To know better the Venerable Boleslas Sloskans
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will it be tribulation, anguish, persecution, hunger, nakedness, perils, the sword? But in all this we are the great victors through Him who loved us. Yes, I am sure, neither death nor life… nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God manifested in Christ Jesus, our Lord (Rom 8:35-39). These words of St Paul apply especially to the life of Bishop Sloskans of Latvia who, after one year as bishop, suffered for his faith; incarcerated in seventeen Soviet prisons, he was deported to Siberia and spent more than forty years in exile from his dioceses of Moghilev and Minsk in Belarus. His life bears witness to the presence of Jesus Christ in his Church, and in each of his followers: the Saviour gives them strength and light, even in humanly unbearable conditions.
Boleslas Sloskans was born on 31 August 1893 in the village of Tiltagals (now Stirniene) in Latvia. This Baltic country was then part of the Russian Tsarist Empire. Boleslas’ parents, who were Catholic, had the joy of giving birth to six children. Religious education was provided within the family. After completing his primary education, Boleslas informed his father of his intention to become a priest. The latter agreed with a thump on the table, making it a condition that his son commit himself to becoming a good priest. At the end of his training at the seminary in St. Petersburg, Boleslas was sent to complete his studies at the Theological Academy in the same city, before his ordination to the priesthood: out of humility, he had not felt worthy to become a priest. But at the Academy it was discovered that he was not yet a priest and he was ordained on 21 January 1917. The following autumn, the Bolshevik revolution broke out and the communists seized power. Little by little, religious education was banned, churches were closed, and bishops and priests were imprisoned. In November 1918, Latvia, which had been part of Russia since the 18th century, gained its independence, but the young Boleslas decided to stay in Soviet Russia. Later he even renounced his Latvian citizenship in order to stay there.
Following the October Revolution of 1917, the Holy See became concerned about the situation of the Catholic Church in the Soviet Union. In order to give the Latin Church a better chance of survival, new bishops had to be consecrated. Father Michel d’Herbigny, a Jesuit, was asked by Pius XI to carry out these episcopal consecrations. In 1926, he obtained a visa to visit the French communities in Russia. On his way to Moscow, Father d’Herbigny was received in Berlin by the Apostolic Nuncio, Mgr Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, who secretly consecrated him as a bishop. In Moscow, Mgr d’Herbigny first ordained a French Assumptionist religious, Father Pie-Eugène Neveu, as bishop. Neveu recommended to him, among other candidates, the very young Boleslas Sloskans, a « simple but holy man ». On 10 May, together with Father Alexander Frison, who was destined for the diocese of Odessa, he was consecrated in the greatest secrecy in the church of Saint Louis des Français in Moscow and put in charge of the dioceses of Moghilev and Minsk, in Belarus, as apostolic administrator. He was thirty-two years old. The following September, he officially announced his episcopal consecration, which did not prevent him from adopting an uncompromising attitude towards the public authorities.
In Moghilev, he realises that he is being spied on by agents of the Gepev, the state security police. He therefore carefully weighed up every word he said in public. At the beginning of September 1927, he undertook a two-week trip to visit the regions under his jurisdiction. While he was away, the Guipuzcoa organised searches of his house. On his return, on 16 September at night, he was visited by police officers who carried out a new search. They discovered staff maps and military documents hidden behind paintings, all of which had been planted by the Gepeu henchmen during a previous search. He was immediately arrested. A mock trial was organised. The gruelling interrogations took place preferably at night. After several months of inhuman treatment in various prisons, Bishop Sloskans was sentenced to three years of hard labour in the concentration camps of Solovki, a forested archipelago on the White Sea with a cold and wet climate. He was later told that the charge of espionage was only a pretext to keep him away from his diocese: if he had really been recognised as a spy, the sentence would have been much heavier.
