Update: To Europe's periphery: Pope to visit Baltic nations in late September

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis will travel to the
eastern periphery of Europe to honor a faith that withstood a Nazi invasion and
five decades of communist dictatorship and now is striving to help people live
in freedom as authentic disciples of Christ.

The pope’s visit Sept. 22-25 to Lithuania, Latvia and
Estonia comes in the year the three Baltic nations are celebrating the 100th
anniversary of their declarations of independence after World War I. While
declared Soviet republics in 1940, the countries were occupied by the Nazis
during World War II and then lived under Soviet rule from 1944 to 1990.

St. John Paul II visited the countries in 1993 as they were
at the beginning stages of solidifying democracy and living with full religious

Bishop Philippe Jourdan, the apostolic administrator of
Estonia’s tiny Catholic community, told Catholic News Service that the motto of
the pope’s visit to Estonia “is a well-known Estonian song, ‘Mu suda arka
ules,’ which means ‘Wake up my heart.’ It is more or less what we all —
Catholics, non-Catholics or nonreligious people — are waiting for: that the
pope helps us to find a new hope in our heart and in our society, as was the
case in the years immediately after the end of the Soviet time.”

“Materialism and secularization are now very strong in
Estonian society,” he said, “and we need a new start.”

On a special website for the visit, Bishop Jourdan wrote
that when St. John Paul visited 25 years ago, his message was, “‘Do not be
afraid!’ In those years, the Estonian state was like a sick person who had just
woken up from a coma, treading with insecure steps, but with great expectations
of peace, of unity with the rest of Europe, of great ideals, perhaps also of
material things but with great hope.”

A quarter-century later, the independent governments are
stable, and the three countries are full members of the European Union, he
said. But “while Estonian society has reached a good level of material
security, spiritual security is lacking today.”

Archbishop Gintaras Grusas of Vilnius, Lithuania, said the
100th anniversary of independence commemorations are “a time of reflection
on the gift of freedom, as well as the cost of freedom.”

“This gift requires us to work for the common good and
for peace,” he wrote in the September issue of Europeinfos, the newsletter
of the commission of bishops’ conferences in E.U. countries and the Jesuit
European office. “The 50 years of Soviet occupation require a reflection
on the cost of that freedom — the suffering, deportations, persecutions and
sacrificed lives that must never be forgotten.”

Pope Francis is expected to repeat advice he often gives:
Remember the past and honor it, but also face the present with courage and the
future with hope.

In each of the nations, the pope will pay homage to those
who died in the struggle for freedom and human dignity. And, in Vilnius Sept.
23, he will pause to pray at a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Nazis. The
pope’s visit will take place on the 75th anniversary of the Nazi’s liquidating
the ghetto where they had forced up to 40,000 Jews to live. Almost none of them

The pope is scheduled to place flowers at the foot of the
Freedom Monument in Riga, Latvia, Sept. 24. The monument honors those who fought
for Latvia’s independence from 1918 to 1920. Erected in 1935, Soviet authorities
repeatedly announced plans to take it down but relented in the face of public

The monument “is a symbol of Latvian independence,
which has been preserved through all the years of Soviet ideology. It reminds
us that true freedom can be preserved even amid external persecution and
oppression,” Archbishop Zbignevs Stankevics of Riga told CNS.

Relations with other Christians and with nonbelievers also
are expected to play a big role in the pope’s trip. He has an ecumenical prayer
service planned Sept. 24 in the Lutheran cathedral in Riga, Latvia, and an
ecumenical meeting with young people the next day at a Lutheran church in
Tallinn, Estonia.

Estonia is the Baltic nation with the smallest Catholic
population and with the largest percentage of people claiming no faith at all,
Bishop Jourdan said.

According to Vatican statistics, less than half of 1 percent
of Estonia’s population is Catholic. Almost 21 percent of Latvians are Catholic
and close to 80 percent of Lithuanians belong to the Catholic Church. In all
three nations, the Catholic Church’s closest ecumenical partners are Lutherans
and Orthodox.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the three nations also
have faced the challenge of emigration, especially in the years following the
global economic crisis that began in 2008.

Estonia’s population declined, Bishop Jourdan said,
“but far less than Latvia’s and Lithuania’s, and for the past three years
there has been a slight increase in the population, in part because of an
incipient immigration. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the economic
situation in Estonia is better than in Latvia or Lithuania.”

Archbishop Stankevics said Latvia has experienced “a
significant population drop in recent years, and the impact of emigration is
felt in our parishes.”

The only way to reverse the process is to create more jobs
in an ethical and sustainable way, the archbishop said. In addition, “we
need to develop work qualification courses to help people to be skilled in jobs
really needed in the local economy.”

Archbishop Grusas told CNS Sept. 13 that many Lithuanian
emigrants were “looking for change or trying to get away from past
hurts,” but there is some evidence that people are starting to come back
to the country.

Emigration is part of the “whole gamut of social
problems” Pope Francis is expected to address, but always in the context
of helping people find a hope-filled response, the archbishop said.

Lithuania’s Catholics were known for the heroic way they
preserved the faith under communism despite harsh repression. The challenges to
faith are different today, the archbishop said, not only because of the
influence of secularization and materialism, but also because the communists made
it so difficult to educate people in the faith.

“Independence changed that — there is a lot of
information available now,” the archbishop said, “but the challenge
is how to live in freedom and learning what true freedom is, not just doing
what we want, but knowing we have obligations and responsibilities, too.”

In Latvia, Archbishop Stankevics said, “since the
collapse of communism, faith has perhaps lost its traditional devotional forms
and has developed more into commitment of personal relationships with God and
service in the church.”

At the same time, he said, “threats to the faith arise
from the present social, economic and cultural challenges.”

In a July interview with Vatican News, Archbishop Grusas
said he saw “the finger of God” and Pope Francis’ own priorities
reflected in his choice to visit the Baltics, “the periphery of the European

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden

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