By Dan Valenti
On Jan. 27, the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception observe the anniversary of the death of the Congregation’s Renovator, Blessed George Matulaitis-Matulewicz (1871-1927). The life of Blessed George, beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 28, 1987, can be viewed as an object lesson for all of us during this Year of Faith, declared by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 11 last year to run until Nov. 24.
The Pope called for a Year of Faith to present Catholics an opportunity to consciously reflect on, rediscover, and renew their relationship with Christ and the Church. That last phrase calls to mind the motto of the Marian Fathers, Pro Christo, et Ecclesia — For Christ and His Church.
An ‘Army’ of One
When Blessed George became a Marian on Aug. 29, 1909, he joined a Congregation about to die out, having been reduced to a grand total of one member, Fr. Vincent Senkus. Blessed George did not shrink from the challenge. He embraced it. With Fr. Senkus’s blessing, George rewrote the Congregation’s constitution, recruited new members, and injected new life into the priests and brothers dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The legacy of that action can be seen today, in the work of the Marian Fathers throughout the world.
Blessed George based his actions on two words: “love” and “serve.” They are words that can well serve as guides for us today, as we look for ways to live out our faith in this special year.
“The door of faith is always open to us,” says Pope Benedict, “ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into His Church.” Loving and serving others as we do ourselves provides the push that allows us to walk confidently through that open door.
“It is not possible to understand Blessed George Matulaitis, our Renovator, without two key words” — ‘love’ and ‘serve,'” says Very Rev. Fr. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, provincial superior for the Marian Fathers in the United States and Argentina. “For Blessed George, ‘to love,’ was ‘to serve.’ The commandment of love of God and of neighbor was for him an invitation to a life of a dynamic, self-giving, and sacrificing activity. Love in relationship to God meant wholehearted acceptance of Him and His word, complete entrustment to His guidance, and making ‘God and His glory the center of life, the axis of all thoughts, feelings, desires and works.'”
To Serve Is to Love, and to Love Is to Serve
Father Kaz explains: “For Blessed George, to love God meant to love His Church, Christ’s Body on earth through whom the Lord Jesus, together with the Holy Spirit, teaches, guides, heals, and sanctifies. To love God meant to love and serve His people. It meant both material as well as spiritual.
“He addressed people’s needs as he saw them. For neglected orphans, he established orphanages and helped them materially. For the poor and elderly, he founded religious communities that served their needs. For mistreated workers, he helped establish unions. For the unemployed, especially those lacking skills and places of work, he established technical schools and places of gainful employment. For the spiritually poor, wounded, and those impoverished by atheism, tepidity, immorality, and apostasy, he established centers of spiritual and intellectual formation.”
Blessed George, says Fr. Kaz, “saw the human family divided by ethnic antipathies, by political affiliations and ideologies, and he called them to unity — we are all Christ’s, and we belong to the party of Christ. He saw people continually hurting one another — never letting go of the past wounds. To them he preached St. Paul’s motto’overcome evil with good.'”
Compassion, Gentleness Essential Components of a Faithful Life
Father Joe Roesch, MIC, vicar general of the Marian Fathers, remembers the summer of 1987, when the Pope beatified Fr. George, as the year he went into the novitiate.
“Many Marians went to Rome that year to participate in the celebration,” Fr. Joe remembers. “I participated in some ceremonies in Washington, D.C., as a postulant. Father Larry Dunn and Fr. Kaz were also ordained to the priesthood that summer. Larry served at the beatification Mass as a deacon, alongside Pope John Paul II. Father Kaz also participated as a priest.”
Father Joe mentioned “the privilege” he had in giving a retreat during the summer of 2007 to the Marian Fathers in Lithuania along with a number of religious sisters from various communities, including the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded by Blessed George in 1918.
“The retreat was held in Vilnius, where Blessed George had been bishop from 1918-1925, at a retreat house he had visited, not too far from his cathedral,” Fr. Joe said. “The retreat focused on the essential elements of religious life. We examined the life of Blessed George, who lived out the religious life in a heroic way.”
These “essential elements of religious life” can be translated into the lives of the laity, using Blessed George as the model. These include his compassion and gentleness, attributes of Blessed George as witnessed by a man who knew him.
From Someone Who Knew Him
On June 28, 1987, 96-year-old Fr. Joseph Grisans resided on Eden Hill in Stockbridge,&bsp;Mass., home of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy and to the Marian province for North America and Argentina. In 1925, two years before Blessed George died, Fr. Grisans served as a young priest in Latvia, before he joined the Marian Fathers.
During that year, Fr. Grisans attended the consecration of a bishop in Riga, Latvia. Father Grisans told the story many years later, of how, on that occasion, one of the many consecrating bishops caught his attention.
“His modesty, his evident humility, his unassuming and serene presence so fascinated me,” Fr. Grisans related, “that after the service, I wanted to know, ‘Who is that bishop’? The answer came back: ‘He is the Bishop of Vilnius, George Matulewicz.'” That was Fr. Grisans’s first of several encounters with Blessed George.
Nine years after, in 1934, Fr. Grisans, by then a Marian, was one of the priests chosen to carry the body of Blessed George from the cathedral in Vilnius to the Marian church in Mariampole, Lithuania. Blessed George’s body was laid to rest in a granite sarcophagus built in his honor.
In this Year of Faith, let us remember the indomitable spirit of Blessed George as we try to experience a conversion: to return to Jesus and enter into a more profound relationship with Him.