Fire in the East

Fire in the East

Catholic World Report, 1993

By John Mallon

"I will pour out my Spirit on all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions..." (Joel 3:1)

Monsignor Vytautas Balciunas had a dream. He always believed that one day his homeland of Lithuania would be free. Born in 1910 and ordained in 1933, he was appointed spiritual director of the inter-diocesan seminary in Kaunas just as war broke out on September 1, 1939. He completed his licentiate in six months and assumed his new appointment September 1, 1940. But while the seminarians were on their two-week Christmas break, the Communists gave them 48 hours to vacate the seminary building. While not forbidden to operate, the faculty and seminarians were out on the street with only their personal belongings to find lodging in private homes and hold classes in sacristies. 

At the end of the school year, over 30,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia in the one week of September 14-22, 1941. Massive deportations of the Lithuanian people began. The old, the young, the pregnant, and the sick were shut up together in railway wagons for four days in the heat without food or water until deportation. On June 22, 1941, the Nazis began the war against the Soviet Union without warning, and in a few days the Nazi military occupied Lithuania and entered the Soviet Union. After three years of fighting the Nazis were pushed back and began to occupy Lithuania for a second time. Over six hundred thousand Lithuanians were deported during the second Communist occupation between 1944 and 1990. In July 1944, Msgr. Balciunas, along with 250 priests and 100,000 other Lithuanians fled the Communists in Lithuania, traveling to Germany with German troops returning from Russia. The Germans wanted to divert attention away from Germany and portray the Communists to the world as the enemies and killers. He spent a year in a Carmelite cloister in Regensburg dedicating himself to the spiritual care of the Lithuanians in that city.

At the war's end, Msgr. Balciunas, 24 priests and 20 seminarians smuggled themselves out of Germany in hay wagons, through Austria with Italian troops returning home. After a three day journey they were accepted in Rome and founded the Lithuanian College. Msgr. Balciunas spent 18 years there as spiritual director of the Lithuanian College, teaching spiritual theology and liturgy. He completed his doctoral course work in sacred theology at the Gregorian University during his first year, and in the Summer traveled to France to write his thesis in French on The Universal Vocation to Holiness according to St. Francis de Sales, a theme which would be later taken up in Lumen Gentium no. 5. In the years that followed he spent his summer months traveling throughout Europe pursuing his theological specialty investigating spiritual phenomena, apparitions, and stigmatics, which brought him into a friendship with the German and French stigmatics Therese Neumann and Marthe Robin. 

He discovered that all the religious books in Lithuania had been burned, and began the long term project of editing a series of classic Catholic works in Lithuanian calling it The Christian in Daily Life. There was no doubt in his mind that one day Lithuania would be free and that this work could not wait. It had to be ready when the day came. As the series now stands the first three volumes contain the Vatican II documents, followed by twenty eight different themes, including eight volumes containing the Scriptures. In 1990 the first shipment of fifty thousand books was delivered as a gift to the Lithuanian bishops at the cost of three hundred thousand dollars. The project was begun without a penny. He says, "It was God's work." The Lithuanians told him that if he had sent the same quantity of pure gold it would be nothing in comparison. Until then they knew little of Vatican II or other developments in the Church. A new Lithuanian translation of the Scriptures from the original languages is also now underway. 

In 1963 the bishop of the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, invited him to America for Sabbatical in his diocese, and he took up residence in Putnam, Connecticut. In 1973 he became involved in the Catholic charismatic renewal. He had heard about it previously and was very cautious. After spending a year studying it, he concluded it was authentic, joined a charismatic prayer group in Providence, Rhode Island, and was baptized in the Holy Spirit (a prayer for a deeper release of the gifts of baptism and confirmation). The people he had been serving were amazed at the change in him. Then one day in 1990 he received a remarkable phone call.

