The following essay was selected as the third-place winner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious liberty essay contest on the theme “Witnesses to Freedom.” The essay contest was co-sponsored by the OSV Institute for Catholic Innovation. For his essay, Paul Liulevicius was awarded a $500 scholarship.
Throughout history, it has often been hard to exercise religion freely and without being persecuted. Times of freedom have been the blessed exception. In America, the Constitution promises in the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” We have been fortunate to have this fundamental right, but unfortunately in the violent twentieth century, many other states restricted or persecuted religion. When Stalin’s Soviet Union took over Lithuania during World War II, the Communists clamped down on Catholicism and punished those believers. One extraordinary woman, Nijole Sadunaite, defied this repression and still practiced her religion, accepting that she might be condemned for this. Her witness then inspired others to stand up against aggression and to believe in Jesus, even when times are difficult.
Sadunaite was born on July 22, 1938, in the independent republic of Lithuania in the city of Kaunas. During her earlier years, Lithuania was occupied by Stalin, then seized by the Nazis for a short time, and then taken over by the Soviet Union for a second time. The Soviets persecuted Catholicism and imprisoned and killed church leaders, regarding them as ideological enemies. Churches were shuttered, free speech suppressed, people forced to publicly declare that there is no God. In spite of terrors, many Lithuanians would not give up and refused these demands. In her memoir, A Radiance in the Gulag, Sadunaite writes that her family was devout and always went to Mass and received Holy Communion. Loving the Lord and promising to do His will, she entered a clandestine order of religious sisters. After seeing fellow parishioners and priests put on trial for practicing the faith, Sadunaite fiercely promised she would never give up her freedom to exercise her religion. Although her resolve came with harsh consequences, Sadunaite promised she would never lose faith in the Lord and would die for Him rather than convert to atheism.
In 1974, while she was secretly making copies of the underground publication, Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, a neighbor denounced her to local authorities. The secret police seized books, letters, and other documents that could be used against her at trial. Right before she was taken to the KGB office, she told the officers, “You can take me, I am satisfied now that no one will suffer on account of me,” because she’d been careful not to incriminate anyone else. While being interrogated, she acted with composure and quoted often from the Scriptures, enraging her questioners. After her guilty verdict, she was transported to a labor camp in Mordovia, USSR. There, she endured many hardships and was treated miserably by the camp guards. In her memoir, she described the encounter she had with a fellow woman prisoner named Galina. After talking with her friend, she noticed that Galina had not read the Bible and did not have any knowledge of God. Yet Galina was inspired by Sadunaite’s words and wanted to learn more from her about the power of prayer and other beliefs of the Church. While being transported to further exile in Siberia, Sadunaite suffered a heart attack. However, she believed “it was not God’s will yet to have me depart from this world.” This led to one act of compassion she witnessed in the camps, as the guards rushed to help her recover from this medical emergency. In her goodness, she did not wish ill on those who struggled against her but prayed that they could change their ways and come to know the true Lord.
Even though she was constantly pressured to give up and renounce her faith, Sadunaite chose the right way. She was proud of what she believed and was not going to be bullied into submission. She declared that we should always give our worries to God, who would take care of us and help us through difficult times. It was possible for people, who were at first highly nervous at sharing what they believed, to protest and make their point. Sadunaite wanted to make it clear that many ordinary people in Lithuania did not agree with the stance of the Soviet government and condemned the government’s atrocities. This courageous woman concluded that people should not be told what to believe in but should have personal choice to follow what their consciences instructed them was ethical.
Up to our time, Nijole Sadunaite is considered a modern hero of religious freedom. She stood up against a regime which aggressively undermined religion and persecuted those who believed. She understood that personal freedom is the most precious trait in a human being, not being subjected or forced into slavery. This woman devoted herself to God, trying her best to live out the faith, even if she had to worship in secret or in the Gulag. Many people she encountered were amazed at the knowledge that she had of God and all of His powers. By quoting and referencing the Scriptures, Sadunaite electrified those she met. Sadunaite was willing to die for Christ as a martyr, and not turn away from the Lord. Yet she lived to announce the Gospel in freedom, after the fall of the USSR in 1991. And she continues today, while in her 80s. These important actions speak far louder than words and we can learn from her example.
Sadunaite taught us that we should never stand down and we should always fight for what we believe in our heart is right. Her compelling memoir, A Radiance in the Gulag, details the thoughts and events she had as she was persecuted. Sadunaite states that she is always a free woman, and no one can tell her what to do. If we feel something is wrong in our society and needs to be changed, we should stand up and resolutely voice our opinion, even if many (or even all) disagree with it. No single person or government ought to tell us what to believe. We ourselves, guided by God, decide what is right or wrong. Due to her heroic actions in preserving Catholicism in Lithuania, today’s democratic government, a renewed independent republic, awarded her the Lithuanian Freedom award in 2018. To this day, Sadunaite still speaks to young people to encourage them to stand up for what they believe and to live a life in Christ. Listen to her!
Paul Liulevicius writes from Knoxville, TN.