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The Venerable Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis (1873–1962)

2017 June 8

In 2016, Pope Francis decided to beatify the martyr Servant of God Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis, who will thus become the second Beatified of Lithuanian descent, as well as a model to Christians all around the world, recognized by the Catholic Church. He is a person whose strength of character, unwavering respect for the values of faith and morals allow us to rethink the painful experience of the twentieth-century history of Lithuania anew, sensitively, and with pride. The stance of the bishop, who found himself faced with the brutal atheist Soviet regime, repressions, deportations and tortures, becomes a chronicle of heroism of not only the Catholic Church, but also the entire nation, a history about a Lithuanian who managed to retain his humanity and the ideal of love for one’s neighbour in the intricate paths of universal history. The story of the venerable Servant of God Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis, is more than a story of priesthood, calling, zealous faith and pastoral love. It is a true and heroic testimony of the triumph of humanity over evil.

Following the calling

The archbishop-to-be Teofilius was born in 1873 in the village of Kudoriškis, Alanta environs (Anykščiai district). He was the second son in the family of farmers Jurgis and Ona Matulionis. Already in his early youth, the inhabitants of Kudoriškis and its surroundings would call him a saintly person, and thus nobody was surprised when he chose the path of priesthood. Yet, the news that after a year of studies Teofilius quit the theological seminary came as a big surprise to many people. However, his decision was not prompted by light-mindedness – the young Teofilius saw priesthood as a beautiful and enticing service, which was nonetheless burdened with heavy suffering. As if preparing himself for future tribulations, Teofilius worked as a teacher for some time and explored himself trying to understand if he could really take up this calling. Having firmly made up his mind, the young teacher returned to the seminary with determination so strong that nobody could break it anymore. When the seminary student, called by God, strengthened his resolution to sacrifice himself for the love of God and people, on 4 March 1900 Bishop Karol Antoni Nedziałkowski ordained Teofilius Matulionis as a priest. From that moment on, Teofilius honourably served as a priest for sixty-two years.

The first steps as a priest

Having started his service as a dean of the parishes of Varaklani and Bikava in Latvia, Teofilius soon won fame as an extraordinary pastor and, alongside, an organizer of church construction. The zeal of the young priest did not go unnoticed by the tsarist Russian police – his activity was closely scrutinized, and in 1909 the court sentenced him for baptizing a child from a mixed family. This sentence was only the beginning of the sufferings that awaited the principled priest who disapproved of the Soviet order in the years to come. Teofilius served his sentence in a Dominican convent in St. Petersburg. There the priest did not sit idle – he founded a new workers’ parish and initiated the construction of the Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus. In St. Petersburg, he encountered the revolutionary rage of the persecution of the Church in 1917. Already in 1923, Teofilius with his associates was put to trial in Moscow for refusing to sign an act on the appropriation of church property and buildings. Having been sentenced to three years, the priest was imprisoned in Moscow, in the Butyrki and Sokolniki prisons. He was released from prison ahead of time, after two years, and was free to go to Lithuania. However, compelled by fatherly care and responsibility, Teofilius returned to the newly formed parish in St. Petersburg. The first blows of persecution did not distract the bishop from his goal: he continued his zealous service for the benefit of believers, irrespective of their nationality, in the Lithuanian, Russian, Latvian, Polish, and German languages.

Pastors follow their flock!

In 1929, the bishop was arrested again. This time, Teofilius spent almost a year in solitary confinement without court. Usually he was called for interrogation at night, sometimes even two or three times during the night. In eleven months he was interrogated twenty-four times in total, and was not allowed to take a rest or a nap during the day. The sentence – ten years in the Solovki prison camp – was announced without court. The bishop was happy to hear it – he had information that thirty-four deported priests had been imprisoned there! Teofilius became not only an authority of the community of the imprisoned priests and the manager of its affairs, but also a sensitive pastor. Unfortunately, the secretly administered Holy Mass and spiritual services were soon exposed by the authorities, the community was dispersed, and the bishop was sentenced again. This time, the punishment was a one-year sentence in a high-security prison. The bishop was placed into custody in Leningrad, and from there taken to the Svirsk prison camp for compulsory labour. Extremely arduous tree felling work, cold, humidity and lack of nourishment undermined his health. In 1933, during an exchange of political prisoners, Bishop Matulionis was rescued from prison together with another nine priests.

Having returned from Russian prisons, first of all Bishop Teofilius paid a visit to Pope Pius XI, who highly valued his sacrifice. When Teofilius knelt down in front of the Pope to show his respect and humility, the Holy Father raised him and knelt down himself, saying: “You are a martyr! You must bless me first!” The same Holy Father said the following words about Bishop Teofilius on the occasion of a visit of a group of Lithuanian pilgrims in 1936: “Glory be to the Lithuanian nation that gave us a hero like him!”

