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By Fr. Joseph, MIC (Feb 2, 2009)
The Marians are celebrating a year of thanksgiving for the 100th anniversary of the renewal and reform of the Marian Congregation led by Blessed George Matulaitis-Matulewicz (1871-1927). The jubilee year opened Dec. 8. Throughout the year on this website we will look at the life and spirituality of Bl. George, whose legacy continues to inspire Marians and the Church today.
What seems impossible can become possible through the power of the Holy Spirit, as He works His will and purpose in our lives. We discover to our surprise that God wants to use us in new and exciting ways.
It was just like this in 1904 for a 34-year-old priest lying in the charity ward of a Warsaw hospital. He was in excruciating pain, but since he had no money, he couldn't afford to pay for a doctor. It was, he thought, time to prepare himself for death. The young priest was George Matulaitis.
Rebirth and New Directions
It was then that the words of Jesus were realized for him in that charity ward of Transfiguration Hospital in 1904: "Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit" (Jn 12:24).
He found a new and unexpected life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit as God's purpose became clear. In fact, those words of Jesus would, from that day forward, always bring back to him the mystery of death and resurrection that he had experienced himself.
A well-to-do young woman, the Countess Cecilia Plater-Zyberg, secretly a sister (because of the Russian persecution of the Catholic Church), had arranged for a doctor to care for Fr. George. Eventually, the countess brought him to serve as chaplain at the girls' high school she ran in Warsaw.
There, at the school, he became involved in the concerns of the young people, listening to their questions and problems, sympathizing with their hopes and dreams. Through this work, he also became active in the youth movement "Rebirth."
His training and his pastoral work had focused on the need for society to take care of the neediest. One could not, he realized, be a follower of Christ and not be concerned for those Christ Himself was most concerned about — the widow and the orphan, the laborer, the poor, and the lame.
As his health improved, the field of Fr. George's interests broadened. He helped establish the Christian Workers' Union to provide spiritual and financial assistance and education to laborers.
Father George, at the same time, organized a group dedicated to Mary, to gather young priests together and to encourage them to live holy lives in the service of God's people. He worked in forming secret communities of priests and of sisters, for at that moment in history the Czarist authorities were limiting the work of the Catholic Church and its religious communities.
When the opportunity arose to teach in the St. Petersburg, Russia, Catholic seminary — the only allowed to operate in the territories controlled by the Czar — Fr. George quickly accepted the position as professor of sociology. He also had another plan in mind.
Renovating the Marians
Father George had been baptized and instructed in the Catholic faith by Fr. George Cesnas, a priest in the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Mariampole, near his family's farm. That community, founded by Fr. Stanislaus Papczynski in 1673, had spread throughout the Polish Kingdom.
In the 18th century, Fr. Casimir Wyszynski had established a Marian monastery in Mariampole, and a town grew up around it. With the upheaval of the late 19th century, and Czarist persecution of the Catholic Church, all of the houses of Catholic religious communities in the realm were suppressed. Father Cesnas was a member of one such community house, the last existing one of the Marians.
Father George had discussed the sad state of religious life often with his close friends, including Fr. Francis Bucys. They recalled the tragedy of the monastery at Mariampole. In Fr. George's heart, a plan began to form.
With Fr. Bucys, Fr. George began making plans for a secret rebirth of the community at Mariampole. He visited the community's superior, Fr. Vincent Sekowski (Senkus), to discuss what might be done. He drew up a new Constitution for the community, which would allow it to be approved and taken underground to work for the Church. Father Sekowski, in an act of great humility and courage, agreed to the changes. He wrote to the Holy Father and obtained secret approval for Fr. George's plans. He was present when Fr. George professed vows in the new Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1910, but Fr. Sekowski died shortly thereafter.
Growing the New Community
Concerned that the newly revived community and his work for it might be found out, Fr. George resigned his position at the seminary in St. Petersburg in 1911 and moved the community to Fribourg, Switzerland. There, in relative obscurity, new members could be trained and the community could grow.
As the community grew slowly, in 1913 it seemed a good idea to Fr. George to establish roots in a place where the members could work more freely. The Lithuanian immigrant community in Chicago seemed a good starting point. First taking over the administration of St. Casimir's parish, and later the publication of the Lithuanian daily newspaper Draugas (Friend) in Chicago, the Marians gained a reputation as dedicated workers for the Church in America.
As the situation changed in Poland, the Marians began to reclaim community houses that had belonged to the old Order, including the monastery at Mariampole.
Father George saw the needs of the people as well and responded to them. When World War I orphaned thousands of children, he established an orphanage.
His work among the people was noted by Church authorities, and he was chosen by Pope Benedict XV to serve as bishop of Vilnius, a city divided by ethnic tension. Despite his request to remain among the Marians, he was consecrated bishop and took over the diocese in 1918.
The next seven years as bishop of Vilnius were a period of intense activity. In 1921, he established a sister community to the Marians, the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, who were dedicated to serving the poor. He also established a semi-contemplative community, the Handmaids of Jesus in the Eucharist, in 1925.
He worked to reconcile the various national factions in Lithuania. From various sides he was opposed. Old hatreds die slowly. And he became the object of hatred by some who could not envision living in peace with their neighbors.
"Conquer evil with good," was the motto he took from St. Paul for his ministry as bishop, and it was good he tried to accomplish.
A New Assignment
In 1925, he asked the Holy Father to relieve him of his responsibilities in Vilnius. Pope Pius XI agreed, and, as a mark of respect and affection, named him Archbishop.
When Archbishop George returned to Rome, he expected to be able to take up his work of guiding the Marians. But the Pope sent him on a new mission: to organize the Church hierarchy in Lithuania. Archbishop George worked out a plan to establish new dioceses, appoint new bishops, and establish relations between the Holy See and Lithuania.
Having completed the work, he was preparing once again to return to the Marians in Rome. But an attack of appendicitis led to his sudden death on Jan. 27, 1927.
Archbishop George was revered among the Lithuanian people. After a careful study of his life and teaching, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints asked the Holy Father to publicly number him among the blessed. On June 28, 1987, at the close of the celebration of 500 years since the conversion of Lithuania to Christianity, Pope John Paul II beatified Blessed George, calling him "a special gift to the Church and to the Lithuanian people."
Blessed George found a new life in Christ when it seemed that his life was over. The Holy Spirit used him to bring about the resurrection of the Marian community. From his experience of the power of the Spirit to bring life from death, God's purpose became clear. And he found himself used in new and exciting ways for Christ and the Church.