The three small, hearty nations by the Baltic Sea — Estonia, Latvia and, especially, Catholic-soaked Lithuania — will receive the Holy Father with open arms when he visits Sept. 22-25 for the centennial anniversary of independence in each nation.
Although typically lumped together as the Baltic states, the three are really quite different. In fact, they can hardly understand each other’s language. What they share is great appreciation for those who have supported their independence from the get-go, as the Holy See has.
Lithuania is undoubtedly the beating heart of this trip, as it was 25 years ago, when Pope St. John Paul II became the first pope to touch down in the nation.
In 1993, the saint spent seven days visiting the Baltic states, immediately after Soviet troops withdrew. Then, the absolute miracle of freedom reclaimed was still so tangible, the entire pilgrimage shimmered with God’s glory.
“Imagine hearing someone from Mars will visit next week,” Vilnius-based Catholic entrepreneur and artist Saulius Valius told the Register. “That’s how shocked we were to have Pope John Paul II among us after the crushing years.”
Now, following the saint’s footsteps for much of his itinerary, Pope Francis will encounter societies still taking stock of the past, eager to protect independence against its eastern neighbor, and suffering some of the ennui that Western materialism invariably brings.
Highlights of the Holy Father’s program show how he builds on pastoral themes initiated by his two predecessors while practicing his own skills in diplomacy.
Pope Francis will spend his first two days in Lithuania, the only majority-Catholic republic of the former Soviet Union. In the country’s last census, 77% of the 2.8 million residents described themselves as Catholic.
Four papal themes in particular echo the interests of the saint who preceded Francis in these byways 25 years ago: prayer to the Blessed Mother, prayer for the victims of persecution, ecumenism, and discussions with youth. The Pope will say Mass in each country.
Walking in Saintly Footsteps
On his first day, as John Paul II did, the Holy Father will pray before Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, canonically crowned Mother of Mercy in 1927. (The second Marian shrine Francis will visit is in Latvia, the 18th-century Aglona Basilica of the Assumption, as the saint did, too.)
The miraculous painting of the Blessed Mother, depicted without Jesus, is venerated throughout the region. It was originally commissioned in the 17th century by Vilnius city officials and mounted above the city gate for protection and blessing.
Among the Mother of Mercy’s interventions, she is credited with helping defeat Swedish invaders who yielded to a Polish-Lithuanian counterattack in 1701. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth functioned from about 1569 to 1795.
John Paul II is famously Polish, yet he had a special, deeply personal, connection to the Baltic nation.
Soon after his election he said, “Half of my heart is in Lithuania.”
Dr. Linas Sidrys, an Illinois-based ophthalmologist whose family has long been active in the Lithuanian diaspora, spoke to the Register by telephone.
Sidrys helped organize a celebration at the Vatican in 1987 to mark the 600th anniversary of Lithuania’s Christianization. He says the saint never missed an opportunity to call attention to the country or its suffering.
While in medical school at the University of Chicago in 1977, Sidrys got permission to spend four months studying with colleagues in Lithuania. He said he was the first U.S. medical student allowed to study in the Soviet Union. As a devout Catholic, he was eager to learn the status of the Church, since faith was harshly suppressed.
“People were very scared to talk,” the doctor remembered. “Only seven churches were open, in Vilnius. A Catholic underground arose because the faithful realized the Soviets were strangling the Church. Communists were infiltrating their own people into limited places in seminary, for example. It was quite grim.”
Representatives of the underground Church “documented all the abuses, with names and dates, recording who the Communist personnel were. They were thinking about giving me the microfilm [with documentation] to smuggle out, but decided it was too risky,” said Sidrys, adding, “It was smuggled out in a toothpaste tube at one point.”
Franciscan Father John Bacevicius confirms the Chronicles of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, a samizdat periodical, was regularly produced by the underground Catholic community and smuggled to the West, 81 issues in all, between 1972 and 1989.
Father Bacevicius’ community — part of the only trans-Atlantic province, the Province of St. Casimir, covering Lithuania, Canada and the United States — was involved in receiving editions of the chronicles and circulating the information.
The Franciscan friar was born in Lithuania in 1934. His family escaped 10 years later to avoid Soviet persecution and spent several years in European refugee camps before making it to the U.S., where he heard a call to the priesthood at age 17. Today, he helps run St. Anthony’s Friary, a Franciscan monastery and guesthouse in Kennebunk, Maine, established in 1947 for displaced Lithuanian members of the order. Most of the priests who come now are visiting from the homeland to practice English, participate in conferences or rest.
One of his happiest experiences was returning to Lithuania in 1992 to teach.
“I was exuberant because I saw such a thirst for religion, for the word of God. They had been closed in and shackled. I was giving college-age catechism classes, and people came in large numbers. What touched me greatly was when I would finish a topic and students would say, ‘More!’ This was paradise for every teacher,” recounted Father Bacevicius.
How will the Lithuanian people receive Pope Francis? “They will welcome Francis with open arms. In the Lithuanian blood, there is still that traditional attitude of great respect for the hierarchy and the Pope especially — not just curiosity, but respect, awe and great appreciation that he is visiting.”
The Holy Father often speaks of Church martyrs as Christlike examples, who, through their suffering, “give testimony to him.”
In Vilnius, he will pray at the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, known as the KGB Museum, a former courthouse that was the Gestapo’s headquarters during the Nazi occupation (1941-1944), then served as headquarters for the Soviet secret police. Interrogation rooms and torture cells are displayed intact, exactly as they were.
