Cardinal Sigitas Tamkevičius, S.J., archbishop emeritus of Kaunas, Lithuania, was born on 7 November 1938 in Krikstonys, in the province of Lazdijai, in the diocese of Vilkaviškis, in southern Lithuania.
After completing his secondary school studies in Seirijai in 1955, he entered the seminary of Kaunas. He continued his studies in theology and, after several years of military service in the Soviet army, he graduated from the seminary in 1962. He received priestly ordination from Bishop Petras Maželis, apostolic administrator of Telšiai, on 18 April 1962. During the following years he was vicar in the parishes of Alytus, Lazdijai, Kurdirkos Naumiestis, Prienai and Simnas. In 1968 he entered the Society of Jesus, at the time in which the religious order was prohibited under Soviet law.
He was one of the initiators of the petition protesting against the discriminatory restrictions of the Soviet regime in relation to the Kaunas seminary. For this reason the Soviet authorities forbade him from exercising his priestly ministry and forced him to work for a year in a factory and in a reclamation area.
In 1972, while he was vicar in the parish of Simnas – and then parish priest in Kybartai from 1975 to 1983 – he began the clandestine publication of the Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Lithuania, which recorded and made public in the West the facts of religious discrimination in Soviet Lithuania. In 1978, together with four other Lithuanian priests, he also set up the Catholic Committee for the defence of the rights of believers: a group that denounced to the world the truth of what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. The editors of the Chronicle – whose complaints appealed, in particular, to the contents of the Helsinki Declaration (1975), also signed by the Soviet Union – were systematically arrested and imprisoned, but someone was always ready to replace them.
Despite much “attention” from the KGB, Tamkevičius edited the Chronicle for eleven years, until his arrest in 1983. Tried on charges of anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and exile. He spent his prison sentence in the labour camps of Perm’ and in Mordovia. Exiled to Siberia in 1988, he was freed after the Soviet policy change with the so-called perestroika.
He returned to freedom and resumed his witness without any grudge against his persecutors. In 1989 the Lithuanian Episcopal Conference called him to the post of spiritual director of the Kaunas Seminary, and the following year he became rector.
On 8 May 1991 John Paul II assigned him the titular see of Turuda, appointing him auxiliary bishop of Kaunas, where he received episcopal ordination the following 19 May, in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, by Cardinal Archbishop Vincentas Sladkevičius. As his episcopal motto he chose Dominus illuminatio mea (“The Lord is my light”), taken from Psalm 26.
In September 1993, along with other Lithuanian bishops, he received John Paul II on his apostolic trip to the Baltic countries. In particular, he presented to the Pope the situation of the new generations in Kaunas stadium. In 1994 he participated in the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops dedicated to consecrated life, speaking on the situation of the men and women religious in Lithuania who managed to resist persecution in hiding.
On 4 May 1996 Pope Wojtyła appointed him metropolitan archbishop of Kaunas, where he remained for a further nine years. Within the Lithuanian episcopal conference he served as president (1999-2002, 2005-2008 and 2008-2014) and vice-president (2002-2005). In addition, from 2005 to 2015 he was president of the Commission for Social Communication and, from 2011 to 2014, head of the Council for Social Affairs.
On 11 June 2015 Pope Francis accepted his resignation from the pastoral care of the archdiocese, presented upon reaching the age limit. However the Holy Father wanted the archbishop emeritus by his side on 23 September 2018 on his visit to the prisons of the KGB headquarters in Vilnius. Precisely because of his witness, on 13 January 2014, he was conferred the honour of Freedom by the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania, he was conferred the honor of Freedom.
Created and proclaimed Cardinal by Pope Francis in the consistory of 5 October 2019, of the Title of Sant’Angela Merici.