Crises, Tidings & Revalations

Lithuania Looks to the West

By Thomas Patrick Melady

For the second time in modern history, Lithuania is a free and independent state. In the early days of Lithuanian history, in the fifteenth century, the country’s boundaries extended from present-day Sweden to the Ukraine. The glorious days of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania eventually were followed by Russian Czarist domination beginning in the early days of the nineteenth century. The long, oppressive Russian imperial occupation ended with World War I. Lithuania then had its second period of independence from 1920 to 1940, and enjoyed a prosperous economy. But this brief period of freedom was interrupted in 1940 when the Soviets took advantage of the Nazi-Soviet accord of 1939 and occupied Lithuania.

The first Soviet occupation lasted for a year, 1940-4. Then the Nazis, having declared war on the Soviets, entered Lithuanian and established a brutal four-year rule. It was during this time that the Jewish population of around 2.40,000 was slaughtered. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, the Soviets returned to Lithuania and instituted a harsh 45-year occupation. The Lithuanians, hoping that the West would not abandon their Catholic country to the atheistic communists, fought in the forests for eight years against the occupiers. Over 40,000 Lithuanians lost their lives in that grim period.

When the Lithuanians again embraced independence in 1990, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, they did so against the sad memories of losing over 700,000 people to the Nazi and Soviet occupiers. What now are the prospects for this country where 8o percent of the people are Catholic? I recently visited Lithuania for four weeks and am optimistic that, internally, the prospects are promising. But the country does fear the possibility of a rebirth of Russian nationalism.

There are in my judgment several reasons for a cautious optimism concerning the future of Lithuania. It is a small country with a homogeneous population. With small minorities of Poles and Russians, the country’s unifying fabric is its Catholic culture. The severe anti-Catholic policies of the Soviet occupation of 1945-90 resulted in a Catholicism that developed strength and vigor. Soviet attempts to crush Catholicism as a vital force in the life of Lithuania were completely unsuccessful.

Good Clergy-Lay Relations

The over-500 members of the Catholic clergy in Lithuania were united with the people during the long dark years of Communist persecution. Only a few priests—no bishops— joined the “patriotic” group of clergy favorable to the Soviet government. Consequently, clerical-lay relations are very good. The four-day visit of Pope John Paul II in September 1993 was a tremendous success. He concentrated on issues that gave the Lithuanian people a sense of confidence in the future and strengthened their Catholic culture. This cultural solidarity gives a philosophical under-pinning to the Lithuanian government as it proceeds with privatization and replaces stagnant communist economic policies with free-market mechanisms. Still, results of the first two years were disappointing because transition turned out to be a difficult one. A consequence of this was the victory of some ex-communists in the 1992 elections.

My conversations with Lithuanians from all walks of life convinced me that the majority had voted not for communists but for a return to some of the socialist welfare policies that the communists had instituted. This four-week visit in late 1993 confirmed my report to the U.S. Department of State in 1992, when I was the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, that the Vatican was not overly concerned about the Lithuanian people’s election of some former communists.

Concerns about Russian Expansionism

Yet the same Lithuanian people expressed concern about the results of the 1993 elections in Russia. The extreme nationalist statements of Vladimir Zhirynovski calling for the return of Lithuania and other Baltic states to Russian control naturally aroused fear in Lithuania. This fear was aggravated by the Yeltsin government’s opposition to Lithuania becoming a member of NATO.

In my departing conversations with Vatican officials in early 1993, they had expressed concern about the growing signs of Russian desire to return the Baltics to their zone of inter-est. In the previous Soviet takeover of the Baltics after World War II, both the United States and the Vatican refused to recognize Soviet control. The flag of independent Lithuania flew at diplomatic missions in Washington and in Rome during the long period of Soviet occupation.

Lithuania Looks West

Despite past disappointments that the West did not assist Lithuania in regaining its independence after World War II, Lithuania, with its Catholic culture, wants to develop a strong relationship with the West. One reason for this is that many Lithuanians have relations in the West. In the United States, for example, there are an estimated 800,000 Lithuanian-Americans. By contrast, many Lithuanians have relatives who spent years in Siberian exile or were killed when the Soviets crushed the Lithuanian freedom movement of 1945-53.

Western and Christian forces should recognize a moral responsibility to offer a helping hand to Lithuania as it courageously rebuilds its nation. We failed to be at the side of the Lithuanians in the past. The West—the United States especially—should not repeat that moral error

Thomas Patrick Melady, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 1989 to 1993, is now distinguished visiting professor at Saint John’s University.

‘A Great Priest…’

By Ray McInerny, Sr.

