Pope Francis in the Baltic states, between remembrance and hope
by Stefano Caprio

Starting tomorrow until 25 September, the pontiff will visit Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Pope John Paul II visited the three Baltic states in 1993. In Vilnius, Francis will visit the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights and remember the martyrs at the Hill of Crosses. Local Churches are strongly committed to ecumenism. Mercy is the main theme.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis will undertake his 30th apostolic journey outside Italy tomorrow until September 25. The Holy Father will travel to the three former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, on the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland. For the pontiff, this is a return to Eastern Europe two years after he visited other former Soviet republics in 2016, namely Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as Poland, a country that borders the Baltic states, inextricably linked to them by history, recent and past.

The trip coincides with two major anniversaries: the centennial of the independence of the three countries, which broke away from the Russian Empire in 1918 after the Bolshevik revolution, and a quarter century since Pope John Paul II's historic visit in 1993. This last jubilee will be a point of comparison for this apostolic visit since it was the only visit by a Roman pontiff to those countries.

In Lithuania the Polish pope celebrated the great victory over atheistic communism, an event with an even greater symbolic and emotional charge than his visits to his native land. In fact, Lithuania was the first to break the Soviet yoke in 1990, standing up to Gorbachev, the father of perestroika, in his one and only attempt to use force to stop the dissolution of the empire. Instead, the deployment of Soviet tanks was the beginning of end, which took place the following year with the failed KGB coup and the transfer of power to Yeltsin in Russia, and the final deliverance of all the other republics from the now defunct Soviet Union.

Pope John Paul II, however, did not want to out on triumphant airs in the moving meetings he held with the faithful, Catholics and others, who had been persecuted for so long. His speeches at the time called for shared penance and mutual forgiveness, looking more to the future than to the past. Pope Francis is thus reaping the fruits of that solemn appeal.

This visit will also be an opportunity to commemorate again the martyrs of atheistic oppression, especially during the visit to the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights in Vilnius on Sunday. The pope’s schedule also includes a visit to the cell where Father Sigitas Tamkevičius was held for ten years.

Now 80 years old, the archbishop emeritus of Kaunas remains a legendary figure of the Catholic resistance in the 1970s and 1980s.  Arrested in 1983 for publishing Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, an underground paper that gave a voice to the regime’s religious dissidents, Tamkevičius was interrogated 70 times in a KGB prison, without ever breaking. Interviewed a few days ago by Agence France Presse, the prelate said that "When I was sitting in that cell deep underground, if someone had told me the pope would come here... that would have been incredible!”

The archbishop will not be alone in meeting the pope. Nijolė Sadūnaitė will be with him. She too was arrested for her work defending human rights. Back in January, she received Lithuania’s Freedom Prize, the first woman to be so recognised.

The martyrs will be remembered Sunday morning at the Hill of Crosses, the place where Pope Wojtyla mentioned his mystical union with the Lithuanian people in the name of participation in Christ’s sufferings. Here Pope Francis will also highlight the special ecumenical harmony among Christians in the Baltic lands, where predominantly Catholic Lithuanians and predominantly Lutheran Latvians and Estonians live side by side with Russian Orthodox minorities.

In his message of good wishes before the trip, the pope said, “Though I come as Pastor of the Catholic Church, I would like to embrace everyone and offer a message of peace, good will, and hope for the future."

Zbigņevs Stankevičs, the Catholic archbishop of Riga, told Dutch weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad that in these lands "we live in peace and defend the same values ​​... We are not in the majority and we must work with other Christians. We join forces. We are different, but despite the differences, we are one."

For his part, the secretary of the Orthodox Metropolitan of Vilnius, Father Vladimir Selyavko, told Radio Svoboda that "local Orthodox are very happy with this visit. We acknowledge in Pope Francis one of the most important leaders of the Christian world. There will be a meeting with him as well as a joint declaration in defence of Christian and human values ​​for today’s society."

The heart of the papal visit, however, will be the meetings with young people, all three days, starting tomorrow’s gathering at the Mater Misericordiae shrine in the chapel of the Gate of Dawn (Lithuanian: Aušros vartai), also known as Sharp Gate (Polish: Ostra Brama).

The message of mercy is another link to the visit of John Paul II who mentioned beloved Saint Faustina Kowalska, who spent time in Vilnius. Baltic societies need a great infusion of hope, given the recent crisis caused by the emigration of a third of their population, a low birth rate, and growing secularisation.

All this is happening whilst, in the background, tensions within Orthodox Christianity continue over the possible autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The three Baltic states are part of the historic canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate. In both Latvia and Estonia, Moscow and Constantinople have clashed over jurisdictional issues.

When he arrives, Pope Francis will be accompanied by Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Mgr Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, Archbishop of Minsk (Belarus) and former archbishop of Moscow and the first Catholic bishop nominated after the end of the Soviet Union.