It is worth it to follow Christ …. Jesus fills our lives… Jesus is our one hope… Don’t be afraid to go against the current…
With these reminders, Pope Francis, despite a challenging moment for the Church, received the warmest of welcomes in the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Sept. 22-25, 2018.
ZENIT was on board the Papal Flight to bring us the latest from the trip which marked the Holy Father’s 25th Apostolic Visit abroad, and–including these three–his 39th nation visited. This was the first time that Pope Francis had visited these countries.
Pastoral Encouragement and Love
Since 2004, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have all been members of the European Union. They are now all part of NATO. The issue of the relationship with Russia is central to the life of these countries; in each, where there are also large Russian ethnic minorities, the invasion of Crimea, Ukraine, by Russia, has been experienced as a shock.
The Baltic Sea, on which these three states face, today is a strategic chessboard, if you will, in the confrontation between the US and Russia. Despite these realities, the Pope’s trip was not politically charged, but pastoral, a sign of encouragement, love and support.
First to Vilnius, Lithuania, the only majority Catholic nation of the three. Today, 77% of the Lithuanian population belong to the Roman Catholic Church, making the nation the only predominantly Catholic country in Northern Europe. During its occupation by the Soviet Union from 1944-1991, Archbishop of Vilnius, Gintaras Grusas told ZENIT, it was the faith which helped families and communities stay connected, as religion provided them with the strength to fight for freedom and bare dramatic hardships.
Incredible Story, Then ‘I Was Born a Year Later’
The leader of Lithuanian faithful also opened up to ZENIT’s Deborah Castellano Lubov of his being born, in the US, in Washington, D.C. in 1961: His own parents, Lithuanian, had been separated during World War II. “After various attempts, my father managed to get their names on a list of separated families of the State Department. When Vice President Richard Nixon met with Khrushchev in 1959, part of that meeting was a goodwill gesture allowing 200 separated families from throughout the Soviet Union to reunite.”
“Then, my mother and my sister came to the United States in 1960 and I was born in 1961…,” he said.
In Vilnius, one could feel the active enthusiasm for the Pontiff, so many families and little ones awaited in the rain even to catch a glance of the Pope outside the presidential palace, where he addressed authorities. They lined up across the street waving flags. The rain that had been drenching the Lithuanian capital earlier that morning seemed to clear up in time for the Pontiff’s arrival.
There, the Pope stressed: “All conflicts presently emerging will find lasting solutions only if those solutions are grounded in the concrete recognition of the dignity of persons, especially the most vulnerable, and in the realization that all of us are challenged “to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all.”
On how the Church was able to survive during the Soviet Occupation, the U.S.-born prelate discussed the clandestine resistance. “The underground Church included not only these publications but clandestine seminaries and religious orders, clandestine preparation for the sacraments, and missionary work throughout the Soviet Union.”
Grandparents & Secret Baptisms
“The faith was preserved not only through such organized resistance, but most of all through the perseverance of passing the faith down within the family. Grandparents had their grandchildren baptized secretly, so that it would not affect the employment of their children.”
That afternoon, the Argentine Pontiff visited the Mater Misericordiae (‘Mother of Mercy’ Shrine) in the Our Lady Gate of the Dawn in Vilnius. Here he reminded faithful that Mary, in all situations, like those dire of the past or those now or ahead, is there to be at our aid and rescue us.
Following Christ is Worth It, Dear Young People
During the meeting with young people, where–upon being told there some of their insecurities or worries–he reminded them: “Following Christ is worth it,” for “only Jesus fills our lives.” The young people told ZENIT that they had been there since first thing that morning, but that they were so excited to have Pope Francis in their midst (the first Pope since 1993 to visit Baltic Republics, a time when a large percentage present would not have even been born yet).
They also said they found “refreshing” and “encouraging” Pope Francis’ advice, to “work toward holiness,” as it is part of our daily task as Christians, and to “not be afraid to go against the current.” The Holy Father also had reminded those gathered to not be afraid to fall, as they are always welcomed to pick themselves up, and “start over again in the Lord.”
From that point forward, it became clear that this would be at the forefront of the Pope’s visit to these places: encouragement, reminding that faith and Jesus fills our lives and gives and satisfies freedom.
Jesus Christ Is Our One Hope
The next days were equally intense. His last day in Lithuania, the Pope celebrated Sunday Mass in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city. As the big buses of the VAMPS (Vatican Accredited Media Personnel) arrived bright and early, no one had any reaction other than to admit what an incredibly tranquil and gorgeous place it was. We arrived to organizers and altar servers in droves rushing around, as they worked toward ensuring all the details were perfect. For the reporters, many of whom live in Rome like ZENIT to cover the Pope and city, the crisp air there was welcomed.
“Jesus Christ is our one hope,” he stressed during his homily there, while, in his Angelus, he decried persecution of Jewish people that had occurred in that country and all hints of Anti-Semitism.
Later that day, the Pope would visit the Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights, which was a former KGB stronghold.
The Pope would reflect a great deal from this point forward about the tragic genocide this nation faced, the deprivation of religion, the attacks on their freedom. He praised those, in particular grandparents, who despite all this, worked to transmit their faith and identity to the subsequent generations.
The Light of Faith Never Distinguished in Your Hearts … Always Taste & See Lord’s Goodness
The Holy Father in the final days of the trip made stops in the Latvian cities of its capital Riga and Aglona, the nation’s popular pilgrimage site.
