“Christ Jesus, our hope.” In an unorthodox fashion that is typical of Pope Francis, the motto of his upcoming visit to the Baltic states deliberately puts first the word “Christ” (Greek for “the anointed one” or “savior”) instead of the more usual “Jesus Christ.” The pontiff will take his core message of simplicity and sincerity in faith as well as his man-of-the-people style to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia during a four-day visit that starts on Saturday.
The two days he will spend in Lithuania make up the longest and most important stage of the tour. At 2.8 million it is the most populous of the three states. It is also the only majority Catholic country in Northern Europe, with 77 percent of the population belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. It regularly tops public opinion polls as the nation’s most trusted institution.
Catholic communities in traditionally Protestant Latvia and Estonia are small. Moreover, according to polling data, Estonia, together with the Czech Republic, counts as one of the least religious nations in Europe.
The pontiff will meet politicians — his first appointment in Lithuania is with President Dalia Grybauskaite — as well as visit and pray at the Vilnius Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, chronicling suffering and resistance during the Soviet and Nazi regimes.
For the Baltic nations, Pope Francis’s trip carries special significance in a year full of symbolism. All three celebrate 100 years of their independence in 2018. It is also 25 years since Francis’s predecessor, John Paul II, visited the Baltics, the first pope to do so. He came in 1993 just a few days after Russian troops finally withdrew from the region, wrapping up half a century of Soviet occupation. Memories of that event are still very much alive.
The pope is to meet with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite (L) and Vytautas Landsbergis (R), the first post-communist Lithuanian president
Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s first head of state after the restoration of independence in March 1990, immediately invited Pope John Paul to come to the country. He was already an opposition parliamentarian when the visit took place, having lost the country’s first presidential election in 1992.
“For me the most striking image is of the staff of Sejmas [Lithuania’s parliament] — couriers, guards, cleaners — spontaneously kneeling, all as one, when John Paul entered the building, while the MPs, most of them former Communists, remained standing,” Landsbergis told DW. He and his wife will attend the papal mass in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city and former interwar capital, on September 23.
“Today, politicians the world over have a conviction that economics determines everything in our lives. Pope Francis has a refreshing way of reminding us that this is not so, that greed and unbridled individualism are big problems,” said Landsbergis.
In the Baltics, capitalism still ‘trends’
However, Pope Francis’s critical attitude to free markets and concern about climate change, which resonate in other parts of the West, will find less response in the Baltics. Twenty-five years after liberation people here attach great importance to personal freedom and individual choice.
“This pope keeps telling us that our gravest sin is indifference,” says Father Ricardas Doveika, former chancellor of the Vilnius Roman Catholic diocese. “This is exactly what we here inherited from Communist times. Then everyone was minding their own business. It is now combined with the self-centered consumerism of the new era. No wonder we have nearly 4,000 children with living parents placed in orphanages! When he visits, the pope will address this problem head on, I am sure.”
Alcoholism, especially in rural areas, high abortion rates and church attendance are also of concern to the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Some compare the situation in Lithuania to that of its staunchly Catholic neighbor, Poland. “The same trends are also visible there,” admits Laurynas Kasciunas, a Conservative MP and practicing Catholic. But take Warsaw, Poland’s most secular city. There average Sunday mass attendance is about 30 percent. I’d like to see such figures here, where it is at best 10-15 percent even in a traditionally more religious countryside!”
Kasciunas — and the pope — may find some solace in the fact that criticism of the church and non-belief, widespread elsewhere in Europe, is visibly weaker in Lithuania. In August members of a left-leaning performance troupe called Zero Live Showdressed up as priests and delivered a mock homily, advertising an upcoming event, to parishioners gathered for mass in a cathedral in a small town of Salcininkai near Vilnius. It made a splash on social networks, but few people, even among the progressive intelligentsia, defended the performance. The overwhelming consensus was that, although the action itself was not illegal, it was morally wrong. Those defending it in the name of artistic freedom were a clear minority.
“It is easy to understand why,” one Vatican official told DW. “The Catholic Church was nearly eliminated during the Soviet occupation. This martyrdom very much informs the people’s view of it. They still see the church as a force for good and tend to forgive its deficiencies.”