church.
The new Blessed faced this stormy sea with peace and strength of mind, remaining always firm in the faith and the hope of future liberation. He did not give in to hatred. For him, hating would have been the worst way to answer evil. His response was always to forgive.
For that reason, today the Church joyfully celebrates the beatification of this great son of Lithuania – the beloved homeland which he honored with a life of faithfulness to the Christian and human values of liberty and fraternity.
Today is a day of celebration for us all. The memory of past sufferings should not diminish our joy, but should simply remind each of us about the duty to forgive, about respect and prayer for our neighbor, including our enemy.
2. In the Christian tradition, martyrdom constitutes the ultimate imitation of Christ. Christ is present in the martyr in a very special way, instilling strength and courage. Martyrs are conscious of the words that Jesus directed to his disciples: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul […]. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.” (Mt 10: 28, 32)
Pope Francis, in the Apostolic Letter of Beatification, acclaims the martyr Teofilius Matulionis as “a shepherd according to the heart of Christ, a heroic witness to the Gospel, a courageous defender of the Church and of human dignity.”
For our Blessed, martyrdom was drawn out over years and years, under ruthless dictatorships which strove to annihilate the Church. Seminaries were limited and suppressed, efforts were made to create a national church, men’s and women’s religious orders were disbanded, all contact with Rome was forbidden, and the Catholic press was suffocated. The Church was reduced to silence.
Catholics survived by concealing their own conscience. When the faithful, in the course of rigged proceedings, would appeal to respect for the laws and for conscience, the response was contempt and derision. Judges, in fact, would respond saying: “We have no interest in your conscience.” One judge added: “Your religion! I spit on it, and on all religions – Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Lutheran and all the rest. No religious confession has political rights or any legal status in the territory of the Republic.”
3. Faced by such inhumane attitudes, the martyrs imitated Christ, conforming themselves to his words and his example. It was the grace of Christ that gave Archbishop Matulionis the strength to endure the humiliations and the hardships of unjust and inhumane imprisonment.
This faithfulness to the Gospel is confirmed by many witnesses, who saw in him “a true man of God” and “a saint”. Even in the concentration camp, he carried himself with the piety and serenity of a priest who had completely entrusted himself to Divine Providence. As one text notes: “He would fast not only every Friday, but also every Saturday. The doctors […] had ordered him to stop fasting like that.” But he continued.
Even those who persecuted him recognized his heroism. The Russian leader, on learning of the archbishop’s death, exclaimed: “He was truly a man!” And an official of the Soviet repression system noted with preoccupation: “It can’t be ruled out that in the future the Vatican will declare him a ‘saint’ and so his tomb will become a place for pilgrims to visit.”
Today that prediction has come true.
4. We can ask ourselves why a person who spent many years of his life in prison and concentration camps, and who wore the clothes of a prisoner right up until old age, never nourished bitterness towards his enemies. The answer lies entirely in the grace of God which ennobled his soul. He, in fact, managed to see God’s goodness and Providence even in people in whom others saw only hatred and evil. He honored the divine seal that every person bears, even the most iniquitous, and was compassionate towards these vessels of clay, fragile but precious, because they are created in the image of God.
From the Sacred Heart he learned to be charitable and to forgive. He did not complain about his captors. Anyone who spoke out harshly against the oppressors would be invited by the archbishop to wrap their stones in cotton so that they might do less harm. He was generous in hospitality toward everyone. Quoting a Lithuanian proverb, he would say: “A guest in the home is Christ in the home.”
5. The episcopal motto per crucem ad astram was the guiding start of his spirituality and apostolate. To heaven by means of the cross. To save one’s life, one must lose it, like Jesus.
In December 1943, on the occasion of the Second Eucharistic Congress, in honor of the partisans who had died for their homeland, he invited the faithful to adorn courtyards, roadsides, crossways, and village squares with beautiful Lithuanian crosses and to restore crosses that were old. Still today people admire the cross which the archbishop had erected, in September 1937, in the cloister of the Benedictine Sisters of Kaunas to commemorate the jubilee of Lithuania’s Baptism. He considered the removal and the destruction of crucifixes to be the moral slaying of the Lithuanian people.
The cross was for him the supreme expression of the love of Jesus’s Heart. The Sacred Heart was the devotion which lit up his soul. To the Sacred Heart he entrusted his homeland, Lithuania, that it might always enjoy this protection. In 1934, while consecrating Lithuania to Jesus’s Heart, he said: “If until now Lithuania has been called the Land of Mary, from the 1st of July 1934 we can call ourselves the People of Jesus’s Heart.”
6. There are martyrs still today. Still today they are our daily teachers of the resurrection. Last April, in the face of the slaughter of innocent Christian Egyptians, the Church, looking to the Risen Christ, responded by expressing aloud its pardon and its prayer for the conversion of the assassins. To hate would be to betray the blood of the martyrs.
The Martyr Teofilius Matulionis was someone humble, generous, kind and faithful. He teaches all of us how we should live, pray, suffer and work for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls. There were no walls of division in his soul. His heart was the dwelling place of a charity without limits, of a serenity that was contagious, and of a goodness that was merciful. Let us imitate him!
Blessed Teofilius Matulionis, pray for us.
 Teofilius Matulionis was born on June 22, 1873, in Alanta, the second child in a family of hardworking Lithuanian peasants. His mother died giving birth to a fourth child who did not survive. On her deathbed, Ona Matulioniene entrusted her small children to the protection of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Teofilius entered the seminary in Saint Petersburg in 1892 and was ordained a priest on March 7, 1900. He carried out his pastoral activity in a number of parishes. The Bolsheviks repeatedly arrested and deported him. He became the bishop of Kaišiadorys in 1943 and an archbishop in 1962. He died a few months later in Šeduva, on August 20, 1962, at the age of 89.
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