We were sitting in the school cafeteria on a Friday evening enjoying our parish fish fry, a Milwaukee-area weekly drama. Jean and I and our two sons, Ray and Paul, then five and three years of age, respectively, were new to this area. We decided to check out the parish. It was a Friday the Thirteenth—November or December, I’ve forgotten which—and the parish was Saint Matthias. Judging from the activity and friendliness this first night, it seemed like a good parish. Most of our six-year married life we had lived in Milwaukee, and now the purchase of our first home made the move from Minneapolis permanent.

That Friday evening was also our first meeting with Father Kreig, the pastor of Saint Matthias. A short man, somewhat like Barry Fitzgerald sans hair, friendly, and with a keen eye for new sheep in his flock, he introduced himself to us when we had finished eating. A feisty little German man, he regaled us with stories about “Whiskey Corners,” a place we hadn’t heard of. For half an hour he sat with us at the long table, welcomed us into the parish, and introduced us to some of our new neighbors.

“Whiskey Corners” was so named because the parish was located on an intersection that included three taverns. First, a Legion Hall, which halfway met with Father Kreig’s approval because so many parish members from the two World Wars were members there; the second, also grudgingly approved by him, boasted a four-lane bowling alley used by many parish members; and the third he never said much about except to note that it was there. The fourth corner was the church grounds. The corners drew much of his attention because, on many nights, he had to pull a family man or two from the clutches of those taverns. An old-fashioned pastor who took the care of his flock religiously, so to speak, he responded to pleas for help from the wives whose husbands might use the corner a little too often.

Our stay in the parish lasted 23 years; Father Kreig was with us for about the first 14 of those. He would have made Mr. Blackwell’s list. His cassock (remember those?) had frayed cuffs and usually was marked with dust or fingerprints of children he’d played with or counseled in the cafeteria or on the playground. The kids were always hugging him—he was their father, grandfather, or friend away from home. His shoes were dusty and worn because the grounds were dusty and dirty.

Our sons told us he would take special care to visit each classroom, read the report cards, reward those with the highest grades, counsel and befriend the children, and encourage them to do their best: a real good father of the parish. Father Kreig would spend much of his spare time on the playground with the children, and the daily children’s Mass that he celebrated with them was a bond few modern priests seem to have. Father Kreig wasn’t the most eloquent preacher, but you knew on whose side he stood, and the message always found its mark. Father Kreig took special care and pride in helping the nuns instruct the children prior to first confession, first communion, and confirmation, which kept him and the nuns close to them. A parish member supplied Father Kreig with candy; he would pass out little bags of goodies to the kids after report card time or on other special occasions. His down-to-earth manners kept the children at ease when they were preparing for first confession, and at first communion they would receive a silver rosary from him—for many, their first and only rosary. He helped lead many young people in the parish to the religious life simply by his example.

During the years we were involved with the parish credit union, several times Father Kreig discreetly “backed” loans to needy families—families that couldn’t get the money without his co-signing. One time, when a particular young family just couldn’t manage their funds and defaulted, Father Kreig came to their rescue. The young family performed volunteer work at the parish to repay him.

When kids who wanted to play sports couldn’t afford equipment, he’d buy it. Only he and a few coaches knew. In turn, the kids would respond by volunteering. Many of these young men and women went on to become life-long supporters of him and the parish. They would run the Sunday afternoon movies he’d show in the parish cafeteria—a movie he thought would keep the children away from “that” television fare. They would handle, with him and the nuns, the CCD classes for the other children of the parish. They would run the cafeteria/gym on weekends, when it was used for movies or sports. The first, and most faithful, deacon of the parish came from this group.

Father Kreig lived his whole life in a simple, not-too-well furnished farmhouse next to the cream city brick church; he did without modern amenities, drove a ten-year-old car, repaired our church and his home with parish labor to save money, and rarely, if ever, went on vacation. One major exception was when the parish collected funds to send him to Rome to celebrate his 35 years of priesthood.

Father Kreig was just a simple person who enjoyed being a priest, loved God, loved his neighbors, and cared for his parish family in a fatherly, manly way so that he is remembered by those who were touched by him.

He suffered through the transition from country priest to big-city parish administrator without complaint. (The parish had exploded from 200 families to over 1,200 in an eight-year period.) In our present diocese, which last year sent not one new candidate to study for the priesthood, it’s too bad there aren’t more like him to influence the young.

Father Kreig was the first person buried from the new Saint Matthias parish church. He was buried as Monsignor Kreig, a title he didn’t use when it was first bestowed. He didn’t seek personal honors. But he got them, and they were given from the heart.

Ray Mclnerny, Sr., writes from New Berlin, Wisconsin.

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