«What makes me so happy»
Despite the torments he had already suffered, Bishop Sloskans wrote to his parents: ‘You must have read in the newspapers that I have been arrested. After six months, it is finally possible for me to write to you. I have always liked to preach the words of Our Lord: ‘Not a hair of your head shall fall without God’s will’ (cf. Mt 10:30). I now know from experience that everything that happens by God’s will or permission is a work of salvation. In the last fifteen years of my life, I have never received so many graces as during the five months of my captivity. Captivity is the greatest and most beautiful event in my interior life, although I regret that I can no longer say Mass. Dear parents, pray for me, but do so without anguish and sadness. Let your heart be open to the greatest love possible. I am so happy because now I have learned to love all people, without exception, even those who seem not to deserve this love. They are the most unfortunate. I beg you, do not let any feelings of revenge or bitterness enter your heart. If we allowed ourselves to do that, we would no longer be Christians, but fanatics. I am sentenced to three years. I ask you again: Pray! May the blessing of the Almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, descend upon you and rest upon you always.
Bishop Sloskans’ deep faith in the action of divine Providence is based on truths recalled in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: « The testimony of Scripture is unanimous: the solicitude of divine Providence is concrete and immediate, it takes care of everything, from the smallest things to the great events of the world and of history… « God Almighty (…), since He is sovereignly good, would never allow any evil to exist in His works if He were not powerful and good enough to bring good out of evil itself » (Saint Augustine)… All things work together for the good of those who love God (Rom 8:28). The testimony of the saints constantly confirms this truth: St Catherine of Siena says to « those who are scandalized and rebel at what happens to them »: « Everything proceeds from love, everything is ordered to the salvation of man, God does nothing but for this purpose ». And St Thomas More, shortly before his martyrdom, consoles his daughter: « Nothing can happen unless God has willed it. Now, whatever He wills, however bad it may seem to us, is nevertheless the best thing for us » (nn. 303, 311-313).
The conditions of detention in the Solovki archipelago are very harsh: heavy work, a diet below the minimum, deprivation and inhuman treatment of all kinds. A large number of prisoners died there. Bishop Sloskans and the other priests held on the archipelago organised themselves to celebrate Mass. The Orthodox chapel of St. Germain was put at their disposal, but soon the camp authorities closed it. They then celebrated in secret. They made a tin chalice and used a tin can lid as a paten. Their only liturgical vestments were a surplice and a stole; they used a prayer book containing the text of the Mass. Hosts and wine were provided through the kindness of a jailer, but when wine was in short supply, Bishop Sloskans made some from sultanas soaked in water. On 7 September 1928, in the greatest secrecy, Bishop Sloskans ordained one of the prisoners, Donat Nowicki, as a priest.
The thread that binds the centuries
At the end of October 1928, the Saint-Germain chapel was closed by the camp authorities. The priests then decided to celebrate Mass in secret, at night, in an attic above their cell. In the morning, in the convoy going to work, Bishop Sloskans discreetly distributes the consecrated hosts to those Catholics who wish to receive them and hides the remaining ones under the roots of a tree, wrapped in a piece of purple cloth, so that those who have not received Holy Communion in the morning can do so during the day. This episode illustrates the following statement from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: « The Eucharist is the red thread which, beginning with the Last Supper, connects all the centuries of the Church’s history to us today. The words of the consecration: « This is my Body » and « This is my Blood » have been pronounced always and everywhere, even in the gulags, in the concentration camps, in the thousands of prisons that still exist today. It is on this Eucharistic horizon that the Church bases her life, her communion and her mission » (Introduction to Part II: Explanation of the painting « Jesus gives Communion to the twelve Apostles »).
But in January 1929, the priests were dispersed to other groups of prisoners or to isolated cells. Bishop Sloskans was transferred to Anser Island. On 29 October 1930, after serving his three-year sentence, he was released. He chose to return to Moghilev and found that many of his followers had disappeared without a trace, especially those who had sent packages to priests in captivity. Many children, influenced by the atheist teaching, were ready to denounce their parents to the police when they expressed convictions contrary to communist propaganda. Eight days after his return, Bishop Sloskans was arrested again: in his absence and without trial, he had been sentenced to a further period of exile.
