A living image of the Good Shepherd, gentle and humble of heart
A decisive period: the years spent in captivity
Bishop Sloskans’ reputation for holiness accompanied him throughout his life. But the years Bishop Sloskans spent in captivity, in the camps of the Solovki Islands, and then in deportation, in Siberia, marked him deeply and were decisive in his configuration to Christ. What he experienced there in extreme conditions was not just a period of transition: these years were like a furnace that profoundly transformed his soul; the main features of his spiritual figure were drawn there. His personality became, in the highest degree, priestly, Marian and Teresian. During the 48 years that Bishop Sloskans lived after his release, these features became even more expressive, but the essential features had been put in place during the 6 years of captivity.
A priestly soul
During this period, his soul became especially priestly. In the seminary, the young Boleslas already had such a high idea of the priesthood that he did not feel worthy of it. When he was ordained a bishop, he chose as his motto: Hostia pro fratribus (« Offering for the brothers »). This motto, so priestly, took on its full meaning when Bishop Sloskans was imprisoned for the sole reason that he was the pastor of the dioceses of Moghilev and Minsk. During the last three years in captivity, the authorities tried to extract a confession of espionage from Bishop Sloskans. He replied each time: « Even though you know that I am innocent, you want to kill me as a spy, but I want to die as a martyr of the holy Church » (Testimony reported by Father Werenfried Van Straaten (Bulletin of the ACN, July 1981). In captivity, his priestly soul also manifested itself in his love for the Eucharist. The Holy Mass was so important to him that he celebrated it in the most difficult and perilous circumstances. He later confided to Bishop H.-M. Janssen that the hardest days were those when he could not celebrate the Eucharist.
Discovery of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus
It should also be noted that he discovered Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus during deportation: « It was in 1931, in an isolation cell in Touroukhansk, Siberia, that I received the French edition of Histoire d’une âme, 1910. I opened the book, and from the very first pages my tears flowed… And when I had finished, I cried out, « Soror mea carissima, my dearest Sister! » I could only call her that! Now I was no longer alone. This beloved Sister of Heaven supported me in my trial; without seeing her, I felt her constantly near me, her beneficent influence strengthened me. I nourished my soul with her words, I learned by heart her Act of Offering to Merciful Love and I recited it often (…) It was she who gave me the understanding of the royal way of spiritual childhood and the great desire to follow in her footsteps, my whole life ».
Let us now consider the spiritual figure of the bishop in the context of his whole life (Annales de Lisieux, 9 (10, October 1933), pp. 294-295).
His Marian grace
The years spent in captivity allowed Bishop Sloskans to grow in his Marian grace. Already as a child he had learned to trust in the Virgin Mary. But in captivity this trust became heroic. In his diary of captivity, he wrote on September 24, 1927: « I asked Our Lord and His Most Holy Mother to send me rather to death than to allow the Church to suffer because of me. On 1 July 1931, he wrote: « I feared that I would succumb and be contaminated by the atmosphere around me. The intellect refused to work, the aspirations towards the ideal seemed to vanish. I was convinced that only the protection of the Blessed Virgin kept me on the edge of the abyss.
Bishop Sloskans’ relationship with God
We could not understand Bishop Sloskans if we did not discover how deeply his spiritual life was rooted in his relationship with God. This is evident in his teachings and the advice he gave. Witnesses tell us that when he was the spiritual father of the Riga seminary, he taught about living relationships with God. Similar teaching can be found after the war in Leuven, Belgium.
He used to talk about God-Love: God who is Love calls people to love. Bishop Sloskans particularly emphasised this in the preface to the Latvian translation of the Story of a Soul: « Glory and eternal praise to you, God of Love, who has given man not only an immortal soul, but also a living heart made for love, by giving him the first and greatest commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart! In this preface, the word « heart » is used often. In two pages, Bishop Sloskans tries to characterise, in a very human and delicate way, what the heart of a mother, a father, a young person or an adult woman is. This approach, which integrates feelings, does not reflect a sentimentality of the worst kind, but a very human spirituality.
For Bishop Sloskans, man’s vocation to love was a vocation to a deep communion with God, and therefore a vocation to prayer, since prayer allows this communion to be experienced with greater intensity. Bishop Sloskans was himself a remarkable man of prayer. At the Abbey of Mount Caesar he started his day at 5 o’clock in the morning with prayer, meditation and the Eucharist. During the day he often went to the chapel to spend several hours in prayer. At the end of his life, he prayed continuously.
