Monday, February 10, 2014

No Catholic too far for globe-trotting priest

Msgr. Edmond J. Putrimas says he lives his life, metaphorically speaking, with a Bible in one hand and a model airplane in the other.

Three years ago, for Easter, the Toronto priest took his first trip to Siberia, a region as vast in geography as it is in social issues. 

Putrimas stayed three weeks to visit the cities of Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, where generations of Lithuanians had been deported during the 60-year Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

Everyone wore black, he recalls, and carried a psychology of inferiority. Even Putrimas, sent to serve the pastoral needs of the community for a short time, became emotionally weighed down.

“How many people left this world in hunger, in fear, in anger, in torture... in loneliness or frozen there in the arctic, in the tundras of Siberia?” he asks himself.

But even on what he calls one of his hardest trips, there was still the warmth of hope, some of which radiats from the humble priest.

He visited a widow named Mrs. Brone. She had been deported from Lithuania in 1948. Her reaction was emotional, said Putrimas, when a Catholic priest gave her Easter greetings in her mother tongue.

Putrimas, 54, who goes by Fr. Ed, is the Lithuanian Bishops’ Conference Delegate for the Apostolate of Lithuanian Catholics living outside of Lithuania. For the past decade, it’s been his job to identify and address the needs of the diaspora.

“Because of the vastness of this position, we’re dealing with the world,” he said, “minus Lithuania, minus the Holy See.”

About 83 per cent of Lithuania’s 3.2 million people are baptized Catholics, said Putrimas. There are another 1.5 to 2 million people in communities outside of Lithuania that are recognized by the World Lithuanian Council.

“We have a close relationship between our culture and our Catholic religion. It’s sometimes very hard to separate the two because they’re so interrelated,” said Putrimas.

The Lithuanian Catholic diaspora is served by about 60 priests and 80 to 90 missions, but the communities need more clergy. In the Archdiocese of Toronto, there are two Lithuanian Catholic parishes: The Church of the Resurrection in Toronto, where Putrimas has served as pastoral assistant for 14 years, and Lithuanian Martyrs’ Parish in Mississauga.

But why the need for Lithuanian churches abroad? Putrimas says Lithuanian Catholics have cultural and religious needs that make it difficult for them to integrate into the local Church. That is particularly true for first- generation immigrants.

“This is that critical time,” he said. “That first generation, who are to be mentors of the second generation, if there is weak religious traditions and no pastoral traditions or sense of belonging to a parish, a Catholic community, a religious community, the second generation is lost.”

Lithuania is experiencing an epidemic of capable people emigrating, Putrimas said. So priests ordained in the home country are sent overseas as missionaries.

Putrimas’ parents arrived in Canada from Lithuania in 1949. His mother’s family was fleeing deportation to Siberia and his father was fleeing conscription into a foreign army. It was a time when Soviet communist ideology forced the Catholic Church underground.

“The friction and the war against religion and the Church began in full force and that’s why, for those 60 years, the Church had to go underground,” said Putrimas. “The underground movement of the Catholic Church was very strong, very well organized.”

Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevičius of Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, ran an underground Catholic newspaper from a basement. He collected information about the persecution against the Church by the KGB, and then secretly shipped The Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Lithuania to diplomats in the West.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the greatest challenge of the Lithuanian Catholic Church today, said Putrimas, is to bring the Church back into the public and local community.

“We are living now in this post-Soviet era in Eastern Europe and dealing with those communities that have emigrated from the former Soviet Union. The challenge that we have as a Church today is evangelizing, bringing the trust of Jesus back into the hearts of people, into the spirituality of families and communities and to the nations,” he said.

He landed in the middle of that challenge after being appointed as the delegate to Lithuanian Catholics diaspora in August 2003, following the resignation of his spiritual mentor, Bishop Paul Baltakis.

As delegate, Putrimas successfully lobbied to have the Lithuanian Catholic Liturgical Calendar include a special day of prayer for Lithuanian Catholics living abroad. It will take place annually on the first Sunday of March, beginning on Mar. 2 this year.

“I proposed this idea for several reasons,” he said. “Prayer unifies us. We’re dispersed throughout the whole world. We need something to spiritually connect us, so to pray for each other I think is very important.”

Putrimas attended seminary in Rome and was ordained by Pope John Paul II in 1985. He returned to Canada to serve in the Archdiocese of Toronto and spent 15 years as an airport chaplain at Pearson International Airport. He still occasionally goes back to assist the current chaplain, Fr. Joe Peña.

Travel has been a constant theme in his career. He has visited more than 50 countries and hits the road once or twice a month. When he travels, he carries pictures of his niece and nephew and holy cards of deceased relatives. But the glamour of flying is lost on him; he sees it as a necessary tool of evangelization.

For all the places Putrimas has been, his greatest pastoral pleasure lies about two hours north of Toronto at a camp for youth in Wasaga Beach. He’s worked there for 32 summers.

“After so many years, it’s wonderful to see when these kids are grown up and they’re getting married or their children are being baptized and they’re inviting me to be involved in their family celebrations,” he said. “That for me is the greatest reward.”

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