Update: Pope in Lithuania: Don't let anti-Semitism, hatred resurge

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VILNIUS, Lithuania (CNS) — Outside the former KGB
headquarters in Vilnius, Pope Francis ended a day of paying homage to victims
of totalitarianism and of warning Lithuanians to be attentive to any signs of
anti-Semitism or hatred.

The walls of the KGB building — a former jail and execution
site — echo the cry of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you
forsaken me?” the pope said.

Although thousands of people filled the square in front of
the building, the mood was somber for the pope’s visit Sept. 23. And it was
punctuated by long pauses for silent prayer.

He had toured the museum with 79-year-old Archbishop Sigitas
Tamkevicius, whose photo is featured prominently on a wall display honoring the
priests and bishops who endured imprisonment in the building’s basement.

The archbishop had been imprisoned from 1983 to 1988 for
“anti-Soviet propaganda.” As a Jesuit priest, in 1972 he began
publishing the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, an underground newsletter
documenting communist repression of the church. Despite repeated questioning by
the KGB, he managed to publish and distribute the chronicle for more than 10
years and, once he was arrested, others continued his work. St. John Paul II
named him archbishop of Kaunas in 1996, and the archbishop retired in 2015.

The pope had gone to the museum after stopping to pray at a
monument to more than 40,000 Jews in Vilnius killed by the Nazis. The prayer
coincided with the national commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the
liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto.

Standing by the former KGB headquarters, Pope Francis prayed
that God would “keep us alert” and strengthen the commitment of
Catholics and all Lithuanians to fighting all forms of injustice and defending
the dignity of all people.

“Lord,” he prayed, “grant that we may not be
deaf to the plea of all those who cry out to heaven in our own day.”

Juozas Jakavonis, 93, sat in a place of honor and told
reporters the pope’s visit was important for reminding people of all those who
suffered and died for the freedom they now enjoy.

Dressed in an old military uniform, Jakavonis said his nom
de guerre had been “Tiger.” He was part of the resistance to Soviet
domination and spent three months jailed in that very building. After
Lithuanian independence in 1990, he helped bring to public attention what
occurred there. Records now show 1,038 people were executed in the building
between 1944 and 1947.

Pope Francis had begun the day in Kaunas, a city about 60
miles West. But the memory of the victims of Nazism and communism and the
obligation of today’s Christians to fight all forms of hatred dominated there
as well.

His last appointment was with priests, religious women and
men and seminarians, and he began with ad-libbed remarks.

“I want to share what I feel,” the pope said.
“Looking at you, I see behind you many martyrs — anonymous martyrs, in
the sense that we don’t even know where they were buried.”

“Do not forget. Remember. You are children of martyrs.
That is your strength,” the pope told them. “They are saints.”

Earlier in day, before reciting the Angelus prayer after
Mass in Kaunas’ Santakos Park, Pope Francis drew special attention to the
anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish ghetto and to the evil of anti-Semitism.
Before the Nazis invaded the country, at least 200,000 citizens were Jewish;
fewer than 15,000 survived.

“Let us think back on those times and ask the Lord to
give us the gift of discernment to detect in time any new seeds of that
pernicious attitude, any whiff of it that can taint the heart of generations
that did not experience those times and can sometimes be taken in by such siren
songs,” Pope Francis said.

A visit to the famed Hill of Crosses near Vilnius was not on
Pope Francis’ schedule, but he did point to it as a place where, especially
during Soviet times, Catholics defiantly planted crosses to proclaim their

He prayed that Mary would “help us all to plant our own
cross, the cross of our service and commitment to the needs of others, on that
hill where the poor dwell, where care and concern are needed for the outcast
and for minorities. In this way, we can keep far from our lives and our
cultures the possibility of destroying one another, of marginalizing, of
continuing to discard whatever we find troublesome or uncomfortable.”

Earlier, celebrating Mass in the park, Pope Francis had insisted
that for a Christian the mistreatment Lithuanians endured first under the Nazis
and then under the communists can never justify mistreating others. Instead,
the experience must make victims and survivors even more sensitive and
attentive to new attempts to denigrate or dominate certain groups of people.

“The Christian life always involves experiences of the
cross,” Pope Francis said in his homily. Lithuania’s older generation
still bears “the scars of the period of the occupation, anguish at those
who were deported, uncertainty about those who never returned, shame for those
who were informers and traitors.”

Referring to the day’s Gospel reading from St. Mark in which
Jesus warns his disciples of the suffering that is to come, Pope Francis said
that naturally the disciples “wanted nothing to do with trials and
hardships.” And, in fact, they were more interested in discussing who
among them was the greatest.

“The thirst for power” is not an unusual reaction
to having endured suffering, the pope said. Nor is discussing “who was
better, who acted with greater integrity n the past, who has the right to more
privileges than others.”

But when his disciples started speaking that way, the pope
said, Jesus pointed to a child, one who was small and in need of protection.

And, the pope asked, “whom would Jesus place in our
midst today?”

“Who is it who has nothing to give us, to make our
effort and our sacrifices worthwhile?” Pope Francis asked. “Perhaps
it is the ethnic minorities of our city. Or the jobless who have to emigrate.
May be it is the elderly and the lonely, or those young people who find no
meaning in life because they have lost their roots.”

Whoever “the least” may be, he said, Christians
are called to help them.

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