In December 1930, during the long and exhausting journey to Siberia, an unshakeable conviction came over him: he was not alone. He remembered the words of the psalm: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want for anything… Though I walk through a valley of darkness, I shall fear no evil… For you, my God, are with me. Your staff and your rod are there to comfort me (Ps. 22 ). At Yeniseysk, he got off the train; as it was about to start again, someone threw him a badly tied package. In it he found a small book entitled Histoire d’une âme, the autobiography of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. The following June, he had to go even further north to a place called Starotouroukhansk. There lives a small colony of thirteen families, settled on the frozen plains. The settlement consists of one-room wooden huts where the whole family lives. Mgr Sloskans is hosted by one of the families who gives him a corner of their hut. He is free to move around, but the village is surrounded by huge snowfields and the nearest town is 1400 km away. In one of the few forests in the area, he notices a rock emerging from the ground. There, alone among the trees, before God’s vast creation, he manages to celebrate Mass, the mystery of faith, the victory of life over death, the resurrection after suffering.
A ray through the clouds
Bishop Sloskans draws from the Eucharist the supernatural strength that is indispensable for him to live his life in exile. The Eucharist is truly a corner of heaven that opens on earth, » said Pope John Paul II. It is a ray of the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem, which passes through the clouds of our history and illuminates our path » (Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 17 April 2003, n. 19). « The Church has received the Eucharist from Christ her Lord not as a gift, however precious it may be, among many others, but as the gift par excellence, for it is the gift of himself, of his person in his holy humanity, and of his work of salvation… When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the memorial of the death and resurrection of her Lord, this central event of salvation is made truly present and thus the work of our redemption is carried out. This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ accomplished it and returned to the Father only after having left us the means of participating in it as if we had been present » (Ibid. n. 11). In communion, the exiled bishop receives a foretaste of heaven: « He who feeds on Christ in the Eucharist does not need to wait for the afterlife to receive eternal life: he already possesses it on earth » (Ibid., 18).
To support himself, Bishop Sloskans makes nets and spends much time fishing. While waiting for better days, this pastor of the Church of God abandons himself entirely to Providence, in a life of prayer and sacrifice. In November 1932, he was taken to Krasnoyarsk, a city he reached only after a 35-day journey by sledge. He arrived there on Christmas Eve and was locked up in a cold cell where he was left alone for two days without food. He wrote: « It was the hardest Christmas in my life! Soon he was taken from his cell to Moscow. There, he was put in a relatively comfortable cell where he was visited by the ambassador of the Republic of Latvia who announced his imminent release. This release is an exchange between him and one or more Soviet spies held by Latvia.
The good shepherd
Bishop Sloskans’ greatest desire was not to return to his homeland, but to be reunited with his faithful in Mohilev and Minsk: « The good shepherd does not abandon his flock! The Latvian ambassador to the USSR told him that this was the Pope’s wish and, in a spirit of obedience, he accepted and arrived in Riga, the capital of Latvia, on 22 January 1933. Shortly afterwards, he left for Rome where he was received as a « confessor of the faith ». The Pope invited him to celebrate with him the opening of the Holy Door of St Peter’s Basilica for the jubilee of the Holy Year 1933, which commemorated the nineteenth centenary of the death of Christ. Then the Holy Father suggested that he stay in Rome for a year. One day, while talking to the Pope about the circumstances of his release, he learned that, contrary to what he had been told, the Pope had never asked him to leave the USSR, abandoning his Russian followers. This revelation was very painful for him and he kept the bitter secret in his heart until his death, telling only a few close friends.
