Dear brothers and sisters,
“For your freedom and ours!” – that was the motto of those who took part in the uprising. In God’s plan, nothing happens by chance. The insurgents’ remains which were discovered two years ago and are being buried today bear a message that is relevant for us today as well. What is that message?
The uprising of 1863 was a fight for our freedom – not just the freedom of Lithuanians, Poles and Belarussians, but that of all who refused to accept the tsarist yoke. It was a fight for the freedom to be equal to other human beings created by the same God and for the freedom to have one’s own voice. On January 22, 1863, the Lithuanian version of the act of rebellion – the manifesto issued by the Central National Committee in Poland with the objectives of the uprising – declared “that from this day on there is no longer servitude, for there are no longer lord nor nobleman nor peasant nor Jew, but we are all brothers, fully equal and identical in the eyes of both the Lord God and our dear Homeland.” That is like a paraphrase of the Apostle Paul’s pronouncement in the Letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus!” (Gal 3, 28). Indeed, as the Apostle writes further in the epistle: “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery!” (Gal 5, 1). And again, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul says: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3, 17). We thus see without doubt that freedom and people’s equality are deeply human and deeply Christian values. These are values that arise from human nature itself and for which it is not only worthwhile but also necessary to fight. The Church has always valued freedom: freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, freedom of choice. Because only a free person can love, only one who is free can create.
In the first reading from the Book of Maccabees we heard about prayer for those who have died in battle. The times of the Maccabees were times of rebellion in Israel, when the Israelites fought against the laws, customs and religion imposed on them by oppressors. Very much like in the period we are recalling today. Already in Old Testament times we see faith in the resurrection of the dead, testifying to the human intuition that all does not end with our earthly journey and the fight for freedom is never in vain. Just as we heard in the responsorial psalm – the Lord rescues the just. In the second reading, the Apostle Paul reminds us we are not in this world by chance. As is often said: No man is an island. “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself” (Rom 14, 7). God has given each of us a special mission which is unique to us and never occurs in isolation. The life, works and death of every person touch others. For that reason, we are responsible for the type of imprint we leave in history and in people’s hearts.
Each of us has a place in God’s great plan. A place, and a mission which is rarely easy. In the Gospel reading, we heard the rather hard words of Jesus Christ: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12, 24). He clearly understood the price of mission and service: if you want to bear fruit, you will unavoidably have to sacrifice something. Sometimes even your own life. Knowing what awaited him, Jesus said: “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour” (Jn 12, 27). Zigmantas Sierakauskas reacted similarly when Aleksandras Oskierka, a member of the uprising committee, visited him in Saint Petersburg and asked him to become the military head of the Kaunas Voivodeship. “You bring me a death sentence!” he said. But he accepted the duties. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (Jn 12, 25). Sierakauskas, well-educated and with a good understanding of warfare, knew perfectly well what he was getting into. He realized there had not been enough time to prepare for the uprising and that the insurgents lacked weapons. He was recently married, just starting a family… He had a lot to lose. But the longing of many years for a life of dignity in a state where peace and equality reign was stronger than his personal pursuit of happiness.
We are called to freedom. Every person is created in God’s image and called to holiness. When we forget our roots as created beings, we try to enslave and conquer one another. That happens again and again throughout history, disguised under various reasons: national, territorial, even religious. But when such a government no longer sees people as creatures of God and stifles their rights, a door is opened in the world to evil, which then snowballs into totalitarian systems and terrible wars.
Today we see the persistent daring efforts of Pope Francis to defend the very poorest, the exploited, refugees, people at the “peripheries”. We see how quickly he reacts, speaking up straightforwardly and clearly about military actions and terror attacks, urging those in power to come to their senses. Pope Saint John Paul II already in the days of Solidarity told people: “They will not be scared of your weapons – they’ll be scared of your words.” Also testifying to the immense power of the word is the memory of Father Antanas Mackevičius, another leader of the uprising, who, though not killed in Vilnius, stands in history alongside Kalinauskas and Sierakauskas. It is recalled how “asked during interrogation how he recruited insurgents, Father Antanas responded: I promised them just one thing – the freedom of their homeland.” One of the leaders of the uprising, Jokūbas Geištoras, described Kalinauskas as “extreme in views, tenacious, selfless, a fiery patriot – the most exquisite kind of incomparable conspirator who knew how to work and hide. He had an unusually deep understanding of justice.” He was not just a leader, but above all a strong source of inspiration.
The early Christian theologian Tertullian once said: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.” Sierakauskas, captured and wounded, speaking of the insurgents who were killed, whom someone had called “unlucky ones”, said: “They are not unlucky ones, they are the seed of Lithuania, which in the future will bloom with pure blossoms of freedom!” And finally, Kalinauskas’s categorical vision: “We’ll only live happily when there are no more muscovites on our backs.” All of this testifies to firm faith that the struggle has meaning, to a hope surpassing the events of the present, to an ability to look toward a future that we ourselves will not see but that will be better for future generations.
“If a grain of wheat dies, it produces much fruit.” Though we are speaking mostly about the leaders of the uprising, prominent and vibrant individuals, we should not forget all those who fought, died and were exiled. They all became stones in the foundations of our freedom. And in a sense we can call all of them insurgents. Their death was not without meaning – today we have to thank them for our freedom.
In the end, hope is a transcendental, divine virtue. It helps persevere in one’s choices despite trials, persecutions – and even death. In the Letter to the Philippians we read: “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself” (Fil 3,20–21). Thus, grateful to these soldiers for their lives, sacrificed “for our freedom”, and solemnly burying them today, we pray for God’s mercy for them.
Homily of Archbishop Gintaras Grušas – Burial of 1863 uprising participants’ remains,
Vilnius, Holy Mass in Vilnius Cathedral, 2019 November 22nd.