Forces of Faith In Lithunia

IN the midst of glasnost, it is worth remembering how the Soviet leadership came to embrace it. Certainly one must credit leadership from the new Soviet team which now shows greater tolerance for dissent and freedom. But it would be unfair to ignore those forces inside Russia that have been opposing oppressive Kremlin regimes for decades. In Lithuania, the Roman Catholic Church has waged a determined campaign against Soviet religious repression since 1940, when the country was forcibly annexed. The Kremlin has used every possible weapon since then to smother nationalism and the Catholic church in Lithuania.

Communist tactics were blunt. Priests were imprisoned, seminaries were infiltrated by students in the KGB, prayer books and church publications were censored and controlled.

Worst of all, churches were confiscated and put to other uses. The St. Casimir church in Vilnius was recast as a Museum of Atheism and filled with empty testimonials to scientific and material progress. The grand cathedral became an art museum.

This small Baltic republic had not witnessed religious control of this severity since the czar imposed the Russian Orthodox religion in the 19th century. At that time, Catholic seminaries were closed, children forced to attend Russian Orthodox services, and no Catholics were allowed to hold public office. Repression relaxed after the 1905 revolution. Until recently, jail or death in Siberian labor camps was the next stop for Lithuanian Catholics who defied Soviet authority.

Yet the Catholic Church in Lithuania persevered and even prospered. The Communist regime came down hard on the Lithuanian church. But, the faithful would not surrender.

Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevicius, the leading prelate in Lithuania, has seen dramatic changes in his homeland during his lifetime. He says that not 10 years ago parents smuggled children into pre-dawn mass hoping to escape the watchful Soviet eye. Young couples forced to marry in ``state wedding chapels'' with pop tunes on the organ and ideological paintings on the wall, would also go to a local church to seek a true blessing. Elderly women going about their business shuffled down the streets of Vilnius while quietly fingering rosary beads beneath their shawls.

In the countryside, the rural faithful were the most determined. Local priests sparked protests and petitions against Communist opposition. However, the organizers paid for their efforts with prison terms. Cardinal Sladkevicius, who spent 23 years under house arrest by the Communists, was released only after Pope John Paul II - the ``Polish pope'' - made him a cardinal and embarrassed the government into granting him freedom.

But with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's revolutionary program of glasnost, the Marxist-driven crusade against religion and the Catholic church has finally run aground. Today, the church prospers in Lithuania.

Last February, the Museum of Art in Vilnius disappeared and the grand cathedral was reconsecrated. The silver casket containing the remains of St. Casimir had been hidden for 50 years - it is now the center of an altar which draws crowds every day for mass.

Magnificent religious works of art ridiculed in the days of atheist museums are now displayed in a beautiful house of worship. Artisans are removing layers of paint and plaster applied by the communists to hide the age-old frescoes. Though it will take years to overcome the desecration, the original work which lies beneath appears to have endured.

The cardinal, free to move about for the first time in 23 years, says none of his priests are now in prison. He said the changes in Lithuania were hard to believe. Religion has been restored and elevated to a part of daily life. He's proud that after decades of keeping the flame of religion shielded, Lithuanians have overcome all odds and restored their faith.

As we left his chancery, the cardinal told us: ``Moscow is frightened by Lithuania.'' His comment isn't news to the Kremlin. But this priest, who has long battled communism, knows how determined Lithuania can be.

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