Homily of His Excellency Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher
Cathedral of Saints Stanislaus and Ladislaus, Vilnius, Lithuania
The Freedom Defenders’ Day of Lithuania, 13 January 2018
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I am very pleased to be able to celebrate the Eucharist with you today, when you commemorate those who died for you country’s freedom. In January 1991 you witnessed to the world the profound truth, that peace can be attained through nonviolent resistance, even in the face of violence. Pope Francis, encouraging us to seek peace non-violently, reminds us that it was this type of non-violent action that brought down the communist regimes in Europe.
On January 13th you were determined to pay the great price, fighting for a system, in which the dignity of every person is respected, in which no one would be persecuted for their faith, nor would the public life be founded on false ideologies. During the years of the occupation, you experienced that a system that does not recognize God, eventually begins to belittle man. That is why you sought not only independence, but also the freedom that comes from Truth (cf Jn 8, 32).
In 1991 the whole world saw the images from the Baltic states. They were shocking images of unarmed people standing in front of tanks. The Church was with you in prayer, as today She is with all those people in various countires around the world that are suffering from war and persecussion. You experienced the power of prayer that pleads for peace. I know that on the night of January 13th people gathered in prayer, singing hymns to the Mother of God, the patroness of Lithuania, while inside the parliament priests celebrated Mass together with those gathered there to defend it.
This evening I would like to remember the words that Saint John Paul II said 25 years ago during his apostolic visit to Lithuania. Praying at the Antakalnis cemetary, at the graves of those who died for freedsom where I had the opportunity to pray earlier today as well, saint John Paul II said: “Faith helped you resist the dark and frequent waves of oppression that denied God and abased man.”
Today I join you in thanking God, who preserved the faith of your nation not only during the night of January 13th, but throughout the night of the atheistic ideology, which lasted over 40 years, while your country was occupied. Despite the persecution of the faithful by the communist regime, many of your countrymen were determined to follow Christ to the end on the road to Calvary.
One of these true followers of Christ is the martyr archbishop Teolfilius Matulionis, who was beatified last summer. Pope Francis called this pastor a heroic witness of the Gospel. Blessed Teofilius witnessed Christ, despite being persecuted for it. He lived like Christ, even unto death looking upon his persecutors with love. It is this glance transformed by love that made him a true witness of the Gospel.
Today’s gospel recounts the call of Matthew, when Jesus says to him “Follow me!” (Mk 2, 14). Pope Francis’ motto “Miserando atque eligendo” (Mt 9, 9) is taken from a commentary on Matthew’s recounting of this event. What is at the center of this story? God’s mercy. In the gospel we heard how Jesus is followed by a crowd, but Matthew is not in the crowd, he is sitting at his tax collection stand. Walking by Jesus looks at him with mercy, chooses him and says, “Follow me”.
God is the first one who looks mercifully at man. God chooses man even while man is still injured by sin. “Mercy…expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offereing him a chance to look at himself, convert, and believe.” (Misericordiae Vultus, 21) The only thing that can amaze us more than God’s love is that He leaves us free to not accept this love.
God’s invitation “Follow me” is never a command “Follow me!”. God does not want to enslave us – desiring only our free response He even accepts to be rejected. Every attempt to enslave man eventually can be traced back to the devil, who seeks to destroy the image of God in man. Frequently this is done by the promise of a fake freedom. In Lithuania, you experienced this in the guise of communist ideology, which proclaimed that it sought to free man from oppression, while in actuality brought oppression. Under the guise of various ideologies this promise of false freedom is alive today as well.
The only true freedom is born in the heart of man. Pope Francis said: “There have been so many revolutionaries in history, many indeed. Yet none of them have had the force of this revolution which brought Jesus to us: a revolution to transform history, a revolution that changes the human heart in depth. The revolutions of history have changed political and economic systems but none have really changed the human heart. True revolution, the revolution that radically transforms life was brought about by Jesus Christ through his Resurrection.”
This year, in which you are celebrating the Centennial of the Restoration of the State of Lithuania, you are also commemorating the 300th year jubilee of the crowning of the image of the Mother of God in Trakai, under the title of the patroness of Lithuania. Just as during that night of January 13th in 1991, today as well let us entrust ourselves to the protection of Mary. May this land continue to be known as the land of Mary, that through her intercession you may continue to maintain the faith and witness it through the actions of your lives. Amen.