Lithuanian cardinal-elect Sigitas Tamkevicius

Lithuanian cardinal-elect once imprisoned by Soviets just wants to be “committed witness to the faith”

Lithuanian Jesuit Sigitas Tamkevicius was once a Soviet prisoner.

On October 5, though, he’ll become a cardinal.

Not that that will change the retired Archbishop of Kaunas much.

He doesn’t want Pope Francis to give him any “special duties” so that he can continue serving the local Church.

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Driving the news

As CNS reports, Tamkevicius told the Kauno Diena newspaper that he wants to continue “to be a committed witness to the faith, which is what’s most important to the present-day Church”.

“If you want to have real influence, you must set an example through your life”, the cardinal-elect explained.

“A cardinal’s ministry consists of faithfulness to Church and Gospel, but this is also the ministry of every normal Catholic”.

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The big picture

Tamkevicius knows a thing or two about being witnessing and being faithful.

Born in 1938 into a farming family, he was ordained in 1962 after a compulsory stint in the Soviet army.

After time as a parish priest, in 1968 he joined the outlawed Jesuits, only to have his priest’s activities restricted a year later for protesting Soviet restrictions on the Kaunas seminary.

After working in a factory and in digging land reclamation ditches, in 1972 Tamkevicius began The Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Lithuania, an underground publication that revealed to the West the facts of Soviet religious persecution.

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In 1978 Tamkevicius founded a Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights, a body that issued documents and petitions in the name of some 500 priests.

In 1983 the Jesuit was convicted on charges of anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation and sentenced to ten years’ prison, a term he served in the labour camps of Perm and Mordovia.

In 1988 he was sent into exile in Siberia, only later to be released thanks to Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Tamkevicius became auxiliary bishop of Kaunas in 1991, succeeding as archbishop of that see in 1996.

He later served terms as president and vice-president of the Lithuanian Bishops’ Conference, before retiring in 2015.

In September 2018, he led Pope Francis on a visit to former KGB police cells.

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Go deeper

For all his experience, Tamkevicius is known above all for his humility, and for his physical and spiritual strength.

Kaunas archdiocese chancellor Adolfas Grusas told CNS that the cardinal-elect had cycled some 3,000km just this summer.

The chancellor said the cardinal-elect is “a deeply understanding and reassuring person, who never rushes decisions and is always cheerfully confident things will work out”.

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“But he’s also immensely strong internally, modestly avoiding the limelight while helping others achieve the confidence he feels”, Grusas continued.

“Despite his new status, I’m sure he’ll hope to continue as before, willingly participating in parish events around our country”, the chancellor said.

“He stands today as a living witness to our people’s sufferings and how these were carried into the present. No one has ever questioned his service and dedication in this area”.

Grusas thanked Pope Francis for the “act of recognition” of naming Tamkevicius a cardinal, a nod the monsignor said was a “crowning moment for efforts made during the period of enforced atheism”.

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