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Pope Francis honored occupation victims in Lithuania

In the late afternoon of September 23, Pope Francis visited the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fightsbeside Lukiškės Square in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The museum occupies the building which was the headquarters of the Gestapo after the Nazi occupation of Lithuania in 1941 and then under the Soviet regime in 1944 to 1991 was the KGB prison and headquarters.

On arriving, the Holy Father was met by Archbishop Gintaras Grušas, museum director Eugenijus Peikštenis, and Kaunas Archbishop EmeritusSigitas Tamkevičius SJ. Mons. Tamkevičius as a priest was held and interrogated by the KGB in this building before being sentenced to 10 years of forced labor and exile in Siberia. He returned to Lithuania only in 1988.

In silence, Pope Francis visited cells No. 9 and 11 in the former KGB prison as well as an execution chamber. In cell No. 11, the so-called “bishops’ cell”, a candle burned in memory of the clergy who suffered for their steadfast faith and resistance. There was also a relic of Blessed Teofilius Matulionis, who was a beatified last year as a martyr of the Soviet system. In that cell and from that candle, the Pope lit an oil lamp beside a portrait of Blessed Teofilius. The lamp is a gift of Pope Francis to the museum. As a bishop, Blessed Teofilius was imprisoned in this very cell, as was the Servant of God Bishop Mečislovas Reinys, while the Servant of God Bishop Vincentas Borisevičius was not only held but also shot to death here.

Finally, the Pope signed the museum’s guest book.

On leaving the museum, Pope Francis went to a nearby monument to the victims of occupation beside Lukiškės Square, where an estimated 4,000 people were gathered. He was joined by Archbishop Emeritus Tamkevičius, who presented him with flowers, the chairwoman of the Lithuanian Jewish community Faina Kukliansky, and Irena Saulutė Valaitytė-Špakauskienė, the former exile whose life story inspired Rūtą Šepetys to write the New York Times best-seller Between Shades of Gray. A film based on that book is now in development. Alongside them were representatives of political prisoner and exile organizations. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Parliamentary Speaker Viktoras Pranckietis and the leadership of the Lithuanian parliament were also present.

The Holy Father laid a wreath by the monument and prayed in these words:

“Lord, may Lithuania be a beacon of hope.  May it be a land of memory and action, constantly committed to fighting all forms of injustice.  May it promote creative efforts to defend the rights of all persons, especially those most defenceless and vulnerable.  And may Lithuania be for all a teacher in the way to reconcile and harmonize diversity.”

After praying, Pope Francis blessed all those who were gathered and departed for the Apostolic Nunciature.  As he left, the chamber choir “Aidija” sang the well-known national song “Dear Lithuania,” accompanied by the largest carillon in the Baltic states, housed in the nearby Church of Sts. Philip and James in Vilnius.

Papal Visit Organizing Committee of the Lithuanian Bishops’ Conference

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