Tag Archives: persecution

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.

Movie Review: Paul, Apostle of Christ

I was excited when I learned that the life of Saint Paul was going to be made into a movie. Among the saints, Saint Paul is one who has a movie-worthy life:  his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, a daring escape plan that involved being lowered down the window in a basket, preaching and provoking riots and getting arrested several times, shipwreck, remaining unharmed after being bitten by a viper.

Paul,  Apostle of Christ turned out different from what I expected.  It is meditative, a bit slow-paced in the beginning, and intellectual. It assumes that the viewer knows a bit about Saint Paul. Nevertheless, the movie is still accessible, and though the movie could have been improved by better storytelling and more action, it is not devoid of tension and drama.

In short, I loved the movie despite its flaws.

Paul, Apostle of Christ opened  at the time of the Roman emperor Nero’s crackdown against Christians after the burning of Rome. Christians were being persecuted, and Saint Paul was arrested, imprisoned in the Mamertine Prisons, and condemned to death by beheading.  (For parents concerned with the appropriateness of this movie for their children, the movie depicts scenes of Christians being burned as human torches, the bloody body of a dead child, and Christians, including children, in prison waiting to be thrown to the lions).

The movie follows Saint Luke’s frequent visits to Saint Paul in prison, seeking wisdom for a struggling Christian community in Rome and in order to document Saint Paul’s story in what was later to be the Acts of the Apostles. The movie also follows the subplots of the dilemma of the Christian community whether to stay in Rome or escape, the conflicts with a faction of Christians who want to raise arms against Nero, a Roman officer’s attempt to understand Christianity, and Saint Paul’s own internal conflict grappling with his past as a persecutor of Christians himself.

One of the movie’s strengths was making Saint Paul’s words come alive, putting them in the context in which they were written – a context not so different from our own times. I like how the scriptwriter chose appropriate Pauline quotes for the different situations that the movie depicted. The themes of love, forgiveness, and hope will be appreciated by many.

I also like how the movie made Saint Paul himself come alive, highlighting his mental sharpness and his zeal for souls which made seize every available opportunity to speak about Christ to everyone, even his executioners.

Another of the movie’s strengths is its depiction of the first Christians – how they lived fraternally among themselves, how their ideals clashed with those of pagan Rome, how they sustained hope and witnessed to Christ in their ordinary lives amidst persecution. The Christian characters other than Saint Paul are just as lovable, and one of my favorite parts is when a certain Christian character’s excellent practice of his profession became an occasion of grace for a non-believer.

However, the movie could have given more emphasis on the Eucharist as the sustaining and unifying force of the Christian community. There was a lot of focus on the teachings of Christ as transmitted by Saint Paul, but not enough on the Bread of Life which was the center of life and worship among the first Christians, and which was also a central theme of Pauline writings. More emphasis on the Eucharist would have been also been an apt counterpoint to the movie scenes showing sacrifices to the pagan Roman gods.

Despite its flaws, Paul, Apostle of Christ is a worthy effort to present the apostle’s life and teachings. Its depiction of Saint Paul as a man with a rich inner life and silent power beneath his aging, battered exterior complements my image of him as a passionate and energetic preacher and man of action. Watching the movie gave me a greater appreciation of Saint Paul’s role in the early Church, and how his teachings are as relevant today as they were during those times.

The Silence of Christ

(SPOILER WARNING: This article refers to climactic plot points in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence.)

I am a pessimist by temperament and as I observe a world in which living consistently with one’s Catholic beliefs becomes more and more difficult, I ask, “Why is Christ silent amidst the persecution of His Church?” I have been advised to keep hope, to look at God’s past victorious interventions in human events, and to not rule out the possibility of future similar victories (or, to use J.R.R. Tolkien’s term, eucatastrophes.) Still, from the perspective of the present, it is hard not to wonder why an omnipotent God will not manifest His omnipotence to vindicate His persecuted children.

The same question has been asked in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence. Set in Japan during the height of anti-Christian persecution in that country, the novel grapples with themes of faith, martyrdom, and the apparent failure of the Christianity to take root in Japan.

Throughout the novel, Fr. Rodrigues, the novel’s Portuguese protagonist, witnessed members of his flock – ordinary Japanese Christian peasants – being martyred. Finally, towards the end of the novel, he himself was arrested.

It was night time before dawn. Fr. Rodrigues was being urged to apostatize by trampling a fumie or a holy image, in this case a crucifix. In the background, he could hear the groans of Christians who were being executed by being hung upside down. Fr. Ferreira, a priest who had already apostatized, disclosed the real reason he did it:

‘The reason I apostatized…are you ready? Listen! I was put in here and heard the voices of those people for whom God did nothing. God did not do a single thing. I prayed with all my strength; but God did nothing.”

