Pope Francis reminded the newest cardinals that the “readiness of a cardinal to shed his own blood (is) signified by the scarlet colour of your robes.” For one of them it was not a reminder but a memory.
“If a believer isn’t ready to suffer for his faith,” Cardinal Sigitas Tamkevičius said last week, “then he’s not much of a believer.”
Cardinal Tamkevicius, emeritus archbishop of Kaunas, Lithuania, was sentenced in 1983 to a decade in Soviet forced labour camps. He was released after five years due to international pressure. Tamkevičius had been convicted of “anti-Soviet” propaganda for establishing the Committee for the Defence of Believers’ Right in 1978.
After Lithuania gained independence from the totalitarian Soviet empire in 1991, Tamkevicius was appointed archbishop of Kaunas. He is now retired and over 80, so he will not vote in a future conclave.
Ten years ago, on All Souls Day 2009, I spoke at an interfaith forum at the University of Toronto on religious persecution. I accepted the invitation because I wanted to meet the principal speaker on the program, Archbishop Tamkevicius.
It was an honour to be in his presence then, and to this day I keep the poster of the occasion in the entrance to my rectory — a reminder of those heroic souls who have been, and are being, persecuted for the faith.
I have another picture in my rectory, in the kitchen over the coffee maker, where I see it every morning. The newly-elected St. John Paul II is embracing Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who served as archbishop of Warsaw and primate of Poland from 1948 to his death in 1981.
To this day in Poland he is known at the Primate of the Millennium for making the 1966 millennium of Poland’s baptism the centrepiece of a religious and national struggle against the evil Soviet empire.
Last week, just days before Cardinal Tamkevicius was given his red hat, it was announced in Rome that Cardinal Wyszynski’s cause had been approved for beatification. He was, with the exception of the younger Polish cardinal from Kraków whom he mentored, the greatest churchman of the 20th century. He battled the communists for more than three decades. He lived each day the biblical injunction to be wise like serpents and innocent like doves.
The police seized him in 1953 and kept him under house arrest for three years. When the Soviet-installed regime in Poland decided in 1956 to release him to placate a restive population, the wily strategist and implacable warrior negotiated the terms under which he would be freed.
Cardinal Tamkevicius has now joined that great procession of cardinals from behind the Iron Curtain who proved worthy witnesses in one of the great persecutions of the Church in history. I have written about them before, for it is vital not to forget their glorious fidelity.
The names comprise an inspiring portrait of heroism: Cardinal Adam Sapieha of Kraków, Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek of Minsk, Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac of Zagreb (already beatified), Cardinal Josyf Slipyj of Lviv, Cardinal Josef Beran of Prague, Cardinal Alexandru Todea of Romania, Cardinal Jozef Mindszenty, the primate of Hungary. All of them are plausible candidates for sainthood.
In 2016, Pope Francis elevated Fr. Ernst Simoni to the sacred college, an Albanian priest who spent 28 years in a communist forced labour camp. Now he has added Cardinal Tamkevicius to that honour roll.
Remember also Venerable Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan, the archbishop of Saigon whom the Vietnamese communists imprisoned for 13 years, nine of them spent in solitary confinement. Remember too, Cardinal Ignatius Kung, the archbishop of Shanghai who spent more than 30 years in Chinese communist prisons.
On Oct. 13, Pope Francis will canonize Blessed John Henry Newman, who suffered for the faith but was not a martyr. On the occasion of the English cardinal’s beatification in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI said that “Newman’s life also teaches us that passion for the truth, intellectual honesty and genuine conversion are costly.”
“In our own time, the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied,” Benedict observed.
“And yet, the Church cannot withdraw from the task of proclaiming Christ and His Gospel as saving truth, the source of our ultimate happiness as individuals and as the foundation of a just and humane society.”
The heroic Cardinals Tamkevicius and Wyszynski serve to remind us of the price of discipleship; they inspire us to pay it.