Let us try to enter into the mystery of this prayer a little.
The characteristics of his prayer
The source and summit of his prayer was the Eucharist. We have already noted how important the Holy Mass was for Bishop Sloskans when he was in captivity. He remained faithful to this love for the Eucharist and the Eucharistic Jesus. The Mass he celebrated impressed the participants. At the end of his life, at the moment of the consecration, he was moved to tears. The Eucharist was for him a moment of intense communion with Jesus, as his love for Jesus in the Eucharist shows. When he lived in the abbey of Monte Caesar, he would go and buy flowers for a small sum of money that was put in his pocket: it was for his « dear friend », the Eucharistic Jesus.
As a communion with Jesus the Saviour, the celebration of the Eucharist was also for Monsignor Sloskans the great intercessory prayer for the world, the Holy Sacrifice offered for the salvation of the world. In fact, the whole life of the venerable bishop was like an intercession and a sacrifice, like a ‘mystical Mass’, to use his own expression.
Intercession ‘for the brothers‘ deeply marked the prayer life of Bishop Sloskans. He prayed especially for the persecuted Church and for the conversion of sinners. At the Abbey of Mount Caesar, he spent hours in the chapel praying for the world, for his dioceses of Moghilev and Minsk, but also for his homeland, Latvia. This prayer shows the exceptional faith of Bishop Sloskans. But for him, intercessory prayer had to be accompanied by sacrifice, sacrifice as far as Golgotha, to the point where one would want to cry out with Jesus: « My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The meaning of suffering and sacrifice for the brothers
The priestly dimension of Bishop Sloskans’ spiritual personality is particularly evident in the importance he attached to sacrifice for the brethren. This is the meaning he gave to the sufferings he endured in captivity, but also throughout his life, because of his poor health and because of the tragic destiny of Russia, Belarus and Latvia.
The sacrifice that Bishop Sloskans lived shows an extraordinary spiritual strength, but also an immense love for Christ, for the Church and for his brothers, the people. This was particularly evident during the years of captivity. After the war, when he spoke of these years, he often testified that he had accepted to die.
The strength of his soul, his love for the Church and for people, is shown especially in an event he experienced in detention: « In Moscow, in the Lubyanka prison, my ‘guardian angels’ (that is how he called his torturers) used various methods of torture. There were no limits. (…) They did with me what they wanted. (…) They wanted me to curse the Catholic Church, the Pope and so on. They were like children who found a new game and a victim for their game (…) I was just praying for them and I smiled at them… Obviously, this made them even more aggressive and one of them cried out: « What, you are smiling! I replied, ‘Yes, I am smiling because I am free, but you are not free' » (Bishop A. Smelters, Katoļu Baznīcas Vēstnesis, 157 (19, 2000), p. 7.)
After his release, sacrifice played an important role in the life of Bishop Sloskans until the end of his life. The advice he gave shows that, for him, sacrifice was not primarily linked to excessive mortification, but to the way of bearing the difficulties of life. He himself bore them with love, faith and patience. The knowledge of the cross that the venerable bishop lived and taught was enlightened by an immense trust in God and a spirit of forgiveness towards those who had persecuted him. Bishop Sloskans wanted everyone to have the same attitude towards his persecutors.
By celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, by interceding and sacrificing himself for his brothers with extraordinary love, faith and hope, Bishop Sloskans was already fulfilling his ministry as a bishop. Thus he was the shepherd of his flock in the Solovki Islands, in Siberia and during the years he lived in the abbey of Mount Caesar. But how did he fulfil his other duties as a bishop, those that are usually described as « pastoral »? Let us try to answer this question.
Priest of Jesus, child of Mary and disciple of Therese
The aspects of Archbishop Sloskans’ personality highlighted so far show his great resemblance to Jesus ‘gentle and humble of heart’, a faithful and compassionate High Priest, a good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. But his spiritual figure was also Marian. We have already shown how, during his years of captivity, Bishop Sloskans grew in his love for Mary and in his trust in her. He remained faithful to this love throughout his life. This is particularly evident in the importance he attached to the daily prayer of the rosary.
