True Lithuania

Pope Francis completes his visit to Lithuania

2018 09 23. Pope Francis has completed his visit to Lithuania today.

The visit to Vilnius and Kaunas took three days and was the first papal visit in Lithuania since 1993 when John Paul II visited the then-newly-independent country.

Back then, the papal visit had dual meaning to Lithuanians: in addition to the typical religious one, it was also part of the global recognition to Lithuania, with Pope being the first so important person to visit Lithuania after independence.

Today, Lithuania is already mature but people still greeted Pope enthusiastically, with some 100 000 people visiting the mass at Kaunas and the streets where pope passed by enclosed by groups of people.

Lithuanians line up to greet pope along the famous St. Ann church in Vilnius

Lithuanians line up to greet pope along the famous St. Ann church in Vilnius

Such reverence during the major event of Pope visit is signifying the Lithuanian-style religiosity. After decades of Soviet occupation, most Lithuanians are effectively "semi-practicing Catholics": they declare themselves to be Catholic and they complete the major Catholic rites (Catholic wedding, baptizing children, burials, celebrating Christmas the religious way) but they do not turn up at churches on "regular" Sundays. During the Soviet occupation, such lifestyle was a necessity as, on the one hand, each church visit was risky for career prospects in the entirely-Soviet-atheist-controlled economy, yet, on the other hand, distancing oneself from religion felt equal to betraying Lithuania in a time of peril, as Catholic traditions were always important to the Lithuanians and were persecuted by the Soviets, while the Roman Catholic Church stood at the frontlines of anti-Soviet activities.

Even though the Soviet occupation has ended, the Lithuanian relation to religion established back then has arguably continued. Among the European nations, Lithuania has very few people who say to "never visit a church", yet even fewer people do "visit the church at least once a week". During the last census (2011), almost 86% of Lithuania's population declared themselves to be Roman Catholic and just 6,8% of the population declared themselves irreligious. This makes Lithuania the second most-Catholic country in Europe (after Poland), if excluding the European microstates.

Lithuanians squeeze to go nearer the Cathedral square where the Pope said a speech

Lithuanians squeeze to go nearer the Cathedral square where the Pope said a speech

Such numbers may seem strange to an outsider when one sees the rather empty city churches on Sundays but few would doubt them during the major Catholic events, among which the Papal visit is likely the most important in years. It is probable that more people have participated in the Papal mass alone than in all the Lithuanian churches combined on any given non-Christmas and non-Easter Sunday.

Unlike in some Western countries, the Roman Catholic church has few image problems in Lithuania and those that exist were generally imported from the West through media. Unlike in some Western countries, the church in Lithuania spent most of the 20th century being persecuted and using its machine to help Lithuanians fight for their human rights. There was no priest misbehavior scandal in Lithuania that could be comparable to those in some Western countries, making the Papal visit there much easier.

The one-second glimpse of the pope many Lithuanians spent an hour or so to see

The one-second glimpse of the pope many Lithuanians spent an hour or so to see

In a sense, Pope Francis did in Lithuania the same things as most Catholic priests have done before: condemning the Soviet and Nazi German occupational regimes that murdered hundreds of thousands of Lithuania's people. The same regimes Roman Catholic clergy of Lithuania was instrumental in opposing through hiding the potential victims, helping them to speak out, and helping to import the real news from elsewhere in the world. Back during the occupations (1940-1990), however, many Lithuanian priests were murdered for just these actions; today, such messages could be said openly and receive nothing less than applause.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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