Tag Archives: Europe

Memorials of faith under oppression in a Baltic state

Guest post by Dr. Chiara Bertoglio.

It is only very rarely that I have time for proper holidays, that is the idea of packing, flying and then enjoying a journey just for the sake of it. Much more frequently, I have to travel for my job, but – whenever possible – I try and make the most of these journeys, particularly attempting to know the places and people I’m visiting.

This happened in the past week, when I had to go to Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, for a conference. I was very curious, because I had never been to a Baltic country before. What will follow is just a kind of diary of what I saw, and, of course, I have no pretension to write as an expert of Lithuania or of its history. I’m merely a traveling musician who happened to spend a few days there.

The first thing I discovered was that Lithuania, along with its sister Baltic countries, Latvia and Estonia, is celebrating this year its 100th birthday. These countries declared their independence in 1918, though the following hundred years were marked by systematic violation of that independence and freedom. They experienced occupation and the deprivation of freedom and democracy, particularly during the long Soviet era.

Though the anniversary celebrations are stressing very strongly that the country’s independence is a hundred years old, and therefore that there is substantial continuity between Lithuania in 1918 and in 2018, they are also not hiding the country’s history and what it suffered in this century.

Just in front of the Academy of Music, where our conference took place, there is a building which immediately caught my eye. It is rather imposing, occupying one whole block; between the Academy and the building there is a small monument, in the shape of a little hill made of rocks, surmounted by a cross and with many flowers and candles spread around and above it. This tiny memorial invites attention, as does a block-long exhibition of drawings by children and teenagers – some of which are really beautiful – and which illustrate the history of Lithuania’s occupation. In fact, the large building a few steps away has had the debatable privilege of being the prison and operational centre of both the Gestapo (during the Nazi era) and of the KGB (during the longer Soviet occupation).

The building is covered in large square stones, on which the names and dates of birth and death of Lithuanian heroes are sculpted; many of them share the year 1945 as the second of the two. Inside the building is the Museum of the Genocide. I must admit that at first I had no intention to visit it. I can’t stand the sight of violence, I never watch horror movies, and I believe that one can learn enough about history without indulging in what I think are voyeuristic descriptions of torture and sadism.

In spite of this, in the end I convinced myself to enter, thinking that I would certainly not miss a visit to Auschwitz if I had the opportunity of going there, and so I had to take courage and enter here too. I was rewarded for this minor act of courage. The museum was by no means a chamber of horrors, even though it was more than a chamber of horrors. In the cellar, the KGB prison has been left as it was; and it is something one has really to see in order to believe it.

For example, you see what looks like a grim but not particularly terrible prison cell, about three by five meters, with three beds with no mattresses. The point is that up to a hundred prisoners were crammed into one of these cells. When you see it and think “well, this must be a cell for three people” and then you learn that a hundred people lived there… it makes you feel how inhuman their condition was. Then you see the showers, which are nothing to write home about, but when you learn that prisoners could take one shower a month you realize how terrible that was (and, incidentally, how the smell of a hundred unwashed people must have been).

There was, indeed, the display of some means of torture, of which I won’t write, but it was not like a splatter movie; rather, it made me deeply touched, sad and intensely moved. I was on the verge of tears when I descended into the execution room. I knew that thousands of people had died there; and while I felt the immense sacredness of a place like that, where heroes, martyrs and common people had been shot and had left this earth, I was also impressed by the “practical details” which made those killings so vivid in my eyes – such as the hosepipe used for washing the blood after the executions. It was like perceiving the reality and the truth of it all, not in the form of a tale, but as a true experience of life.

Similarly, I will never forget some small items which I saw in the museum in the upper floors, where tiny objects from the prisoners’ and the deportees’ lives were displayed. Many unsung heroes of the Lithuanian resistance were in fact sent to Siberia and other pleasant holiday places in the USSR, and, once more, the living truth conveyed by these objects was much more impressive for me than descriptions of tortures or other horrors which these people experienced.

There were handkerchiefs on which a married couple embroidered the portraits of their children: the parents had been sent to Siberia and this was a way for keeping the beloved features of their offspring with them. There were Christmas cards written on birch bark; small bags in which a handful of Lithuanian earth was kept by the deportees. But what most impressed me were the numerous examples of how faith kindled courage and hope in these prisoners.

