Sunday, April 22, 2007

"We want to be your little brothers"

Well, I have returned from Lithuania, and as I sit reflecting on the last week, I felt I really had to share the story of the friars in that country because it is a truly moving story.

Lithuania is generally regarded as the last country in Europe to embrace Christianity, not fully becoming a Catholic nation until 1387. The Franciscans were there right from the beginning, in fact, the very first Bishop of Lithuania was a Franciscan friar. As you can imagine, the Order grew tremendously during these times. At its height, there were over 500 friars in Lithuania. This situation persisted for many years.

And, then came the Soviet occupation. Just like most of the Eastern block, the Soviets as an atheistic state, treated believers, and religious in particular, very poorly. Given the amount of sway the friars had over the spiritual lives of Lithuanians, the Franciscans, along with all other members of religious orders were kicked out of Lithuania. The Soviets were brutal, closing all but one seminary - and even at that one allowing only 10 seminarians to enter each year. The number of priests in the country dropped by half as did the Churches. They would confiscate churches and turn them into warehouses, theaters or museums. Famously, the Cathedral of Vilnius was turned into the Museum of Atheism.

The friars who were deported from the country, came to the United States and settled in Kennebunkport, Maine. [They still maintain their monastery (www.framon.net) there and a guesthouse (www.franciscanguesthouse.com)] Here the maintained their religious life and their dreams of returning to Lithuania.

Back in Lithuania being a Franciscan was not so easy. The presence of the Order was basically sustained by two Diocesan priests who would secretly profess their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to each other every year, thus maintaining at least a small presence of the Order their. Even the current Provincial Minister there - Friar Astijus Kungys - attended the diocesan seminary while being a Francsicans, but even his teachers, rectors and formators at the seminary had no idea that he was a Franciscan. This was the life of hiddenness that the friars had to maintain during communism.

When independence came to that country in 1989, they began anew. At this time, there were seven priests who had secretly been professing this Franciscan way of life. They now came together openly and read the Rule of St. Francis, the way of life of the friars. In that Rule, they read:

"The Rule and life of the Friars Minor is this, namely, to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience, without anything of one's own, and in chastity...And if they believe these things and want to observe them faithfully and firmly unto the end...let them say unto these the word of the Holy Gospel (cf Mt 19:21), that they should go and sell all that is their own and strive to give it to the poor."

These men immediately sold all that they owned - their cars, their other belongings, even the furniture in their homes and began to live this 800 year old way of life again. They eventually re-established their connection with the friars in Maine and began to rebuild their way of life - that was at the very same time so ancient in Lithuania and now so new.

Today, the Franciscans are the largest religious congregation in Lithuania - but with only 46 friars. How much things have changed and how much still needs to take place there. But, their way of life if vibrant again and more men will come to them. They have been given back some of the Churches that were taken away from them by the Soviets and are renewing all things in Christ and in St. Francis.

Fr. Astijus spoke of how this beautiful connection with the friars of the English Speaking Conference and the friars who kept the Order alive in Vilnius will help lead to new life, "If we love our spiritual fathers maybe a new generation will love us. You are our fathers, we cannot be orphans. You are our family, you are our elders. We want to be your little brothers and one community with you."

May God bless their endeavor!

Pax et bonum!

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