This past weekend presented an amazing opportunity to travel to Vilnius, Lithuania with two FUS students, the other missionary Jenny, and Maria, a former LCI student. We were able to participate in the Catholic community events, and even hosted an event with young adults. In addition, we got to know Maria’s family and hear their personal witness of having hope amid the oppression of communism.
We left Gaming at five o’clock in the morning to get to catch the train that took us to the airport. We arrived in plenty of time for our flight, and I started to get really excited. Not only was this a new country to visit, but it was also an open invitation to do what we all love to do- to share our faith with others. We landed in Vilnius and were greeted by Maria’s mother and father. Her father knows English very well, but her mother didn’t know as much. We split up into two cars and drove to the monastery we were staying at. I could tell how important this place was for Maria and her family, and they were so excited to show us the perpetual adoration chapel. I was tired from the journey, but as we walked into this tiny room that had Jesus exposed in the monstrance I dropped to my knees. Jesus is everywhere, even in a tiny little chapel in Lithuania.
We drove to Maria’s home for dinner, and were welcomed with such hospitality. I can only hope to one day be as kind and generous as her parents. Her parents asked us where we were each from and were genuinely interested in who we were. We even got a house tour! Maria’s mother made sure all of our needs were met, even keeping our feet warm with wool socks. We then headed to Mass at the Divine Mercy Shrine. This Shrine contains the original image of Divine Mercy that St. Faustina had had painted in 1934. I expected the church to be bigger than it was, especially after visiting the Divine Mercy Shrine in Krakow twice now. This image is in the front of the Church behind the altar, but the rest of the Church is white. They had some Christmas decorations, but it was so simple. I was so impressed at how many people came for an 8 pm Mass on a Friday night. They immediately had Adoration following the Mass with some praise and worship. I didn’t understand what was being said, but the music was so beautiful and prayerful that it felt as if I was singing right along in my heart.
The next day was amazing. We visited the Gate of Dawn Chapel, Vilnius Cathedral, Vilnius University, the Franciscan Church, and Sister Faustina’s House. While running around the city we even got to visit an international Christmas festival with food from all over the world. We were than able to visit Maria’s grandmother, a remarkable woman who had been sent to prison for six years by the Soviets. She had supported the resistance, and thus was sent to Siberia as a punishment. She was in a work camp, and suffered greatly. She expressed how those in the camp all stuck together, and took care of each other. Oddly enough, they were allowed to take photos of the camp, and her grandmother showed us her friends. They were dressed up for dances sometimes, and looked like most normal young people until you saw the photos of them working and heard about the bread they hid under their blankets. I was so touched by how she saw that God had allowed her to suffer during some of the greatest years (22-28), and that God rewarded her with a long joyful and faithful life now being 92 years old. We headed to the meeting with the young adults with such inspiration.
Five young people came and there were five of us. We just drank tea, ate cookies, and introduced ourselves. We hardly needed any translations, because of their excellent English! We started off with an ice-breaker game, and then jumped into our first talk. Michelle did a great job of talking about joy in suffering, while Jenny and I each shared a testimony about seeing God in everything and finding authentic joy. Jim spoke about the importance of prayer. It was incredible that they were so willing to listen to what we had to say. They were also asking questions, and discussing as we went. It was so relaxed and so normal. We found out some startling facts about the Church in Lithuania. The country is 80% Catholic, but only about 10% are practicing. It’s similar in America where people say they are Catholic, but are not actually going to Mass or receiving the sacraments. They shared about this movement they have within their Churches that helps build community through social events, Bible studies, praise & worship, and other events. They wanted to know what it was like for us in America, and it made me so grateful for the young adult group I participated in back home. It’s something that is needed for all young people no matter what stage of your faith journey you are in or country you live in… We all need community. We ended the night with a goal to have five minutes of silent prayer each day to help us on our Advent journey of preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
We left on Sunday, and were all so sad that the visit was so short. Everyone was just so welcoming, and it made me so thankful for our community in Gaming with FUS students, LCI and now the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Center for Evangelization. I am so glad we are all connected, and hope we can continue to go on missions to the towns of all of our LCI students, past and present.