A rosary made of bread, which belonged to the political prisoner Elena Kirlyte, Kazakh SSR, circa 1954.

There were rosary beads made of breadcrumbs (and one can only imagine how precious a breadcrumb could be for these people in forced labor at the end of the world); tiny holy vessels with which the priests celebrated Mass, sometimes even on the trains which brought them to Siberia, as witnessed in a “Mass diary” kept by a priest; minuscule crucifixes made from toothbrushes (!); portable altars carved in wood, or Lilliput prayer books written by hand. There were also some exquisite Christmas decorations which a deported bishop, from his internment at a kind of lunatic asylum, sent to his little niece; her picture was found in his own portable altar, so that he celebrated Mass for this little child.

I emerged from this visit with a full heart. I was impressed by some dates, telling me that some of these events happened during my own lifetime; in fact, I can distinctly remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, though I had forgotten about the human chain made by some two million inhabitants of the Baltic republics in 1989 (the “Baltic way”).

Outside the museum, I found a vibrant city, with a wonderful Old Town which is part of the Unesco World Heritage and modern shops like those I find in the major Western cities (though whether this homogenization is a positive aspect is debatable). But I also found an elderly man who sold simple bunches of homegrown flowers, tied with a shoelace – a touching reminder that freedom is not the same as well-being, and that consumerism is not the antidote to past abuses. The true antidote, I think, is in the deep faith and values of the Lithuanian people, some of whom I saw praying in the Cathedral church of Vilnius. I will not forget an old nun, who was so beautiful in her prayer that I couldn’t resist taking a picture of her.

The country, along with the other Baltic countries, will be receiving a visit by Pope Francis in a few days; possibly he will also go on pilgrimage to the Hill of the Crosses, a place I longed to see but which was too far from Vilnius to be compatible with my schedule. But I hope to be able to visit it in the future: it is yet another living witness of the power of faith and love to heal the deepest and most painful sorrows of humankind.

Dr. Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.

Originally published at MercatorNet.

Featured image: Hill of Crosses, Lithuania / PD-US
Photos: Chiara Bertoglio.

10 European Catholic Movers and Shakers

Has Europe lost its Catholic roots? Opinions are constantly being emitted on the question “What is happening to Europe?”, and while I think there is a need for realism, I don’t think there is reason for pessimism. It is said that although there are new struggles for the Church in every time period, God also raises up new people in his Church as beacons of hope and these ten European Catholics are a testimony to that. These Catholics aren’t more important than the everyday European Catholics that seek to live the Gospel, as my wise friend Dora pointed out to me. The true power of Christians is in their love, service, poverty, self-giving, humility and not the world’s criteria of money, success, fame, influence, visibility or number of books sold. However, not only do I think these Catholics inspire hope for Europe, but I also think they deserve a little publicity!

1. Father Duarte da Cunha, Portugal

Father Duarte da Cunha was a much-loved parish priest and spiritual father to many in Lisbon, Portugal before being nominated secretary of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences in 2008. He specialized in St. Thomas Aquinas and was a pioneer in spreading John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in Portugal. He founded a ministry that gives aid and support to pregnant women, called Center of Support of Life. Now, he lives in Switzerland and travels to meet bishops or their representatives, promoting more synchronization among them and with Jesus Christ. Following John Paul II’s example, he seeks to focus on the family, and in protecting and promoting this important foundation of society. Despite his busy life, he has always made mass and prayer a daily priority and believes that great, heroic acts of saints have behind them years and years of small and daily moments and sacrifices.

2. Mother Verónica María Berzosa, Spain

The convent of Lerma in Spain has existed since 1604, but when Veronica entered this convent the youngest sister was 40 years old and no one new had entered in 23 years. Then, what is referred to as “the miracle of Lerma” happened. At just 28 years of age, Veronica became Mother Superior and now she is spiritual mother to a thriving convent about 200 young women called Iesu Communio. Yet she doesn’t credit this to herself. When asked how she feels being the mother of so many women, she responded, “Much joy, for the love for Jesus burns here. I am very in love with him. They have given me life. Motherhood comes from God.”