Back in Riga, Bishop Sloskans taught moral theology at the Faculty of Theology and travelled around the country giving lectures and preaching retreats. On 17 June 1940, Latvia was invaded by the Soviet army and annexed by Stalin. Persecution against believers began. Bishop Sloskans managed to escape the agents of the political police who were looking for him. But in June 1941, Germany took over Latvia. Free access to religious buildings was restored. In 1944, the Germans were driven out of Latvia by the Russians. Bishop Sloskans and two other Catholic bishops, Urbss and Rancans, were taken by force by the German army to Germany.
In the spring of 1947, Bishop Sloskans went to Belgium where he was entrusted with the care of Latvian seminarians who had taken refuge in that country. In 1948, these young people came to study at the University of Louvain, where the Latvian bishop joined them. In 1951, the Abbot of Mont-César invited Bishop Sloskans to settle in his abbey. There he shared the life of the monks. However, he was not a recluse: Pope Pius XII entrusted him with various missions. On the other hand, he exercised his episcopal ministry on many occasions: confirmations, ordinations. Every year, he went on pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Belgian Peasant League. He also made a habit of staying every year with the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus in Simpelveld, Limburg. But above all, he led an intense life of prayer, offering his exile for his followers and praying for his former torturers, towards whom he held no grudge. He sometimes spent hours on his knees or sitting in meditation before the Blessed Sacrament.
A true dialogue of love
The example of Bishop Sloskans is an encouragement to prayer. In his apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, Pope John Paul II wrote: « There is a need for a Christianity that is distinguished above all in the art of prayer… But we also know that prayer should not be taken for granted. It is necessary to learn how to pray, receiving, as it were, this art anew from the lips of the divine Master, like the first disciples: Lord, teach us to pray (Lk 11:1)… The great mystical tradition of the Church, in the East as in the West, shows how prayer can progress, as a true dialogue of love, to the point of making the human person totally possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating in contact with the Spirit, filially abandoned in the Father’s heart. We then experience Christ’s promise: « He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and I will manifest myself to him » (Jn 14:21)… Our Christian communities must become authentic « schools » of prayer, where the encounter with Christ is expressed not only as a request for help, but also as thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening, ardent affection, even to the point of true « madness » of the heart… We would be mistaken if we thought that ordinary Christians could be satisfied with superficial prayer, which would be incapable of filling their lives. Faced with the many trials that today’s world imposes on the faith, they would not only be mediocre Christians, but « Christians in danger »… The popular forms of worship should be valued again, with the necessary discernment, and above all education in liturgical prayer should be provided » (n. 32-34).
Bishop Sloskans spent the last eighteen months of his life in a rest home, Emmaus, run by the Sisters of the Bethlehem Convent in Duffel. He was noted for his smiling simplicity and constant prayer: he always had his rosary in his hand. On 15 April, he suffers a heart attack. On 18 April 1981, Holy Saturday, he lost consciousness. Immediately, those around him prayed for him in a loud voice. They chanted the Salve Regina and suddenly his face was transformed, his physiognomy lit up: he raised his eyes to heaven and handed his soul over to God as they sang: post hoc exilium (after this exile)… O clemens Virgo Maria! (O merciful Virgin Mary). On 10 October 1993, the remains of Archbishop Sloskans were returned to Latvia, which was once again a free country. It was placed in the crypt of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aglona, 230 km from Riga, where it now awaits resurrection. The cause for the beatification of Bishop Sloskans was introduced in Rome in 1999 by the Diocese of Mechelen-Brussels in Belgium. In 2004 Blessed Pope John Paul II proclaimed the heroicity of his virtues. He is now the Venerable Boleslas Sloskans.
The life of Bishop Sloskans, exiled for more than half a century, may appear to men as a series of failures. But God sees it differently: Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you if they insult you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. This is how the prophets before you were persecuted (Mt 5:10-12). May we, like Bishop Sloskans, accept the crosses of our lives and offer them in union with the Sacrifice of Christ, for the salvation of souls!
Dom Antoine Marie osb, abbot (www.clairval.com)
in collaboration with the Bishop Boleslas Sloskans Foundation