Glory be to the Lithuanian nation that gave us a hero like him!

Having returned from deportation, from 1934 to 1936 the bishop visited Lithuanians in the United States of America, Rome, the Holy Land, and the Sinai Peninsula. Upon return from his trips, he settled in Kaunas, where he was appointed the rector of the Benedictine convent and St. Nicholas’s Church. Teofilius helped the archbishop conduct visitations, supervised repair works in the church while adapting it for the perpetual adoration of the Holy Sacrament, led the Missions Group in the Kaunas Theological Seminary, and became a spiritual father to the seminary students and a chaplain of the Lithuanian army. The abundance of his new duties did not diminish his concern about the fate of his compatriots in Russia, and the bishop took preparations to resume his missions – he had old liturgical vessels gilded, collected prayer books in the Russian language, and took care of the mending of second-hand liturgical garments.

Upon the death of the bishop of Kaišiadorys, Juozapas Kukta, in 1943 Teofilius was appointed to substitute him. Although the Soviet and Nazi occupations, the war turmoil and subsequent Communist atrocities did not allow him fully developing his pastoral activity, the bishop did not get scared. He boldly protested, both in word and in writing, against the closure of churches and the theological seminary, the destruction of chapels and the restriction of the rights of believers. These brave moves of the bishop were soon “dealt with” – in 1946 he was arrested once again and sentenced to seven years of imprisonment. Having served the larger part of his sentence in the high-security Vladimir prison, after five years the emaciated Teofilius was transferred to a home for the disabled in Mordovia.

Through the Cross to the Stars!

Having returned from deportation ten years later, Teofilius settled in Birštonas, where he secretly ordained the canon Vincentas Sladkevičius as a bishop. For this arbitrary act both pastors were punished once again: the newly ordained bishop was deported to Nemunėlio Radviliškis, and Teofilius was made to go to Šeduva, where he continued to live under the constant “care” of the authorities. His room was tapped, and searches were regularly performed. In 1962, the bishop received a telegram informing him about his promotion to the rank of archbishop, and an invitation to take part in the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately, Teofilius was not destined to go to Rome. The last search conducted three days before his death was fatal. During this search, the bishop was administered a shot of “sedatives”, which shattered the health of the already ailing servant of God. The venerable archbishop died on 20 August 1962 in Šeduva.

Bishop Teofilius Matulionis always accepted all trials and sufferings that were sent to him with courage and deep faith. The bishop’s strength of spirit and trust in God is particularly distinctly revealed in his letters, sermons and conversations written down during his confinement in the Vladimir prison and Mordovia: “Just think how good and merciful the Lord is: He finds His flock in the woods, in the tundra, at midnight… I am thankful to Him with all my heart! Providence made sure that we, priest brethren, be sent where the believers are. Pastors follow their flock.”

At the request of Prelate Stanislovas Kiškis, in 1989 Bishop of Kaišiadorys Juozas Matulaitis started the process of beatification of Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis in the diocese. In the period from 1990 to 2015, the committee of the beatification case collected all the necessary documents, and the postulator of the case, Rev. Dr. Mindaugas Sabonis, prepared the Positio document summarizing the life and virtues of the Servant of God. In 2015, Bishop of Kaišiadorys Jonas Ivanauskas and the postulator of the beatification case presented it to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. On 1 December 2016, Pope Francis enabled the Congregation to proclaim a decree recognizing the martyrdom of the Servant of God Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis, thus opening a way to his beatification.

Let Thy will be done!

In 1957, there was a rumour that having been imprisoned so many times, at the age of 84 Teofilius Matulionis can be arrested once again and put to prison. In response to this rumour, the pastor simply said: “If I were passing by some bushes and someone suddenly jumped in front of me and said ‘Boo’, I might be frightened… But I’m not at all scared at the idea that they can arrest and imprison me.”

Places of martyrdom

1909 Transferred from Latvia to serve his sentence in St. Petersburg
1923–1925 Butyrki and Sokolniki prisons in Moscow
1929–1930 Leningrad prison (“Shpalernya”)
1930–1932 Solovki prison camp in Anzer Island
1932–1933 Leningrad solitary confinement cell
1933 Lodeynoye Pole labour camp
1946 Vilnius Lukiškės prison
1947 Orsha prison custody
1947–1954 Vladimir prison
1954–1956 Potma special-purpose home for the disabled, Mordovia.
1958–1962 Internal deportation in Šeduva (until his death)

The exhibition “Through the Cross to the Stars! Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis” will be held from 13 June 2017 to 16 September 2017 at the Church Heritage Museum (Šv. Mykolo st. 9, Vilnius, Lithuania). More information on www.bpmuziejus.lt/en/.

Text by Alina Pavasarytė

Vilniaus arkivyskupijos kurija, Šventaragio 4, Vilnius, Lietuva

curia@vilnensis.lt, www.vilnensis.lt