The Marian dimension of Bishop Sloskans is related to his love for St. Therese of the Child Jesus. We have already described how he discovered her in 1931 in Turukhansk. In 1933, as we have seen, he testified that St. Therese had given him the opportunity to follow « her royal way of spiritual childhood » throughout his life. In Belgium, he had the History of a Soul translated into Latvian and ensured that the book was distributed. In the preface, he explains that this work has led many readers ‘to a serious and decisive examination of conscience, to a re-evaluation of spiritual values according to the principles contained and made explicit in this book with crystal clarity’.
There can be no doubt that the great confidence, smiling simplicity, great humility and heroic love of Bishop Sloskans manifest the Teresian traits of his personality. He died forgotten, having loved Jesus and mankind to the end. He gave his life for the Church, like Saint Theresa whose vocation was to be Love in the heart of the Church and who wanted to be a martyr from her youth.
His office as bishop
Bishop Sloskans’ pastoral zeal is rooted in his immense love for the Church. He truly loved the Church for which he suffered so much during his life. His deep love for the Church was lived out in obedience to the Pope and, especially, in the heroic fidelity he showed in fulfilling his duties as pastor of the dioceses of Minsk and Moghilev.
As we said, he was arrested in 1927 precisely because of this ministry. After the three years he spent in the Solovki Islands, in 1930, in fidelity to his duties as a bishop, he returned to Moghilev where, after a week, he was arrested again. In 1933, only out of obedience to the Pope, he agreed to leave the Soviet Union because he himself felt the need to remain as a shepherd in the midst of his flock. He was ready for martyrdom, to offer his life for Christ.
After the war, Bishop Sloskans remained in deep communion with his dioceses in Moghilev and Minsk. In Belgium, he was also concerned with the future of Latvia, training priests and laity. He was always very broad-minded.
In the priestly ministry, the quality of relationship and presence is of great importance. From this point of view too, Bishop Sloskans was remarkable. His spiritual presence was luminous, soothing, humble, warm and caring. This was already evident in the eyes of Bishop Sloskans. After his visit to Lisieux in 1933, witnesses were struck by his face, which « radiated serenity above all, that peace acquired in a trial that was valiantly borne, that supernatural expression which betrays the saints » (Annales de Lisieux, 9 (10, October 1933), p. 292).
Her quality of relationship and presence was particularly linked to her humility, which should be emphasised. In his homily at the funeral, Cardinal Danneels said: « Humility and modesty characterise Bishop Sloskans (…). Was there anyone more destroyed, more unknown, more forgotten, who died in oblivion?
The spiritual relevance of his figure
Finally, we must emphasise the relevance of Bishop Sloskans, the image of Jesus « gentle and humble of heart », High Priest and Good Shepherd.
At a time marked by the Second Vatican Council, which has especially manifested the mystery of the Church, in a period of history when paradoxically the Church is often misunderstood and marginalised, Bishop Sloskans’ love for the Church and his clear testimony as a bishop can be a luminous sign for people today who are seeking to rediscover the beauty of the Church and the meaning of the hierarchical ministry.
Furthermore, Bishop Sloskans is an exceptional witness to the power of intercessory prayer and the strength of love that forgives and offers itself for its enemies. Bishop Sloskans is a witness who helps us to confront the constant temptation to resolve difficulties and conflicts with human strength alone, a witness who also helps us to break out of the vicious circle of revenge. In this way, Bishop Sloskans reminds us of the path proposed by the Gospel to the Church and the world, a path to follow in the trials to be endured and in the transformation of human relationships to be brought about.
But Archbishop Sloskans is perhaps most relevant today as a witness to the power of Christ manifested in martyrdom. During the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II invited us not to forget the memory of the martyrs of the faith who were so numerous in the 20th century. Even if Bishop Sloskans did not die as a martyr, he nevertheless suffered in the most atrocious circumstances and spent the rest of his life sacrificing himself for his flock. St. Therese of the Child Jesus said that « the martyrdom of the heart is no less fruitful than the shedding of blood » (Œuvres complètes, Paris, Cerf/DDB, 1996, letter 213, p. 569). During his years of exile in Belgium, Archbishop Sloskans showed that the path of martyrdom is accessible to everyone in daily life, even if not everyone is called to shed blood for Christ and his Church.