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May 27, 2007|
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life ... nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord (Rom. 8: 35-39). Saint Paul's words apply in a special way to the life of Latvian Bishop Sloskans, who, after a year as bishop, suffered for the faith. Jailed in seventeen Soviet prisons, he was deported to Siberia and exiled for over thirty years, far from his homeland. His life witnesses to the presence of Jesus Christ in His Church, and in each one of His disciples: our Savior gives strength and light, even in humanly unbearable conditions.
Boleslas Sloskans was born on August 31, 1893, in Tilgale, Latvia which was at the time part of the Czars' Russian empire. Boleslas' parents, who were Catholic, had the joy of bringing six children into the world. His religious education was received in the heart of the family. At the end of grammar school, Boleslas told his father that he planned to become a priest. His father showed his approval with the bang of his fist on the table, making his only condition that his son promise to become a good priest. At the end of his studies in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Boleslas was ordained a priest on January 21, 1917. The following autumn the Bolshevik Revolution broke out, and the Communists seized power. Little by little, religious instruction was prohibited, churches were closed, bishops and priests were imprisoned... In November 1918, Latvia regained its independence from Russia, but since the borders remained closed, Boleslas was forced to stay in Petrograd. He was given St. Catherine's parish, where his pastoral zeal and wisdom worked wonders.
«A simple but holy man»
In Mohilev, he became aware that he was being spied on by agents of the GPU, the national security police. Therefore he carefully weighed each word spoken in public. At the beginning of September 1927, he undertook a fifteen-day tour to visit the regions under his jurisdiction. During his absence, the GPU searched his home. When he returned the night of September 16, he was visited by policemen who searched once again. They found survey maps and military documents hidden behind paintings, all planted there by GPU agents during an earlier search. He was immediately arrested. A sham investigation was organized. Nighttime was usually chosen for the exhausting interrogations. After suffering several months of inhuman treatment in various prisons, Bishop Sloskans was exiled and sentenced to three years of forced labor in the concentration camps of Solovki, a freezing and damp archipelago in the White Sea covered with forests. It was later admitted to him that the charge of espionage was only a pretext to distance him from his dioceseif he had truly been found to be a spy, the penalty would have been much more severe.
«What makes me so happy»
Bishop Sloskans' profound faith in the workings of Divine Providence was based on truths of the faith recalled in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: «The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the solicitude of Divine Providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history. ... 'For Almighty God..., because He is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in His works if He were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself' (Saint Augustine). ... We know that in everything God works for good for those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). The constant witness of the saints confirms this truth: St. Catherine of Siena said to 'those who are scandalized and rebel against what happens to them': 'Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind.' St. Thomas More, shortly before his martyrdom, consoled his daughter: 'Nothing can come but that that God wills. And I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall indeed be the best' » (nos. 303, 311-313).
The conditions under which prisoners were held in the Solovki Archipelago were very difficult: hard labor, insufficient food, and all sorts of inhuman deprivations and treatment. A great many of the prisoners there perished. Bishop Sloskans and the other priests imprisoned on the archipelago organized to celebrate Mass. They were given a room to use that they called «Chapel Saint Germanus». They used a glass for a chalice and the lid of a tin can for a paten. Their only liturgical vestment was a stole they had made themselves. They knew by heart most of the texts of the Mass. The hosts and the wine came to them thanks to the kindness of a jailer, but when there was no wine, Bishop Sloskans made some from raisins soaked in water. On September 7, 1928, in the greatest secrecy, Bishop Sloskans ordained one of the prisoners, Donat Nowicki, a priest.
The golden thread that binds together the ages
But in January 1929, the priests were dispersed among other groups of prisoners, or in solitary confinement. Bishop Sloskans was transferred to Anser Island. In mid-October 1930, after having served his three-year sentence, he was set free. He chose to return to Mohilev. There he observed that many of his faithful had disappeared without a trace, especially those who had sent packages to imprisoned priests. Many of the children, under the influence of the atheist teaching, were ready to denounce their parents to the police when they reflected beliefs contrary to the Communist propaganda. One week after his return, Bishop Sloskans was arrested againin his absence and without a trial, he had been sentenced to an additional period of exile.