More than 1,000 prisoners were executed in the museum’s basement after 1944. Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis was imprisoned there and murdered via injection with poison in 1962. He was declared a martyr by Pope Francis in late 2016 and beatified last year.
Catechism and Education
When Dr. Sidrys, now a father of eight and grandfather of 15, first visited post-Communist Lithuania, he identified an essential need to catechize young people. He and his wife, Rima, established Catholic summer camps — the first ones on post-Soviet territory — which continue today.
“Since the youth were not allowed any contact with priests under communism, you could ask children, ‘Are you Catholic?’ and they would respond, ‘I was baptized,’ but they knew little more about the Church,” explained Sidrys.
“Now, the kids know the faith and go to church.”
A fascinating reversal can be seen in the relationship between the Lithuanian diaspora and the homeland in the area of education.
For decades, thousands of Lithuanian-American children have attended “Saturday School,” where they learn Lithuanian language, culture, history, and religious education. Some 750,000 people are members of the diaspora in the U.S., the largest community outside of the Baltic nation.
Today there are 44 Lithuanian schools across the U.S. Graduates receive a certificate and, often, can get foreign-language credit from school.
Since 1987, Marija Newsom has served as director of the St. Casimir Lithuanian School in Los Angeles, which has 160 students ranging in age from 3 to 18 years old. She also represents the Lithuanian community as a member of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Ethnic Ministry.
“In Los Angeles, St. Casimir is still the center of religious and cultural life for Lithuanian Americans,” Newsom, who left Lithuania as an infant, told the Register. What has changed over the last 25 years is that, instead of the community always finding ways to reach back and help poor relatives in Lithuania, the nation provides support to them now.
“The Lithuanian Ministry of Education sends materials if we request them. So does the conference of Catholic bishops,” she said. Cultural figures, athletes and Lithuanian VIPs comprise a steady stream of visitors.
In fact, Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius is a Lithuanian American who was close to the St. Casimir community. He will turn 57 while the Pope is visiting.
Archbishop Grušas attended the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, which has a program designed for late vocations.
“He was one year behind me,” Father Vytautas Volertas, the only Lithuanian-speaking priest serving in New York full time, told the Register. He is based at Brooklyn’s Church of the Transfiguration.
Father Volertas said the American diaspora is proud of Archbishop Grušas for being intelligent and highly organized. “He was at IBM before joining the priesthood. I was an accountant.”
The priest prays that Pope Francis inspires renewed hope and new vocations, “giving people the hope they need in their lives because Our Lord is Savior, and he is there for everyone. Everyone is invited to the Eucharistic feast. The other thing is a shortage of priests: That’s our big problem.”
St. Casimir’s pastor and a delegation of parishioners will fly to Lithuania to see Pope Francis.
“The Holy Father is affirming that even small countries are important,” observed Newsom, who has witnessed a “resurgence of Catholicism, with very active youth groups, convents reopened and social outreach to the needy.”
Pope Francis will meet with youth on his first day in Vilnius, at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus, and on his last day, in Tallinn, Estonia, at Charles Church, a grand Lutheran structure.
Besides the Charles Church encounter, Pope Francis will convene an ecumenical meeting at the Lutheran cathedral in Riga, Latvia.
Ecumenism was a priority for both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
It was a theological breakthrough when, in 1999, to little public fanfare, the Lutheran World Federation, representing 70.5 million people in 79 countries, and the Catholic Church signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which says the churches now share “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” It also nullifies mutual condemnations from the past.
It took some 50 years to negotiate the document, according to the Lutheran side — and some Lutheran groups reject it.
On the Catholic side, it was negotiated by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, so it has the Pope’s blessing, but since it is not a “magisterial” document, it is not a formal theological requirement for all Catholics to accept.
The Holy Father will encounter an interesting range of leaders: Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, known as the “Iron Lady,” was baptized Catholic, grew up to be a lower-level Communist Party official and then morphed into a dedicated European Union (EU) finance authority. She never married.
Nearing the end of her second term, President Grybauskaite has run a tight fiscal ship. She is especially leery of Russian irredentism and praised President Donald Trump’s leadership when she and the other two Baltic presidents met the U.S. president in April.
Estonia, too, has its first woman president. Kersti Kaljulaid, 47, a former EU auditor, won unanimous election by the country’s Parliament in October 2016.
The president calls herself a “liberal conservative,” liberal on social issues and fiscally conservative. She has four children and is already a grandmother. When the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church wanted to organize a service for her, she declined, explaining she rarely goes to church.
Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis, 52, is Europe’s first Green Party president. He lists his religion as pagan.
Since diplomacy is a particular passion for Pope Francis, it is not surprising to see his country visits kick off with a presidential meet-and-greet as well as a speech to “government authorities, local leaders and representatives of the diplomatic corps” in each place.
He will probably recommend peace-building measures with Russia and greater collaboration along the Baltic Sea.
Francis is especially keen on reminding world leaders of the tragic outcome of the 1945 Yalta Conference, when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reorganized postwar Europe into two systems, communist and capitalist, which ended up imprisoning hundreds of millions of people in tyranny until 1991.
As Francis said in 2016, “Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise, half the cake for you and the other half for me. This is what happened in Yalta, and we saw the results.”
Register senior correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning international