By Marija Burdulyte
ROME, FEB. 4, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The voice of the Pope is important for believers and nonbelievers alike, asserts the Lithuanian ambassador to the Holy See. And, he says, the role the Vatican plays in the dialogue of civilizations and cultures is appreciated around the globe.
Vytautas Ališauskas made these observations when ZENIT spoke with the ambassador about his nation marking this year the 20th anniversary of international recognition as an independent state after the Soviet occupation of 1945-1991.
He recounts his memory of the Vatican’s role in this recognition, and reflects on his current role at the Holy See.
ZENIT: Despite Soviet occupation, from 1940 to 1990, diplomatic relations never ceased and the Lithuanian diplomatic mission continued its work in Rome. After Lithuania’s independence was recognized internationally in 1991 those relationships were renewed. Could you tell how this process happened?
Ališauskas: I worked as an adviser to the foreign minister in Lithuania at that time. Archbishop Audrys Juozas Bačkis, who was an apostolic pro-nuncio in Holland, then was asked by the Holy Father to come to Lithuania and sign a new stage of diplomatic relations. It was agreed that diplomatic relations would be at the ambassador level.
Afterward a first ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania to the Holy See, Kazys Lozoraitis, was appointed. Before, Lithuanian diplomats who resided in Rome were ministers plenipotentiary. Archbishop Bačkis stressed that it was the Holy Father’s wish to emphasize that the Holy See always recognized an independent Lithuanian state and renounced its incorporation into the Soviet Union. Therefore in this case diplomatic relations were not renewed, but raised to a new, higher level.
ZENIT: How have these relationships developed since then?
Ališauskas: I would say the most important event was the signing of three agreements with the Holy See in 2000. The first one was on the juridical aspects of the relations between the Catholic Church and the state; the second on the pastoral care of Catholics serving in the army; the third was on cooperation in education and culture.
Soviets announced the concordat of 1927 with Lithuania null and void. Formally it was sort of still valid, but of course the historical reality, the social and political order, and finally the principles of the Second Vatican Council had to be reflected in the relationship between Lithuania and the Holy See. Therefore the format of three agreements was chosen. The work began quite early in 1996, I think. The project of the agreements was carefully prepared so that there were less questions and problems when bilateral talks began.
The existing legislation was taken into consideration very seriously, because with independence Lithuania regained full religious freedom. Later these agreements were easily accepted by both sides, because as I mentioned before there was an effort to sustain the Lithuanian legislation, which corresponded to the vision of both the democratic state and the Catholic Church.
And in 2000 the agreements were signed and ratified by a great majority in the Parliament soon afterward. Now any issues that require attention are discussed in a bilateral mixed commission that meets on a regular basis and makes decisions based on the agreements.
ZENIT: One of the agreements is on cooperation in education and culture. It also defines Catholic education in Lithuania. Does Catholic education help to stop the secularization that comes from the West?
Ališauskas: Speaking about Catholic education in Lithuania, I have to say that Catholic high schools are considered prestigious institutions. […] I know very little about Catholic elementary schools, but I am sure that they function successfully. There is also a faculty of Catholic theology in Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas — the second biggest city in Lithuania — which has the right to grant degrees approved by the Church. It had several doctors of theology among its graduates recently, which shows a certain maturity in this academic institution.
The processes of secularization are different in the countries influenced by the Soviet regime than in the West.
Lithuania suffered 50 years of religious persecution and forced atheism. On one hand these trials strengthened the faith of the older generation and the prestige of the Church; on the other hand the younger generations did not have opportunities to get acquainted with Christian values.
Now we have a total religious freedom, but that freedom was a huge challenge for the Catholic Church. We can say that there are two parallel processes in Lithuania today: Western secularization and the Church’s renewal and integration into the everyday life of the country.
Although Lithuania is a secular state, practical actions demonstrate its willingness to cooperate with the Catholic Church as well as with other traditional confessions.
ZENIT: It’s been three years that you are in Rome as an ambassador. Do you think diplomacy is important for the small countries? And what is their role among big nations?
Ališauskas: First of all, let’s not forget that there are more small countries than big ones. And that is important. If we imagine that big players play only among themselves, well, this is not true. I am not sure whether the word “play” is appropriate here, but let’s use it. Big players play in the world where many various subjects exist.
Each of them has its own interests and its will and surely the outcome of world politics is not the one that every particular player would like it to be. World politics always gives a certain, sometimes totally unexpected final result. In this sense the role of small and medium states is not insignificant.
The other thing is the European Union. I think the Lisbon Treaty is a tool for small or medium states to assert themselves as active subjects of international or European Union politics, because now decisions cannot be made without a certain number of member states participating. The population size is not enough. I think this balance in the Lisbon Treaty between member states’ votes and population size is very rational and gives new opportunities for small and medium states to participate in decision making.
ZENIT: The Holy See has old diplomatic traditions. Usually it is regarded as a moral authority. Is the Holy Father’s voice heard outside Rome?
Ališauskas: Without any doubt. The fact is that during the three years that I have been here, five or so resident embassies opened. Among them were Australian and Canadian embassies. This demonstrates that the role of the Holy See in international life is really important. It takes an active part in the dialogue of civilizations and cultures and that is appreciated in the whole world. It also contributes a lot to humanitarian aid missions. Besides that the Holy See continually participates in the discussion not only on everyday moral questions, but also on problems that pose ethical challenges for all people, such as bioethics, artificial insemination, ecology and various experiments that can affect all mankind. The Holy See has its opinion about these issues and both believers and non-believers pay attention to it, because it is based not only on Revelation, but also on great wisdom and experience. So the voice of the Holy Father is important to all people and in this regard the position of the Holy See is very strong and stable.
ZENIT: There was recently an international ecumenical conference in Lithuania on family problems. It was jointly organized by Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran bishops. It is a strong ecumenical sign that three Christian confessions gather to discuss common problems. Do you think this will forward ecumenical dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate?
Ališauskas: I want to stress that these three are histor
ical confessions in our country. Both Lutherans and Orthodox are very old religious communities in Lithuania and they had a huge influence in Lithuanian cultural life and shaping national identity.
The relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate has always been warm in Lithuania. And we can see that the Moscow Patriarchate often emphasizes the significance of the Holy See’s stances on traditional values, family and social justice. Here ecumenical dialogue is very promising. Also common ecclesiological approaches like a skeptical attitude to female priests or bishops create broad ecumenical ground.
Because of its position as a most northern Catholic country with a Protestant Scandinavia from one side and Orthodox Belorussia from the other, Lithuania could be a meeting place for a meaningful ecumenical dialogue.