Soviet authorities have begun criminal proceedings against a Roman Catholic priest in Lithuania who in his sermons "systematically instigated the believers" to wage "open struggle against Soviet power," the official news agency Tass reported tonight.

Tass said Alfonsas Svarinskas, pastor of the Roman Catholic church in Vidukle, Lithuania, used his position "as a cover" for staging "open antisocial meetings" at which he urged the believers to struggle against the socialist system.

The Tass announcement coincided with the arrival in Rome of Bishop Julijans Vaivods to attend a Vatican ceremony at which he will become the Soviet Union's first resident cardinal since the Bolshevik revolution. The 87-year-old bishop of Riga, Latvia, is one of 18 new cardinals named earlier this month by Pope John Paul II.

Western observers here speculated that the announcement of criminal proceedings against the Lithuanian priest may have been designed as a signal that Moscow has no intention of allowing its Roman Catholics the sort of latitude enjoyed by the Polish church.

The Soviet Union has a relatively small Roman Catholic population primarily concentrated in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The three Baltic republics, with a combined population of 4.5 million, were incoporated into the Soviet Union in 1940.

Lithuania, the largest of the three, is said to have been affected considerably in recent years by events in neighboring Poland. There have been frequent reports of protests and underground activity by small groups of nationalists, human rights activists and religious dissidents.

Tass did not say whether Svarinskas had been arrested. It accused him of "fabricating slanderous materials" that were sent abroad "for use by subversive centers with anti-Soviet aims."

The 58-year-old priest has been sentenced on two occasions after being arrested in 1947 and again in 1958, the report said. He is said to have been linked to an underground nationalist "gang" known as "Sharunas" that operated in Lithuania after World War II. Tass said he continued his "unlawful activities" after his release from jail and was rearrested.