A new cardinal honors an entire nation 

George Weigel

ROME. Even the greatest enthusiasts of the present pontificate might not assert that Pope Francis has an inspiring liturgical style. Like the old-school Jesuit he resembles in many ways, the Holy Father is rather flat liturgically: typically expressionless, sometimes downright dour, he gets through the business at hand in a workmanlike way. Yet at the consistory for the creation of new cardinals on October 5, Francis showed real emotion when, after bestowing the red biretta and cardinalatial ring on the emeritus archbishop of Kaunus, Lithuania, Sigitas Tamkevicius, SJ, the Pope seemed to shed a tear or two as he drew the new prince of the Church into a prolonged embrace and shared a few words with him. 

I, too, was also deeply moved. And in my mind’s eye, I was taken back to 1985, to a different kind of Washington and a different kind of Congress, where men and women of good will, committed to the defense of the powerless, could work together on great causes. 

In November 1984, my friend John Miller was elected to the House of Representatives from Washington State’s first congressional district. John was a Republican and the House was controlled by Democrats, so as a freshman member from the minority party, his committee assignments were not scintillating. But he had come to Congress with the firm conviction that a robust defense of human rights behind the iron curtain would hasten the nonviolent collapse of communism, so he asked me what he might do to advance that cause while laboring away on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee (known on the Hill as “Fish”). 

I suggested that this Jewish congressman take up a cause in which no one else was involved: the cause of persecuted Catholics in what was then the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. John immediately agreed and started looking for a Democratic cosponsor for the work. A brief study of electoral demographics disclosed a significant Lithuanian-American population on the shores of Lake Erie. So Congressman Miller rang up Congressman Edward Feighan of Cleveland, proposing that Mr. Feighan co-chair the Lithuanian Catholic Religious Freedom Caucus. Feighan agreed and asked that Miller have me talk to one of his staffers – a then-obscure Democratic operative named George Stephanopoulos. Thus was born a bipartisan effort to promote the cause of religious freedom in Soviet-occupied Lithuania: an effort that meant, among other things, trying to spring three leaders of the Lithuanian Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights from the Gulag prison camps – Father Alfonsas Svarinskas, Sister Nijole Sadunaite, and Father Sigitas Tamkevicius, SJ. 

Our efforts in pressuring Congress and the Reagan administration to demand the release of these prisoners of conscience bore fruit, and amidst the Gorbachev thaw in the Soviet Union, all three contemporary Catholic martyr-confessors were sprung. After his release, Father Tamkevicius was brought to Washington for medical and dental treatment, after which a lunch was arranged for him at the U.S. bishops conference. I was invited and the man whom I had played a modest role in helping regain his freedom gave me a long and firm embrace before turning to several brother-Jesuits who were present (all of whom, unlike their Lithuanian colleague, were dressed as laymen). “You are Jesuits,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye; “are you also Catholics?”  

Sigitas Tamkevicius’s enrollment in the College of Cardinals was a papal tribute to a brave man who exemplifies the best the Society of Jesus offers the Church and the world. It was also a de facto tribute to the fidelity and courage of hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian Catholics during the Soviet occupation of their country. Their bravery produced, among a great host of martyr-confessors, the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania – the longest-running, uninterrupted resistance journal in the history of the Soviet Union. Month after month, the Chronicle – a precise record of the communist repression of religious belief and practice – was manually typed, copied by carbon paper, distributed throughout Lithuania, and smuggled out to the West. In 2013, while visiting one of the (literally) underground bunkers near Vilnius where the Lithuanian Catholic human rights resistance printed its materials (on a printing press that was “liberated,” one piece at a time, from a communist publishing house,) I had the sense of being in the 20th-century equivalent of a Roman catacomb.  

From such experiences, hope is sustained in a wintry ecclesiastical season. 

COMING UP: The ideological hijacking of Pope St. John XXIII

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ROME. With his liturgical memorial (October 11) falling on the fourth full day of the Special Synod for Amazonia, which sometimes seems bent on recycling every tried-and-failed nostrum from 1970s, it was inevitable that certain portside Catholic commentators would continue their effort to spin Pope St. John XXIII into a smiley-face, chubby Italian grandpa whose approach to the future of the Church was somewhat Maoist: “Let a thousand flowers bloom!”

If, however, the spinners had bothered to read the excerpt from Pope John’s opening address to Vatican II in the Divine Office for October 11, they might have been given pause.  For after some opening words of thanks to divine providence for having brought the Council to its solemn opening, the Pope had this to say:

“[The] critical issues, the thorny problems that wait upon man’s solution, have remained the same for almost 20 centuries. Why? Because the whole of history and of life hinges on the person of Jesus Christ….”

He then continued: “In these days….it is more obvious than ever before that the Lord’s truth is eternal.  Human ideologies change. Successive generations give rise to varying errors, and these often vanish as quickly as they came, like mist before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that, present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations….

“The great desire, therefore, of the Catholic Church in raising aloft at this Council the torch of truth is to show herself to the world as the loving mother of all mankind; gentle, patient, and full of tenderness and sympathy for her separated children. To the human race oppressed by so many difficulties, she says what Peter once said to the poor man who begged an alms: “Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, that I give thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk. (Acts 3:6).”

Insofar as it’s remembered today, Pope John’s epic opening address to the Council is cited for the brush-back pitch it threw at the “prophets of gloom” who see nothing but ruin in modernity. That was certainly said — and meant. But there was far, far more to Gaudet Mater Ecclesia [Mother Church Rejoices] than ecclesiastical smackdown. As I explain in a pivotal section of my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History (Basic Books), Gaudet Mater Ecclesia was actually the first trumpet call summoning the Church to what Pope St. John Paul II would call the “New Evangelization” — the recovery of the Church’s core identity as a communion of disciples in mission, dedicated to converting the world. And as those excerpts from Gaudet Mater Ecclesia in the Divine Office make clear, John XXIII knew that that evangelical mission would only meet the needs of the day if it were anchored in the ancient, abiding truths bequeathed to the Church by divine revelation: truths manifested in the life and teaching of the Lord Jesus himself, and developed through the Church’s doctrinal reflection as guided by the Holy Spirit.

To be sure, John XXIII understood that evangelization was not an exercise in logic-chopping; most modern men and women were unlikely to be converted by the proclamation of syllogistic proofs. So the Church needed a contemporary way of expressing ancient truths. But as Pope John insisted in Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, those truths must be expressed “with the same meaning and the same judgment” (in some translations, “…with the same meaning and import”). That was a direct quote from St. Vincent of Lerins, a 5th-century monk who wrote an important treatise on what we know as the “development of doctrine.” And it stands in sharp contrast to, and critique of, the bogus image of John XXIII as a pope unconcerned with doctrinal solidity and continuity.

It took the Church more than 20 years to grasp the full meaning of Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, as I also explain in The Irony of Modern Catholic History. Today, however, the living parts of the Catholic Church are those committed to a truth-centered evangelization that manifests itself in compassionate witness as well as compelling proposal. The dying parts of the Church are those still misreading John XXIII.