ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 54, No 1 - Spring 2008
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas

The Price of Freedom:
The Church

The Speech of Michael Bourdeaux at the first Lithuanian Prayer Breakfast in London, held at the Hyatt Regency Churchill Hotel on January 12, 2008

Michael Bourdeaux

Can. Michael Bourdeaux, an Oxford University graduate, is an Anglican priest, the founder and the President of the Keston Institute in Oxford (studies of religion in communist countries). He wrote Lithuania – Land of Crosses, Gorbachev, Glastnost and the Gospel, Opium of the People – The Christian Religion in the U.S.S.R., Faith on Trial in Russia. The Heroic Story of the Brave Protestants who are Fighting for Religious Freedom in the Soviet Union, and many other books. He was also the Adviser of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for Religion and Human Rights.

Your Excellency, Reverend Father, Ladies and Gentlemen: 

Two years ago a very senior Lithuanian priest, Fr. Vytautas Brilius (head of the Marian Fathers Order) visited Keston Institute in Oxford. We sat around a table and I spoke about the book I published in 1979, Land of Crosses. I said, “That’s one of the names in my book” – and I read out part of a long passage referring to Mrs. Ona Brilienė, a teacher in Vilkaviškis. She was dismissed from her job as a schoolteacher in 1970. She appealed against her dismissal and the case came to court. Under cross-examination she said, “Yes, I’m a believer. I go openly to church – I’ve had enough of secrecy. I hid my beliefs for 21 years, but I see no reason to do so any longer… I told my pupils I’d been dismissed for believing in God.” She was briefly reinstated after the hearing, but finally dismissed a few months later. Fr. Brilius sat silently – tears in his eyes. “She’s my mother,” he said. “She brought up all her children as Christians, and many of those in her classrooms became believers, too.”

Mrs Brilienė paid the price of freedom for openly proclaiming her faith: she lost her job and wasn’t allowed to work in the school, even as a cleaner. 

I don’t think any incident in my nearly forty years of association with Lithuania has ever brought home more strongly the way in which persecution of the church achieved precisely the opposite of what the perpetrators intended. Dismiss one schoolteacher – and you get a class full of believing children. 

At last – early in the twenty-first century – the secular world is getting round to realising that religion isn’t dying out: rather, it’s a potent force – and, sadly, not always for good. 

In the former Soviet Union – in the main still unrecognised by the world at large – religion was a force for good. It was, in many places, the most organized opposition to communism. But it was in Lithuania that the cry for religious liberty became a national watchword. It coalesced with the eventual demands of Sąjūdis for political freedom. 

Where did this all start? You could say it began with the deportations – there are so many stories about how Lithuanians in Siberia maintained their nationality and their faith – and your ambassador has a moving story to tell of how he went on an expedition last summer to discover the relics of those deportations. My book was called Land of Crosses – but in truth that land extended to the most distant wastes of Siberia, populated by the crosses of those who died. 

You might also claim that this started with the freedom fighters, who survived many years in the forests at home before betrayal and increased sophistication of the secret police eventually isolated and exterminated them. But their spirit never died. 

In my own researches, the starting point was a document, simply entitled Memorandum, which saw the light of day in 1972. Its story is astonishing. It was a short document, produced by a determined group of young Lithuanian Catholics and distributed clandestinely around the parishes. One of the  originators was Sigitas Tamkevičius, now the Archbishop of Kaunas. 

The document was addressed to the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The one-page document set out the most basic complaints of the people against their oppressors. Two bishops, Steponavičius and Sladkevičius, had been under house arrest for ten years without trial. Frs. Zdebskis and Bubnys had been imprisoned in 1971, simply for teaching religion to children. The theological seminary in Kaunas could train only ten new priests a year – hopelessly inadequate for the needs of the parishes. Several other examples were given, and the authors summed up: “We ask the Soviet Government to safeguard freedom of conscience for us, which is guaranteed by the Constitution of the USSR, but which until now has been absent in practice.” 

The Memorandum said it was “From The Catholics of Lithuania.” And so it was! No less than 17,054 of them signed it! Archbishop Tamkevičius told me last summer that it wasn’t possible to get the document to all the parishes: he chose those where he could identify activists. I said earlier that it was “clandestinely” circulated – well, maybe, but try gathering a mass of signatures on a piece of paper clandestinely while the KGB was watching virtually every church. The miracle is that many copies – about 200 – survived, most with signatures all over them. 

The future archbishop was soon to go to prison for his activities, an inspiration to all with whom he came into contact. He was one of the last to be released under Gorbachev’s perestroika – not until 1988. 

Amazingly, those copies of the Memorandum that survived the depredations of the KGB were bundled up in Vilnius and taken by hand to Moscow. Nijolė Sadūnaitė told me she couldn’t remember taking that particular document to Moscow – she did this with so many documents so many times. But it was almost certainly she – and she, too, would shortly go to prison for her ceaseless activity on behalf of the persecuted church. She was one of those responsible for producing the Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, which would become a permanent record of the persecution and circulated clandestinely: over thirty issues appeared in its first eight years alone. 

The bearer of the document – with divine inspiration – decided not to deliver it to the Communist Party headquarters. Instead there was a meeting with a British journalist, who didn’t dare take it out, but handed it to a friend in the British Embassy. He, in turn – breaking diplomatic protocol – addressed it to me at Keston College (as it then was) in Kent and sent it through diplomatic pouch. 

I unpacked this treasure early in 1973 – and from that moment, I became determined to write a book about the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Sąjūdis progressed under Professor Landsbergis, whom I’m honoured to be addressing this morning. I visited Lithuania for the first time in February 1989, as the guest of Bishop Steponavičius, for the reconsecration of Vilnius Cathedral – an unforgettable experience. By this time, I had come to regard the precious Memorandum in our possession as the founding document of Lithuanian independence. A year ago the Honorary Consul of Lithuania in Wales suggested that this document, by rights, should reside in Lithuania itself – and I had the honour of returning it in person last July to the person who had originated it: Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevičius. 

Even without the original of the Memorandum, the work of Keston continues! There are some copies of our Newsletter available – one issue recounts the return of the document in more detail. There are also forms that you can fill out to join our mailing list. I would like to end by thanking you for the honour and privilege of addressing you this morning – and to assure you that that my work for Lithuania has been one of the key inspirations of my life.