Archbishop of Riga, Zbigņevs Stankevičs, says we will welcome Pope Francis with joy in Latvia, because he is the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, who walks on the border between the visible and invisible world. The Pope’s mission is to confirm brothers and sisters in the faith and read the signs of the times, and this will help us to see the priorities where we ought to direct our forces.
In an exclusive interview with ZENIT, who will be following again from the papal flight Pope Francis’ Apostolic Visit to the Baltic Countries, the Latvian Archbishop made this prediction.
ZENIT interviewed the Archbishop of Riga in Poznan, Poland on the sidelines of the Plenary Assembly of the Council of European Conferences, Sept. 13-16, 2018.
Here is our exclusive interview:
ZENIT: Archbishop Stankevičs, Latvia is a small and peripheral country in Europe. The Latvian Catholic Church is rather small. Given that Pope Francis receives invitations nearly everywhere, but obviously accepts just a few, what significance does this event have for you?
Latvia is not that small of a country actually! Latvia is, if I remember correctly, bigger than Belgium, for example, but it has few inhabitants, especially today, after almost a third of the inhabitants have emigrated abroad in the last 25 years, looking for work, well-being and a more dignified life. But even at a distance, thanks to internet and TV, they will be able to feel close to the Pope and their homeland.
ZENIT: Pope St. John Paul II visited Latvia in 1993, 25 years ago. Since then, how has Latvia changed?
At that time, it was important to have encouragement and a vision for the future. In the early 1990s, we thought that freedom was the main thing, then immediately everything would arrive: welfare, wealth, abundance … Today, 25 years later, we see that there are still challenges to be faced for which “external” freedom alone is not enough. In the Soviet Era everyone had to work and had a minimum wage to survive. Today, however, everyone must figure out how to make due on their own and a part of our people has not been able to adapt. Therefore, the message Pope Francis will bring, of solidarity with the poor, will be important!
ZENIT: During that time, the country had just come out of the long period of Soviet oppression. What has this history left?
We expect from Pope Francis not only a spiritual impulse, but even a social impulse, precisely because we still need a purification from the post-Soviet mentality. Much has already been done, but much remains to be done to combat corruption, poverty, the culture of waste, because the discarded ones are here also in Latvia. The Soviet oppression left deep wounds both in the sense of responsibility and personal self-esteem, and in the capacity for initiative. You could do only what the party commanded. Second, there is the explosive mixture of theoretical and practical materialism, which today still does so much damage!
ZENIT: Every papal trip is exceptional in its own way, arousing curiosity and attention, not only among Catholics. In Latvia, Catholics are a small minority, relative to the Lutheran and Orthodox Churches. How could you describe the ecumenical relationship in Latvia?
We Catholics are about a quarter or a fifth of the population, next to Lutherans, 30%, Orthodox, under 20%, and other smaller denominations. The collaboration is very good. It is thanks to the fact 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 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. Now I hope that Francis, who appreciates ecumenism so much, encourages us to go on in the same direction!
ZENIT: How do TV and newspapers report on the upcoming trip?
The Church strives to convey the message of the spiritual dimension of the event, to present it as a chance not to be missed for the whole country. Then there is the press that criticizes the costs of its organizing, or because the parliament has declared a holiday day on the Pope’s day in Latvia, and so they lose millions of euro… In short, they are more concentrated on the external, superficial aspects of the event, leaving out of sight the profound meaning of it. We hope to overcome this obstacle.
ZENIT: A sensitive issue for Latvia is the relationship with the big Russian ethnic minority, whose condition has changed considerably since Latvia is no longer part of the Soviet Union. Pope Francis is the Pope who continually invites us to build bridges, to be reconciled among peoples, to learn to live in harmony. How will this message be received in your country?
Today, we live in a world torn by so many conflicts. 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 is administered by a Russian mayor, and it is not the first time, but the third. There is no open conflict in the street, in everyday life … 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. And if Pope Francis arrives carrying a message of reconciliation, then it is foreseeable that immediately some groups will attack him. The question is delicate, yes, caution will be needed to launch the message that we must build bridges and not walls, but without entering into these political controversies.
ZENIT: What is the significance of this coincidence?
For the government and for the politicians, this is a fact of great significance, as if it were a fact of prestige for the country to welcome the Pope in this circumstance. Therefore, the population also considers it. The centenary of independence for the Church is also important, as is the 25th anniversary of Pope Wojtyla’s visit, but this is not the main point. The point really important for us is that spiritual impulse of rebirth that we expect from Pope Francis. Eight years ago, when I became Archbishop of Riga, I said that my “strategic purpose” would be the spiritual rebirth of Latvia. And I said it not only to Catholics, but also to all other Christians and all men of good will.
ZENIT: In this historic moment for Europe, nationalist feelings are resurrecting in many of the continent’s countries. Is this true for Latvia? But nationalism, in your opinion, is always to be condemned?
It depends on what the contents of this concept of “nationalism” are. From my point of view, I would distinguish “patriotism” and “nationalism”; the former is good, the second is not, although some experts argue that there are various levels of nationalism, and the “softer” ones can be accepted. I say this: love for one’s own homeland is something necessary, it is part of the fourth commandment, “Honor thy father and mother”: but with nationalism we already get to feel a sense of superiority towards others, and this it is not acceptable.
ZENIT: How much is there a sense of national identity alive among Latvians abroad?
Those who were forced to leave during the war and their descendants have a very marked patriotic feeling. Those who have left with the last wave of emigration experience a feeling of greater disappointment towards their country, and it was their choice to leave. Nonetheless, there is also a part of Latvians abroad that would like to return home. Someone does it, but up to now the two migratory flows, in and out, have not yet been balanced between themselves. We hope to arrive at least as soon as possible at an equilibrium.