In Riga, the Pope began with a call for authorities to safeguard life: ‘Open a door to the future by looking to everything that stands at the service of life, and generating life.’ Later in the Catholic St. James Cathedral in the city, he praised the elderly’s perseverance: ‘Neither the Nazi nor Russian regimes extinguished light of faith in your hearts.’ He encouraged them ‘always taste & see the goodness of the Lord till the very end of our days.’
As the journalists on the papal flight took a bus more than three hours to arrive from Riga, and then more than four hours back, to return to Lithuania, they were amused by the highway signs telling how many kilometers to Russia….
In Latvia, Lutherans make up about 30% of the population, Catholics, between 20-25%, Orthodox, with nearly 20%, and the rest, other smaller denominations. Everyone Zenit spoke to there reiterated the strong collaboration and friendship among the nation’s Christians.
Constitution Protecting Christian Values … Ecumenical Support
“It is thanks to the fact,” Archbishop of Riga, Zbigņevs Stankevičs, told Zenit, “that in the preamble of the Latvian Constitution, Christian values, alongside universal national and human values, are mentioned as the foundation of Latvia.”
“The Constitution,” he explained, “defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. There is a law that forbids immoral propaganda in schools. In January, with the help of the Baptists, we stopped the attempt to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which opens the possibility of imposing gender ideology through schools and the mass media. All this was a grace, but only because the main Christian confessions spoke with one voice.”
No One Is Perfect, But We Embrace Peace
During the trip, many journalists asked about Russian minorities living in these countries.
“Even in Latvia we are certainly not perfect, we still have much to do, but we live together in peace, and in this sense, we can also be a model for the rest of the world. For example, in Riga there are more Russians than Latvians.”
The city, he said, is administered by a Russian mayor, and it is not the first time, but the third. Yet “There is no open conflict in the street, in everyday life,” he said. “This premised, however, the issue is delicate, because even in the absence of conflict there are political parties that try to feed the antagonism between Latvians and Russians.”
Carry On, Just Outrage, But Have Trust
Pope Francis went to an ecumenical meeting that morning in the splendid Riga Doms, or Riga Cathedral. There he was welcomed by a beautiful girls choir, and many screams of little ones, wanting to make themselves heard. When ZENIT sent to the other members of the papal press pool video and audio from the encounter as Francis entered, the press questioned the screams. ZENIT and another journalist attested it was the fault of two particularly loud “screaming babies.”
Power of Churches Speaking With One Voice
Bishop Jourdan, the Apostolic Administrator of the nation, told Zenit’s Deborah Castellano Lubov, that despite their faithful being “a small seed,” that “logistics are not what matter to Pope Francis.”
Archbishop of Estonia’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Urmas Viilma told Zenit that because Churches are trying to jointly shape a message to society, “This explains why no Church nor denomination in Estonia differentiates from other Churches in ethical and moral issues and why the Churches attempt to speak with one voice in the traditional language.”
“If even one Church were to leave the ecumenical coalition,” he underscored, “the whole voice of Christianity in Estonian society would be dispersed.”
God Knows Our Deepest Needs
The theme of ecumenism was highlighted in Estonia. The meeting with the youth in Tallinn was hosted in the Lutheran Kaarli Church loaned to Catholics for this occasion since it could accommodate more people. Francis received cordial reception also from the Lutherans. The three main Christian denominations together reach 30% of the Estonian population, as the vast majority are atheists or agnostics.
In addressing also the young people at the ecumenical encounter, the Pope also reminded them of their faith carrying them on, and acknowledged that youth “are outraged over the sex abuse and financial scandals.” He told them not to lose hope, to trust God and carry on.
We May Not Say We Believe in God, or Jesus, But That ‘Something’ We Refer to Is Indeed Them
According to Joonas, the young Lutheran in charge of addressing a welcome speech to the Pope: “Even if they do not say that they believe in God, in Jesus, I think that each of us in life is looking for something, and this” something “is God, even if they are not yet able to say it …”
The last appointment was the mass at 4 p.m. in Piazza della Libertà, next to the ancient medieval village of Tallinn. “You have not conquered your freedom to end up being slaves of consumption, individualism or thirst for power or domination,” said Francis to the 10,000 present, not just Estonians, since the Catholic community in the country has about 6,000 faithful in the whole country. “
“God knows our needs,” he underlined, “those that we often hide behind the desire to possess; even our insecurities overcome thanks to power. That thirst, which dwells in every human heart, Jesus, in the Gospel that we have heard, encourages us to overcome it in our encounter with him.”
During the return flight from Tallinn toward Rome, Pope Francis recalled the very dramatic moments of the trip, the most significant being his visit to the Museum of the Occupation and Freedom Fights in Vilnius. That museum spoke for itself better of freedom, than any precious Lithuanian book could ever express.
Both the Nazi Gestapo and the Soviet KGB chose it as their headquarters when they occupied Lithuania. Many bishops and priests entered that prison, where it is estimated that at least 1,000 people died. This 1,000 represents statistically a very small percent of the casualties during the Occupation in Vilnius: overall, about 240,000, mostly Jews, were killed there, making the Lithuanian capital be referred to as the famous “Jerusalem of the North.” Today, there are only 5,000 Jews in the whole country.
While speaking to journalists before him, the Pope reflected on his time there, noting for the rest of the day, following his visit to the museum, he was distraught.
Reflecting on these Baltic States, he said: “I think that the struggle to keep their identity makes them very strong, and you have this: you have a strong identity — an identity that was forged in suffering, in defense, and in work, in the culture.”
“The faith of these three countries is great; it’s a faith born in fact of martyrdom, and this is something that perhaps you saw, speaking with the people, as you journalists do, to have news of the country.”