Justinas Milusauskas was a young man with a vision. He was one of five Catholic charismatic teenagers prayed with by Swedish Pentecostals to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. These young people were the only charismatic Catholics in Lithuania, and their bishops were very skeptical of them. However, in 1989, Msgr. Balciunas had visited Lithuania, and before going he obtained the book Open the Windows: The Popes and Charismatic Renewal, edited by Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, a book of nineteen papal documents on charismatic renewal. He gave the book to all the bishops in Lithuania and prevailed upon them not to make any pronouncements on charismatic renewal until they read it. Msgr. Balciunas was still held in very high esteem by the Lithuanian hierarchy, as two of the nation's highest ranking prelates had been his students and were under his spiritual direction as seminarians. Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevicius, Archbishop of Kaunas, had been ordained that first difficult year in 1944, and Archbishop Audrys Backis of Vilnius studied under Msgr. Balciunas in Rome. 

Nicholas Healy, a Vice President at Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio, tells the story of how Msgr. Balciunas and Justinas met: "When Justinas was in the Living Stones prayer group in Kaunas in the spring of 1990, he felt that God was calling him to come to the United States. The occasion for that was a Pentecostal conference in Houston, Texas. He received an invitation in the mail from a Pentecostal group and had no idea how they got his name. This was at a time when Lithuania was completely sealed off by the Soviet Union, and no one was permitted in or out of the country; it was at the height of the Soviet determination to forestall any independence movement in Lithuania. Justinas talked two of the leaders of their prayer group, The Living Stones, Dalé Smerauskaité and Ruta Salaseviciené, into coming with him.

"They had no tickets, no visas, no permissions. Everyone thought it was absolutely absurd to even contemplate the idea of traveling from Lithuania to the United States; but through a series of what can only be described as miracles, in just two days they got the visas, they got the tickets, they got the permissions and they left for New York. Ordinarily it would take from six months to a year to get visas out of the Soviet Union. This was within days of the time that Justinas sensed the call from God to respond to the invitation to Texas.

"They would go to the bureau to get their plane tickets and the people would laugh at them: 'It's impossible, you cannot do this!' and Justinas would just stand there and pray in tongues under his breath. A few minutes later the guy would say 'Oh, there are tickets, you can go to Mexico'. At first they were going to go to Mexico, because there were no tickets available to New York, so they actually got tickets to Mexico. Then they went to Moscow where they had to get their U.S. visas. Again, they were told it was impossible, the lines were blocks long, but suddenly they got to the head of the lines, suddenly they were called in and the visas were issued. Then they had to go to the Mexican embassy, which was closed, and their tickets were for that day. So it was impossible. But Justinas said, 'We're going to the airport anyway!' and prayed the whole way. They got to the airport and started asking, 'Does anyone know where the head of the airport is?" and a man they asked said, 'I'm the head of the airport'. He took them into a room: 'No, it is impossible, you cannot go to Mexico without visas'. They just prayed. Then the man said, 'Well, there are three seats available now on a flight to New York, so you can go'.

"Knowing how things worked then in the Soviet Union, it was just not possible for this to happen. Justinas called his mother, who was a Communist and an atheist, divorced and living in Moscow. He told her, 'We got the tickets and we're leaving for America!' She gasped and said, 'Then there is a God'.

"He and the two women arrived at Kennedy Airport in April of 1990 with one dollar and the name of a priest that had left Lithuania in 1944. They did not know where he was—I'm not sure if they knew he was still alive. But being a bit creative, as Justinas can be, he called a Lithuanian travel agency he found in the phone book. He called them and they knew of the priest. A priest from Brooklyn picked them up at the airport, they spent the night in Brooklyn and the next day they were on their way to Monsignor Balciunas in Putnam, Connecticut. They told him they were going to a Pentecostal prayer conference in Houston, he immediately objected citing the expense, but more importantly that they were Catholics. Rather than going to a Pentecostal conference, he would take them to where charismatics were thriving in the Catholic Church. He drove them to Steubenville, Ohio. (He was then 80 years old.) He had been to a number of priest's conferences at Franciscan University in Steubenville, and brought them there. They stayed in the United States for a couple of weeks, visited a couple of prayer groups, and then returned to Lithuania. Justinas remained in Lithuania until he received a scholarship from Steubenville and returned to the campus in August. 