Fr. Rodrigues attempted to ignore Fr. Ferreira, but to no avail. The novel describes Fr. Rodrigues’ struggle:

“The priest shook his head wildly, putting both fingers into his ears. But the voice of Ferreira together with the groaning of the Christians broke mercilessly in. Stop! Stop! Lord, it is now that you should break the silence. You must not remain silent. Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love. You must say something to the world to show that you are the august one.”

Meanwhile, Fr. Ferreira continued entreating Fr. Rodrigues:

“When I spent that night here five people were suspended in the pit. Five voices were carried to my ears on the wind. The official said: ‘If you apostatize, those people will immediately be taken out of the pit, their bonds will be loosed, and we will put medicine on their wounds.’ I answered: ‘Why do these people not apostatize?’ And the official laughed as he answered me: ‘They have already apostatized many times. But as long as you don’t apostatize these peasants cannot be saved.’”

Crying, Fr. Rodrigues admonished Fr. Ferreira that the latter should have prayed. Fr. Ferreira said that he did, but also that prayer did nothing to alleviate the suffering.

Fr. Ferreira continued tempting Fr. Rodrigues by appealing to his pity for the other Christians. Finally, Fr. Rodrigues’ will broke. He agreed to trample the fumie:

“The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in the bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”

Many readers, especially Japanese Christians, were understandably indignant at the way events in the novel unfolded. I myself find the depiction of Fr. Rodrigues’ apostasy disturbing and for this reason, I prefer Endo’s other novel on the anti-Christian persecutions in Japan, The Samurai.

But, while keeping in mind that Endo was writing literature and not theology and that, therefore, any theological conclusions from his novel must be assessed critically, I derive comfort from the reminder that amidst the persecutions of the Church from without and the betrayals of Church members from within, Christ suffers together with his suffering faithful. It consoles me to remember that Christ remains with the Church even in Her defeats, even when these defeats seem to be brought about by Her own members.

The novel Silence does not end with Fr. Rodrigues’ trampling of the fumie . In the last chapter, Kichijiro, a Japanese Christian who had repeatedly apostatized and repented several times in the past, approached Fr. Rodrigues – who, strictly speaking, was still a priest and one of the rare priests available at that – and asked him for the sacrament of Penance, which Fr. Rodrigues administered. Here we have a reminder of a Church which, while struggling and apparently failing, has not ceased to be a channel of God’s grace for sinners – even if she carries the treasure of God’s grace in vessels of clay.

It is sometimes, indeed, hard to see Christ present in His Church when we see Her kicked around by the world and the forces of darkness. The victory that Christ has already won over evil through His death and Resurrection sometimes seems so unreal. At these moments, a Christian must remember that what matters is to be with Christ – whether at His glorious Transfiguration at Mt. Tabor, or at His shameful apparent defeat at Calvary.

Meanwhile, we must keep our hope in His final victory. For He Himself said that He has overcome the world. And we will one day see Him victorious. But not yet.

In Iraq, Little Churches to be Born

Gustave Dore (1832-1883), The Christian Martyrs, Oil on Canvas
Gustave Dore (1832-1883), The Christian Martyrs, Oil on Canvas.

Writing in the 2nd century, Tertullian once famously said that the blood of martyrs if the seed of the Church. If this is true, then the consequences of this are even more acutely felt today in the 20th century, where .

Earlier in June of this year, on the Feast of the First Roman martyrs, Pope Francis gave a homily and spoke of this tragic reality occurring in our day:

There are more witnesses, more martyrs in the Church today than there were in the first centuries. So during this Mass, remembering our glorious ancestors, let us think also to our brothers who are persecuted, who suffer and who, with their blood are nurturing the seed of so many little Churches that are born. Let us pray for them….

One need not read the news too long to confirm that Christians are, indeed, facing grave threats around the world:

Boko Haram continues daily their murderous attacks and kidnapping of Nigeria’s Christians. Coptic Christians are recovering shattered livelihoods after the spate of attacks thrust upon them during the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. Syrian Christians remain caught in the midst of a civil war going on three years now, with the rebels growing more radicalized each day. There are countless other examples in Sudan, in Pakistan, in Kenya, and more.

Most recently, and what prompted my reflection, was the precarious state of Christians in Iraq. It was earlier last week when Islamic State fighters (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS) forced Christians in Mosul, part of their newly formed Caliphate, to either leave the city, pay a crushing tax known as the jizya, or convert to Islam. Otherwise they would face immediate execution.

