Archbishop of Riga: Latvia Is Trying to Recover Its Faith After Communism’s Fall
Latvian Archbishop Zbigņevs Stankevičs discusses the religious, cultural and political realities of his own country and the current issues that need to be addressed for the reevangelization of the West.
Unlike most of the countries that lived under the communist yoke in the 20th century, and which saw the religious feeling of their people heightened — as was the case for countries like Poland, Georgia and Hungary — Latvia, a predominantly Lutheran Baltic state, is more deeply affected by the secularization process affecting the West.
This state of affairs is explained by a more complex history, marked by a fragmentation of religious communities in the country, as Metropolitan Archbishop Zbigņevs Stankevičs of Riga highlighted in an interview with the Register, while nevertheless observing an encouraging growth dynamic within his Catholic community.
He spoke on the sidelines of the annual “Vanenburg Meeting,” hosted by the Center for European Renewal in Warsaw Dec. 16-19, addressing the theme “Where do we go from here?” Gathering prominent conservative personalities from across Europe and beyond to discuss the state of contemporary societies and the major challenges facing them, the annual meeting is named after the estate in the Netherlands where the first meeting was held in 2006. The 2021 event focused on the consequences of the great disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis in the West.
At the helm of the Archdiocese of Riga since 2010, Archbishop Zbigņevs Stankevičs is currently very involved in the discussions and consultations surrounding the Synod on Synodality, which he sees as a constructive alternative to the German “Synodal Path.” He also attended the Synod of Bishops on the Family, as the elected representative of the Episcopal Conference of Latvia, in 2015.
During the health crisis, Archbishop Stankevičs, together with Christian, Jewish and other leaders, made his voice heard about the need to keep churches open and, more recently, to ensure access to places of worship without a vaccine passport.
Could you provide a brief overview of the religious situation in your country?
The current situation in Latvia is the result of a complicated history. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Swedes conquered Riga and took control of a large part of Latvia. But a quarter of the territory remained integrated to Poland. Thus Catholicism was preserved in this part of the country. Then, during the two world wars, with the Soviet deportations, everything got mixed up. For example, my parents were born in the Catholic part, but in 1949, a Soviet officer who had sympathy for them warned them that they were on the list for deportations to Siberia, and they saved themselves in this way, by escaping to Lutheran Latvia.
This made things more complex in the country. Catholics, as of today, are about 20% [Lutherans make up just over a third, with Orthodox 17%], but in my diocese of Riga, Catholicism is reviving and growing. There are many small groups and communities.
However, although many politicians are baptized, very few of them are Christian and truly practicing. It is a secular state, as in France, although it is not directly hostile to religion. In Latvia we have a so-called Council of Spiritual Affairs at the prime minister’s office, and the members are representatives of the eight religious denominations, including the Jews [a small but active number of adherents in Latvia]. We meet when there is a need to discuss some issue, and then we make proposals to the prime minister. There is a dialogue with the state, even though on the one hand the state tends to fear that religion will become too influential in society.
How do you explain this cultural and identity difference from other countries such as Poland or Hungary, which experienced the same totalitarian terror in the last century but saw their faith and identity strengthened by this long collective ordeal?
Poland, as well as Hungary, is a country with a Catholic background. At that time, 90% of the people were Catholic, so they were much more united with a much stronger Church.
We, first of all, are divided into many denominations, and the pressure from the Soviet government was much stronger. We have a different reality. But that doesn’t stop the fact that when communism collapsed, the churches were full; there was a national awakening. People wanted freedom at any price — people came to church; many were baptized. So many identified freedom with faith.
Unfortunately, this dynamic lasted only a few years. When freedom came, this race to get to the level of average wealth in the West began. When the standard of living increased, interest in spiritual things declined. Unfortunately, that’s often the case: As wealth increases, spirituality decreases. It shouldn’t be that way, but I would say that there is some error in the settings of today’s society.
And how is the political situation in Latvia? In your opinion, have the stigmas of Soviet anticlericalism been erased over the subsequent years?
The Communist Party and its symbols are considered as belonging to a criminal organization. They no longer exist. Thirty years have passed since the fall of the regime, however, so many of the communist leaders have remained and have put on the togas of the left-wing democrats, entered the world of business, politics. Some are millionaires, and so on. But their ideological settings remained, to take the form of a progressive neo-Marxism, tending to be hostile to the Church.
In this context of material well-being that you’ve just mentioned, how is it possible to reevangelize the post-Christian West?