"When Justinas, Dalé, and Ruta had gone back in April of 1990, they told a priest, Fr. Sigitas Tamkevicius, what they found in Steubenville, so in May, Fr. Sigitas and Sr. Nijole Sadunaite came to see for themselves. Fr. Sigitas was known to be one of the most conservative, reliable priests in Lithuania. He'd been in the Gulag for six years and treated terribly by the Communists. He was very highly respected among the clergy in Lithuania, none of whom at that time accepted the charismatic renewal. Sr. Nijole had spent three years in the Gulag, and three years in Siberian exile. At one time the KGB considered her the most dangerous woman in Lithuania because of her witness to the Faith. When they came to Steubenville they were deeply moved by what they saw, and, on returning to Lithuania, Fr. Sigitas took the Living Stones Prayer Group under his personal protection. Shortly thereafter he was appointed rector of the seminary, and consecrated auxiliary Bishop of Kaunas. He spoke to the other bishops, and gradually they all came to not only accept, but to welcome and plead for the charismatic renewal to come to Lithuania.

 "Sr. Nijole eventually received Franciscan University's highest award, the Poverello medal, and that brought us at the University in contact with many Lithuanian Americans. This past year we wound up with five Lithuanian students, some on scholarship from us, some on scholarship from Aid to the Church in Need. We had four Lithuanian students in Gaming, [the University's Austrian campus] and then came the F.I.R.E. rally."

In the spring of 1993, Justinas graduated from Franciscan University with his BA in theology, and returned to Lithuania where he plans to enter the Jesuits. At Pentecost 1993, in Lithuania, he met up with the Catholic evangelistic outreach, F.I.R.E., an Alliance for Faith, Intercession, Repentance, and Evangelism, and Msgr. Balciunas. They held three Catholic rallies in different cities, with Justinas and Ruta among the translators. The F.I.R.E. team is made up of four leaders of longtime prominence in the charismatic renewal: Ralph Martin, Ann Shields, Fr. John Bertolucci, and Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR, President of Franciscan University. 

The F.I.R.E team was amazed at the response by the Lithuanians as they preached the Gospel, as were the Lithuanian bishops present. Bishop Sigitas repeatedly said to the team that charismatic renewal was the only answer he could see for reaching the youth of Lithuania. A Bishop from Poland said, "I'm envious. I don't have anything this strong or this good in Poland." and began negotiating with the F.I.R.E. Team. 

Of the F.I.R.E. rallies held in Lithuania, Msgr. Balciunas said, "There are no words to express it... it was a dream become reality. The Holy Spirit descended just like the first Pentecost with the Apostles, first in Klaipeda, then in Vilnius, on the eve of Pentecost, and in Kaunas on Pentecost. That was the highest point of all the dreams. So many still can't believe that freedom has come, because the Communists are still menacing Lithuania. But for me it is so clear, because our Blessed Mother promised that when all the bishops with the Holy Father consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart she will take care of it. It is so clear. In 1984 the Consecration was made, and Sr. Lucia of Fatima said, yes, now we can expect miracles. We saw this and still so many don't believe, but I was never as optimistic as I am now—for me—what I am living now—there is no way to go back!" 

Author’s Note:

The priest named in this article, Fr. Sigitas Tamkevicius, who spent years in the gulag, went on to be auxiliary bishop, as the story relates, then Archbishop, and Archbishop Emeritus of Kaunas, in 2015, and is now Cardinal Tamkevicius as of October 5, 2019 when he received his red hat  from Pope Francis. Praise God!

© 1993, 2007, 2020 By John Mallon