In December 1930, during the long and exhausting journey to Siberia, he felt an unshakable convictionhe was not alone. He recalled the words of the psalm: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; ... Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me (Ps. 23 ). At Yenesei, the train stopped. At the moment it started up again, someone threw him a badly tied up package. He found in it a little book titled The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. The following June, he had to leave for further north, to a place called Sharo-Turukhansk. A small colony of thirteen families lived there, settled on the frozen plains. The settlement was made up of one-room wooden huts in which an entire family lived. Bishop Sloskans was taken in by one of the families who gave him a corner of its hut. He could move about freely, but the village was surrounded by vast snowfields and the closest city was 1,400 km away. In one of the rare forests in the area, he noted a rock emerging out of the ground. There, alone among the trees, before God's vast creation, he was able to celebrate Mass, the mystery of faith, the victory of life over death, of resurrection after suffering.
A ray that pierces the clouds
To meet his needs, Bishop Sloskans made nets and spent a great deal of time fishing. As he waited for better days, this shepherd of the Church of God abandoned himself completely to Providence, in a life of prayer and sacrifice. In November 1932, he was taken to Krasnoiarsk, a city that he reached only after a 35-day journey by sleigh. He arrived on Christmas Eve and was locked up in a frigid jail where he remained alone for two days without food. He would later write, «It was the hardest Christmas of my life!» He soon left his dungeon to be taken to Moscow, where he was put in a relatively comfortable cell and received a visit from the ambassador of the Republic of Latvia, who announced that he would be freed the next day. His release was in exchange for a Soviet spy detained by Latvia.
The good shepherd
When he returned to Riga, Bishop Sloskans taught moral theology at the faculty of theology and traveled throughout the country giving lectures and preaching retreats. On June 17, 1940, Latvia was invaded by the Soviet army and annexed by Stalin. The persecution of believers began. Bishop Sloskans managed to escape the secret police who were after him. But in June 1941, Germany, in turn, seized Latvia. Free access to places of worship was reestablished. In 1944, the Germans were driven from Latvia by the Russians. Fearing to see their bishop arrested and exiled to Siberia yet again, some faithful arranged his escape to Germany.
In the spring of 1947, Bishop Sloskans went to Belgium, where he was put in charge of the Latvian seminarians who had taken refuge there. In 1948, these young men began studies at the University of Louvain, where the Latvian bishop joined them. In 1951, the Father Abbot of Mont-César invited Bishop Sloskans to live at his abbey. From then on, he would share the life of the monks there. He was not a recluse, howeverPope Pius XII gave him various missions. In addition, he exercised his episcopal ministry frequently with confirmations and ordinations. Yearly he went on pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Belgian Farmers' League. He also began to make a stay every year with the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus in Simpelveld, in Limburg. But above all, he led an intense life of prayer, offering his exile for his faithful and praying for his former torturers, against whom he bore no ill will. Sometimes he stayed for hours on his knees or seated, in meditation before the Most Blessed Sacrament.
A genuine dialogue of love
Bishop Sloskans spent the last eighteen months of his life in a rest home run by the Sisters of the Convent of Bethlehem, in Duffel. He distinguished himself by his cheerful unaffectedness and his continual prayerhe always had his rosary in his hand. On April 18, 1981, Holy Saturday, he lost consciousness. Immediately, those around him were praying for him out loud. As they were singing the Salve Regina, all of a sudden his face was transformed and his features lit up. Lifting his eyes to heaven he rendered his soul to God at the very moment they sang «post hoc exilium... O clemens Virgo Maria»! («after this exile« O clement Virgin Mary»). On October 10, 1993, Bishop Sloskans' remains were returned to Latvia, which had become a free country again. They were buried in the crypt of the national sanctuary of the Virgin of Aglona, 270 km from Riga, where they await the resurrection. The cause of his beatification has been introduced in Rome.
The life of Bishop Sloskans, exiled for more than a half century, might appear in the eyes of men to have been a series of failures. But God judges otherwise: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you (Mt. 5:10-12). May we, following the example of Bishop Sloskans, accept the crosses of our life and offer them in union with Christ's Sacrifice, for the salvation of souls!