Despite his own wishes to remain a simple religious, in the fall of 1918 George Matulaitis was appointed Bishop of Vilnius by Pope Benedict XV. He was consecrated in Lithuania, at the cathedral in Kaunas on December 1 and the installation ceremonies took place in the Vilnius cathedral on December 8. He was not well known to the people of Vilnius and was very much aware of the difficulty of his mission. In his inaugural sermon he presented himself to his flock humbly and sincerely: “I stand before you a stranger and therefore, first of all, I ask one thing of you — to regard me as the servant of Christ who has been given you to show you the way to heaven and to guide you to eternal happiness. From now on we shall live together as one big spiritual family of which I am to be the father and head as we move forward along our wearisome spiritual journey.”
His vision of unity and harmony, however, proved extremely difficult to realize in those turbulent times. During his time as Bishop of Vilnius — 1918 to 1925 — Matulaitis had to walk along a thorny and treacherous path. He had to contend with six different civil governments — some of these were openly hostile to the Church and to its hierarchy. Political and national conflicts often blinded clergy and faithful alike to the demands of Christian charity. His large, ethnically mixed diocese was seething with unrest: the people were fearful, food was scarce and political passions ran high. Lithuanians, Belorussians and Poles were all striving for independence after the long and unhappy period of Russian rule since 1795.
Within two weeks of assuming his duties, Bishop Matulaitis felt himself caught in a political crosscurrent. “My own position is extremely difficult,” he wrote; “whatever one faction approved of, another opposed. It was impossible to please them. The cauldron was boiling over. I kept to the teaching of Christ and of the Church.” (Journal: Dec. 16, 1918).
In spite of all this, he received everyone who came to him and listened to their woes. He encouraged them to use their native, tongue because, he assured them, “I do not despise any nation or any language.”
He wanted all of his flock to live in peace and harmony and did his best to reconcile persons and nations. He would not allow the Jews to be persecuted and when public furor rose against them he would intercede for those who were arrested or plead that food be distributed fairly to all.
The conflict between the Poles and the Lithuanians over the city of Vilnius was especially acute at this time. Bishop Matulaitis refused to take sides but urged both nations to negotiate peacefully: “Perhaps, when each takes a good look at the other, they will see that neither is the monster they had imagined,” he noted down in his Journal. However, his efforts were often disregarded and misinterpreted. He experienced great sorrow and inner anguish because of the way Christian people and nations were behaving toward each other: “My God, my God what a terrible thing is the politics of our time! Morality is completely excluded from the political arena. The same morality which governs and guides relations between individuals should also govern the relations between nations. Christ has not given us a double standard nor dual justice, but only one. There can be no peace between nations until they begin to base their relations with one another on the moral principles of Christ” (Journal: May 3, 1919). Today his words have a prophetic ring.
Because of his refusal to take sides or to promote the interests of one political party or nation against another, Bishop Matulaitis was criticized, attacked and denigrated. Yet, he remained gracious and cordial even to those who publicly vented their antagonism or snubbed him personally. In some cases his goodness won them over. One of these was Bishop Wladislaw Bandurski who came to Vilnius with General Zeligowski’s army which occupied the city in 1920. Bandurski was official army chaplain and spokesman for Pilsudski and his supporters. At first he refused even to pay Bishop Matulaitis the required formal visit. Persuaded to do so by Chancellor Lucjan Chalecki, a fellow Pole, Bandurski came to pay his respects and ended up staying till midnight, so charmed was he by Matulaitis’ cordiality. Later on, when different political winds were blowing and Bandurski was in disfavor, his financial situation became difficult. Bishop Matulaitis noticed that his cassock was worn and frayed. He secretly ordered a new one made and delivered. Bandurski guessed who was responsible. He was deeply moved and when Matulaitis was celebrating the silver jubilee of his ordination in November of 1923, Bandurski agreed to give the sermon. In it, he warmly praised Bishop Matulaitis for his truly Christian spirit, his love for the Church and his fairness and regard for all entrusted to his care.
In the summer of 1925 Matulaitis’ resignation from the diocese of Vilnius was accepted by Pope Pius XI, his personal friend and colleague. Poland had signed its Concordat with the Vatican and Vilnius was going to be made an archdiocese. Matulaitis was well aware that he had to withdraw. He quietly left Vilnius and went to Rome where he hoped to establish the Marian generalate and a house of studies. However, the pope made him titular Archbishop of Adulia and appointed him Apostolic Visitor to Lithuania.
Archbishop Matulaitis returned to his native land and settled in the Marian monastery in Kaunas. His first task was to prepare a project for the formation of an independent ecclesiastical province for Lithuania. When the project was approved by Rome, Lithuania was divided into five dioceses. Matulaitis officiated the consecration of the five new bishops in 1926.
Archbishop George Matulaitis-Matulewicz in Cicero, U.S.A., June 13, 1926.
In June he sailed to the United States to attend the International Eucharistic Congress in Chicago. He also visited 92 Lithuanian parishes and gave over 200 homilies and speeches. Everywhere he was welcomed with great enthusiasm. The railway car in which he was traveling was even painted violet in his honor! Back home he began work on the Concordat between Lithuania and the Vatican. However, he did not live to see its completion. He died after an appendix operation in Kaunas on January 27, 1927 at the age of 56.
Funeral solemnities were held in Kaunas for three days. The body was first placed in state at the Marian Church of St. Gertrude and then it was carried in solemn procession, presided over by Archbishop Karivicius, to the Kaunas cathedral.
Throngs of people came to mourn him; all the church bells of Kaunas pealed a final farewell. Every national group recognized the enormity of their loss: he had been a father to all. Thousands attended the funeral. He was buried in the crypt of Kaunas cathedral, but the remains were transferred to his own parish church in Marijampole in 1934. On May 11, 1982, the Congregation for the Saints issued a decree stating that during his lifetime Archbishop George Matulewicz practiced virtues to a heroic degree. On June 28, 1987, the Holy Father, John Paul II solemnly beatified him at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On the occasion of his beatification, a special repository was made for the remains and an altar constructed. This has now become a national shrine where Lithuanians and people from other countries come to pray.
Transfer of the Archbishop George’s earthly remains from the Kaunas cathedral to the church in Marijampole, October 24, 1934.
the altar of Blessed George’s chapel has contained the relics of the Blessed since 1987.