Although they shared a long period in modern history, notably the dire experience of oppression and the path of liberation that ensued, the three Baltic States that Pope Francis will visit September 22-25 are different in many respects, especially with regard to the presence of the Catholic Church. Similarities and specificities also mark the program of the papal visit that will start in Lithuania, a Country with 2.8 million Catholics, amounting to 80% of the overall population. The theme for the two-day visit is “Christ Jesus – Our Hope”, during which His Holiness will meet with political leaders, with the local population, with youths, bishops, priests, men and women religious. The Pope will visit religious sites and nourish the faith in the Country and returning to places of remembrance and suffering for which many Lithuanians are hurting still today. On September 24 the Pope will make a one-day stopover in Riga, Latvia, with a very busy schedule that includes meetings with political authorities, visits to places of remembrance, the Holy Mass in Aglona, the Marian shrine that is the spiritual symbol of the visit and a religious landmark for Latvian Catholics constituting 20% of the overall population in a Country where the ecumenical tradition is rich and fruitful. In fact the Pope will participate in a meeting with other Churches in Riga’s Lutheran Cathedral. The motto for Estonia, the last leg of the Papal journey, Tuesday, September 25th, is: “Wake Up, My Heart”, where His Holiness is keenly awaited by over 6 thousand Catholics (0.4% of the overall population) in a Country with a majority population of self-declared non-believers. Also in this case the program of the visit includes meeting with national authorities and with the poor, along with a meeting with young Catholics and young faithful from other Christian churches. SIR collected the reflections of the Archbishop of Vilnius, Msgr. Gintaras Grusas, of Riga, Msgr. Zbigņevs Stankevičs and of the Apostolic Administrator of Tallin, Msgr. Philippe Jourdan ahead of the Pope’s visit to the Baltic States.
“Anticipation grows, like when we are looking forward to the visit of an important guest, a member of the family we haven’t seen for a long time”, said Msgr. Gintaras Grusas, while following, from the window of his office, the preparations of a large platform opposite the Cathedral where the Pope will meet local youths. “We will be ready; I am quite confident.” “Expectations are also linked to the memory of the visit of John Paul II 25 years ago: he touched the hearts of all Lithuanians at the beginning of a process leading to their full freedom.” In 1993 Mons. Grusas had just been made a deacon and his first assignment was to coordinate the organization of the visit. “Indeed, since then a lot has changed from the technical angle: Internet connection was poor and mobile phones were like bricks. Also the situation in the Country was different: society was making the first steps towards freedom and independence after the fall of Communism and neither the Church nor the public domain had ever experienced the organization of such a major event.” He recalled that even security forces at the time had to follow a special training course with Lithuanian security officials abroad to learn how to protect the Pope. “Today our Country has gained a lot of experience, not only with VIP visits: in the past 25 years we joined NATO, the EU, we held the EU Presidency, that of the UN Security Council and our infrastructures have changed, thus Internet connection is among the fastest in Europe”, he said. However, also the challenges are different:
“While at the time we were making the first steps after the occupation, today we are faced with the challenge of living in a free society, of nourishing hope even when we see that the dreams we had 25 years ago don’t come true, before the burden of emigration. In 25 years we lost 25% of our population.”
“I hope Pope Francis’ hope and joy will enchant everyone. The people see Francis as the embodiment of moral authority, but I hope that they will come not only to see him but also to listen to his words.” The Archbishop of Vilnius is concerned that “the discussions on the scandals inside the Church might overshadow the beauty and the joy of the meeting and of the message, as happened with families attending the World Meeting of Families in Ireland. I hope that the joy of this encounter will prevail.”
Great expectations also in Latvia. “We are working on the final touches. There is growing interest on the part of the media. I am contacted every day for interviews in Latvia and abroad”, said the Archbishop of Riga, Msgr. Zbigņevs Stankevičs. Here too “the local population is keenly awaiting the arrival of this world religious leader who has an important message for Latvia. We have devoted many of our prayers to the meeting: in every Mass there is an intention for the Papal visit and every Sunday we prayed for the organizers, for the Holy Father… This atmosphere is a sign of good things to come.” In the past months there have also been difficulties:
Msgr. Stankevičs mentioned “complaints on the part of anti-clerical environments on the costs of the visit and on the fact that the State has financially supported the event, or that Parliament voted in favour of a feast day in the Country on the occasion of the Papal visit”, so as to allow everyone to meet the Pope.
“There have been many obstacles aimed at toning down the event. But all difficulties have been overcome.” On top of this, “two weeks ago we experienced a difficult situation with the arrest of a priest charged with serious allegations of sexual abuse, not on minors however”, the Archbishop pointed out. The investigation is ongoing, so nothing is definitive yet. “It was very unpleasant and it came as a heavy blow at the beginning, but it appears to be unfolding. We look forward to the ecumenical meeting that will take place in the Lutheran Cathedral to the presence of 1200 people. We expect it to highlight the importance of mutual cooperation efforts, reconfirming our commitment for unity among the disciples of Jesus, encouraging us all to proceed along this path, for Latvia is a propitious testing ground.”
The bishop of Tallin, Msgr. Philippe Jourdan, said the days leading up to the event are “beautiful and intense.” “Not everything is ready yet, but the souls are and so are people’s hearts. The material aspects are being finalized.” Msgr. Jourdan is only worried about the weather: “September 25 is a bit late for an open-air event, also because it’s close to winter. The forecasts are good, but temperatures are bound to drop.” The atmosphere in the Country is extremely encouraging: “Among the people, even among non-Catholics and non-believers, feelings of anticipation for the papal visit are perceivable. I was told that many Lutheran parishes here in Tallin have organized a prayer vigil ahead of the Holy Father’s arrival. Obviously, vigils will be held also in Catholic parishes, but the initiative of Lutheran churches is a beautiful sign of the ecumenism of prayer.” Estonia responded in an impressive way to the meeting with young people that will be held in the Lutheran Saint Charles’ Church, of Tallin, the largest in Estonia. “At the beginning we thought it would be hard to fill the church, even with youths from other Christian confessions, instead the interest was greater than we had imagined, to the extent that we won’t be able to sit everyone: approximately 1.500 young people will attend, but there are over 2000 registered participants.” The same happened with the Holy Mass in Liberty Square in the afternoon: “The police told us to close registrations because we had reached the limits of the square’s capacity. Nobody expected that so many people would attend a religious event. We have more than 11 thousand registered participants, and for a Country like ours, that is not Poland or Ireland, these are huge figures. There are approximately 7 thousand Catholics in the Country, thus many registered participants are non-Catholics.” For Msgr. Jourdan it’s very important “that
all of this does not end with one-day enthusiasm, but that it will bring fruits and that people will listen to the Pope’s words,
reflecting on how to live out his message.” In this respect it is encouraging that “a number of TV and Radio networks have already planned programs due to take place a month from now to take stock of the fruits of the Papal visit and his message.” Commenting on the scheduled meeting with youths, Msgr. Jourdan said: “It will be the last contact with young people a week before the Synod, in addition it will be an ecumenical meeting, with youths living in a part of Europe that is very different from Italy. It is bound to be extremely significant.”