Up to last week, that greatest attack the Iraqi church suffered was in 2010, when jihadists massacred worshippers at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad attending Sunday Mass. Apparently, that was only the start. The events in Mosul are another anguished chapter in the history of Christians in modern Iraq. No Christian in the West can hear of these stories and not be heartbroken.

Before the war in 2003, there was once an estimated 1.5 million Christians in that country; now that number has dwindled down to 400,000. It may be that we will come to see the Chaldean Catholic Church, which has been there since ancient times, extinguished in our lifetime. Although many Christians have been martyred, an even greater number more have simply emigrated to other lands for safety, with a large Iraqi Christian community now living in the United States.

Hearing all of this news, what can we do? What can be done in the face of such carnage? I am reminded of what St. Paul writes, “For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36).

Certainly, the first thing must be to pray.  Far too often, I have taken it for granted that I can read scripture, pray, and worship in peace. So many of our brothers and sisters cannot. As I write this piece on Saturday night, I am reminded that tomorrow morning we will celebrate Mass. This week has reminded me of the precious gift that we have. As Pope Francis encouraged us, we can be present with our brothers and sisters in that way and entrust them to God.

Secondly, in the short-term, we can donate money, volunteer, or organize fundraisers for groups like Caritas Internationalis, Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Charities, and other groups who are already helping Iraqi Christian refugees. Join me in giving something, even if it is little, or add to your normal tithe. Anything would help and, if enough of us do it, that will make a difference!

Finally, in the longer term, Christians must advocate for countries to respect the right of religious freedom and develop frameworks for a healthy interaction between faith and reason, governance and freedom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the right to exercise religious freedom is an “inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person” which must be “recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order” (See CCC #1738).

If we are successful, we will realize why the right to religious liberty is the highest right that we have. Properly understood, this is because every other good and human right is ordered to enabling us to fulfill that which we were ultimately made for: to seek God, to worship him in spirit and truth, and to attain the blessedness of heaven.

We can all do these three things in some capacity or another. Let us not grow discouraged when faced with the immensity of this task. Our Lord reminds us, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). We can also remember the examples of the faithful ones who have gone before us in ages past and who give themselves for the faith even now.

To end, let us meditate upon these words from a recent Mass reading:

But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels,
That the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
Perplexed, but not driven to despair;
Persecuted, but not abandoned;
Struck down, but not destroyed;
Always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
So that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
-2 Corinthians 4: 7-11

As we do this, in the words of our Holy Father, let us also do so with them in our hearts: “[O]ur brothers and sisters who are persecuted, who suffer and who, with their blood are nurturing the seed of so many little Churches that are born.” Our Lady of Salvation, pray for us!

What does Faith mean to you?

christ-faith-hope-jesus-light-Favim.com-214422In the Year of Faith I was asked by my local Catholic newspaper to write about what faith means to me. Here’s my thoughts:

Faith to me is life. In our world today, particularly in my peer group, faith I think can be seen as an optional extra, even something that you don’t need at all. It is far more than that. It is what I was created for. We were created by God for Love and to Love. That takes a life time. A relationship with a true and living God, Jesus Christ. Faith can’t be segmented into a section of our lives. It isn’t just an important part of life, it covers all parts of life.

My faith makes the rest of the world make sense. It reconciles personal sufferings with happiness. It gives me a joy and optimism that many I know without faith don’t have. My identity and a way of life, that is often hard, is still joyful and in many ways, logical. The ‘rules’ of the church that many don’t understand, actually make sense of the confusing modern world and are a natural law that keep me healthy and happy. Don’t get me wrong, its not always easy. There are many ups and downs, desolation and consolations. Its hard standing out in the way that we live trying to be faithful. It comes with persecutions. Yet also, it helps with persecutions.

l love what Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said:

“For the life they would have to live, seculars would not be able to do it. For a work of continual self-forgetfulness and immolation for others, you need interior souls—burning with love for God and souls. Pure souls who would see and seek God in the poor.—Free souls—who would be able to sacrifice everything just for this one thing only, to bring a soul to God.—The work will need much deep, fervent prayers and much penance—and all these people of an association will not be able to bring to the work, and the work will not fulfill its aim—“to bring souls to God, and God to souls.” 

Faith helps us change the world. Not that we can’t change the world without it, but as Blessed Teresa said, it is very hard.

And in a way that is indescribable, faith (my God) moves me even when I don’t feel it. It brings joys that cannot be described. And that makes it all worth it.

What does faith mean to you?