3. Dr. Phil Boyle, Ireland

A general practitioner and European pioneer of Natural Procreative (NaPro) Technology, Dr. Phil Boyle has been fighting against the odds since the beginning of his career. He studied in America with Dr. Thomas Hilgers in Omaha, Nebraska and was the first doctor to bring NaProTechnology (an alternative to IVF, consistent with Catholic ethics) to Europe. Now, he is director of the Fertility Care Centres of Europe (FCCE), gives conferences and publishes in this area. His clinic in Galway has treated thousands of infertile couples, many of whom had failed attempts with IVF before.

4. Kathy Sinnott, Ireland

A true Pro-life politician, Kathy Sinnott was a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2009. Mother to nine children, she is a known for her work in defending the rights of the disabled and is secretary of the Hope Project. She says, “I have always just voted prolife. Someone might have a better policy on shipping or whatever, but I will still vote prolife” (at 31:20 here).

5. Rocco Buttiglione, Italy

Rocco Buttiglione is a university professor, member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Science and politician. He was a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2004, has served on the Chamber of Deputies in the Italian Parliament since 1994 and helped form an Italian political party, the Christian Democratic Union. His openness in defending his Catholic views has resulted in much controversy. In his speech, translated here, he says, “I don’t know if God would give me the courage to offer my head for my faith, like St. Thomas More. I hope I am never in a position to find out. But offer a seat on the commission—yes, that I can offer.” He also says, “Europe is not Christian, but neither is it non-Christian. Europe, like the Italian young people, is looking for its path. In order to discover this path, in order to discover Christ as an adequate response to the desire of the heart of man, it is necessary that there be Christians who give testimony, who have the courage to be that which they are.”

6. Delia Smith, England

This Catholic TV chef converted to Catholicism and found her love of cooking at the same time, when she was 22 years old. Now she’s sold 21 million cookbooks and appears frequently on BBC, not only to cook but also to share about her faith! On a BBC program, images of her house appeared with her crucifixes and she was even filmed in mass. She’s written cookbooks for Lent and Advent  and a book about prayer, Journey into God. She’s been married for 40 years and her parish priest confirms that she takes yummy treats to the parish. (Her site here and an article in Spanish here)

7. Sandro Magister, Italy

A journalist and writer for the magazine “l’Espresso”, Sandro Magister specializes in Catholic news. He’s written two books on the political history of the Italian Church and helped publish three volumes of Pope Benedict XVI’s homilies. He also produces the program “Sunday with Benedict XVI”, which includes the Pope’s homilies, art and Gregorian songs for each Sunday’s readings. His website Chiesa reaches readers from all over the world.

8. Fernando, Kuki and 6 children, Spain

This is not your typical missionary; this is an entire missionary family that moved from their native Spain to Japan. Fernando, Kuki and children are one of the hundreds of families belonging to the Neocatechumenal Way that have been sent out by the Pope to places in which the Church is struggling, to be a living sign of faith and family. Kuki says, “Since we’ve been in Japan, I can tell you we have never had a lack of anything. The entire process of our mission is full of details of God’s love. God truly gives 101% and our entire family has experienced this. That’s what my husband and I want for our children: for them to know that whoever trusts in God won’t be misguided and that their parents one day left everything they had materially speaking to do something much more important: our Father’s will.”

9. Giuseppe Noia, Italy

An outspoken doctor and prolife activist, Giuseppe Noia is a pediatrics surgeon at Gemelli Hospital and professor at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome. He’s written several books and articles, one of which he is coauthor and is called “The terminal son”. He says in this article about the morning after pill, “One of the most widespread and rooted theories in the medical world and in popular culture is thinking that voluntary abortion is less traumatic when it is practiced during the first weeks of pregnancy, that it’s safer and more acceptable than abortion, with fewer consequences for the woman…The physiological effects are similar to surgical abortion with anesthesia: contractions, expulsion of the fetus and placenta, hemorrhage; but with RU468, the woman faces this all alone, without any type of assistance – and maximum psychological responsibility.”

10. Gudrun Kugler-Lang, Austria

Gudrun is a young theologian and founder of Europe 4 Christ and Kairos Consulting, which focuses on charitable initiatives. She has been involved in many initiatives including being the first director of World Youth Alliance-Europe from 2001-2004, starting the first Catholic online dating service (www.kathtreff.org) and being elected a member of the advisory panel of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency. She’s taught at the the International Theological Institute near Vienna for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Vienna since 2008 and won an award from the “Ja zum Leben” (Yes to Life) Foundation.