This is a real challenge. First of all, it is important to emphasize religious and spiritual formation. Before, the family cell was much stronger. The family transmitted the faith. But, today, it is very weakened by the new ideologies and mentalities that are averse to commitment. Then there is no more religious education in schools; the state has put it aside. So, if there is no solid foundation, Sunday Mass — for those who attend it — will not be enough to maintain Christian values in our societies. It takes a stronger formation, which can spread through the different movements of the Church.
It also takes sacramental formation for a greater awareness of what we have received with confirmation and baptism. But the form and language used should also be suitable for the masses. It requires a drop of kerygma, which must be placed at the center of life, illuminating the life of the audience, with the light of the Gospel. This is not easy, but it is possible.
In addition to the many obstacles for the transmission of the faith deriving from the socioeconomic context, do you think the Catholic Church itself does enough to reaffirm the immutable truths of mankind and to awaken dormant consciences?
Pope Francis tries to enter into dialogue with secular society: He tries to find a hook through issues such as ecology; he tries to enter into these real problems in today’s society and introduce these Christian values.
But the Church should be more prophetic and not run away from difficult issues to address and not keep silent on topics like the so-called same-sex marriage, abortion and so on. It must be said clearly that we must respect the dignity of every human being and do not discriminate against anyone. However, we must reaffirm that the Church can help these people — and not condemn them — to get back on their feet with the power of the Holy Spirit.
But sexual morality is not the only important part of the Decalogue. Other things, such as corruption in the business world and in politics, must also be mentioned. This prophetic dimension of the Church must give us clear principles of life. The social doctrine of the Church is a very important tool for evangelizing today’s society.
Many Catholic faithful have regretted the fact that, during the health crisis, in various parts of the world, some clergymen have somehow abandoned their flocks. Wasn’t an opportunity for evangelization missed here?
Yes, I would say that I was a bit amazed by the ease with which, in so many countries, these health restrictions and church closures were imposed — and for a long period of time. We in Latvia have managed not to allow this to happen, because among Christians we have remained united, we have spoken out decisively, we have protested against the closures out loud, stating that spiritual needs are as necessary as bread. Jews and neo-pagans have also joined us.
Shortly before Christmas, our government wanted to make attendance at Mass conditional on the presentation of a vaccination passport, but our bishops’ conference sent a letter to the prime minister, asking the government to reconsider its position in the name of religious freedom and human rights. And after receiving this letter, the council of ministers decided to remove this restriction.
But ecumenical collaboration has also helped us so much to make our dialogue with the state fruitful. If the churches always remained open during the COVID epidemic, it is precisely because we were all united and the state authorities respected our position.
However, we must also point out that, in the West, it is difficult to go against the current because there is so much ideological pressure. To give a significant example of the current atmosphere, when I receive Christmas greetings from the embassies of the so-called post-Christian countries, most of the time they send me “Season’s Greetings.” In contrast, the Turkish and Emirati embassies always send me Christmas greetings. No wonder politicians impose these anti-Christian laws. And the quieter you are, the harder it becomes to raise your voice afterwards.
In an interview with Vatican News on the occasion of the meeting between the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops and the bishops of all continents in June, you highlighted the prophetic dimension of the Synod on Synodality, particularly to enable the Church to reach out to all people far from the faith. However, some faithful and members of the clergy have expressed concerns about this, with the idea that the Church leaders might be tempted to be drawn into something similar to the “Synodal Path” of the German Church, which has distanced itself from the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church. What are your thoughts on this?
This Synod on Synodality personally does not worry me. I see it as a great opportunity. In my opinion, this is a breath of the Holy Spirit. In fact, there was an initiative of this kind in Germany, but it went in another direction. ... The Pope asked us to slow down a bit, and I would say that this synod offers an alternative. We are already doing this path at our parishes in Latvia; we had a meeting with the various priests. It is a way to wake up a sleeping giant; that is, to wake up the Church and the sense of co-responsibility in the Church, but not only. It is very interesting that we also create a dialogue, a listening to people who are marginalized in the Church and also those who are totally outside the Church. It is also about asking nonbelievers how they perceive, what they expect from the Church, even our brothers and sisters of other confessions. The program is very broad.
In Latvia, there is no controversy about it because there are concrete questions, and the synod is not the place to solve problems, but we ask concrete questions about people’s personal experiences. A summary of the answers will be made to give an idea of the current situation. The synod will find solutions on that basis. The current process is not the place to give ready-made answers and solutions.
- solene tadie
- new evangelization
- synod on synodality
- church in latvia
- covid-19 pandemic