ROME – After shedding tears crossing the border back into Belarus Christmas Eve following a four-month exile, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk used the holiday liturgies to plead for unity, reconciliation, and forgiveness amid his country’s ongoing political upheaval.

On Dec. 24, Kondrusiewicz, 74, set foot in Belarus for the first time since August, when he was barred from reentering the country following a brief trip to Poland over his criticisms of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his handling of pro-democracy protests in a disputed election earlier that month.

Over the past four months, Kondrusiewicz has continued to reside in Poland, where he had gone to celebrate the First Communion of a relative’s child and consult with doctors following a surgery that took place last year.

During his time in Poland, he spent his time largely in the Diocese of Bialystok conducting various pastoral activities as numerous attempts were made to negotiate his return, including from the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher.

Kondrusiewicz’s return for Christmas was finally green-lighted after Pope Francis personally interceded in a letter that was given to Lukashenko by the Vatican’s envoy to Great Britain, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti.

News that Kondrusiewicz would be allowed to return was announced Dec. 22, and two days later, on Christmas Eve, the archbishop was back in his country and preparing to celebrate Mass in the cathedral of Minsk.

In a Dec. 24 press conference with journalists prior to Mass, Kondrusiewicz said he was driven to the Poland-Belarus border by a priest, and was met there by Iosif Staneuski, auxiliary bishop of the Belarusian Diocese of Grodno.

Visibly moved, Kondrusiewicz said that when he crossed the border, “I asked the driver to stop, knelt down, thanked God for returning, and kissed the ground.”

“This is my land! I grew up here! And I have never opposed Belarus, I have always protected its interests and I will continue to do so,” he said.

Recalling his Belarusian roots, Kondrusiewicz noted that while he has spent the bulk of his time as an archbishop abroad, he always held Belarus close to heart, “because this is my Motherland.”

“Probably, this is my cross,” he said, referring to his exile, during which he said he followed political developments in Belarus closely.

Belarus has been gripped by tense and at times violent protests since Lukashenko’s disputed reelection for a sixth term Aug. 9. Since then, the country’s opposition leaders have been forced into exile and thousands have taken to the streets in ongoing demonstrations in which protestors, including Catholic clergy and laypeople, have been beaten and jailed.

At one point, police barricaded the doors of the church of Saints Simon and Helena in Minsk and, hours later, arrested demonstrators who took refuge inside as they left the structure.

Kondrusiewicz in his comments to the press thanked Pope Francis for intervening on his behalf and told Catholics in Belarus that at Christmas, the social and political upheaval of the past few months “should not diminish the significance of this holiday, because it is a celebration of a significant event that changed the history of the world. Jesus Christ came into the light.”

Almost immediately after his brief press conference, Kondrusiewicz celebrated Christmas Eve Mass twice at the Arch-cathedral of the Most Holy Name of Mary in Freedom Square, with the first service held in Polish, and the second in Belarusian.

He also celebrated two Masses Christmas day at the church of Saints Simeon and Helena, one in Belarusian and a second in Polish.

In his homily on Christmas Eve, Kondrusiewicz focused on the need for Christ and his message of peace and reconciliation amid current global and national crises.

The challenges that the world faces due to the coronavirus pandemic, and those specific to Belarus, he said, “have both shown the fragility of the modern world order and its vulnerability and exposed the spiritual problems of modern man.”

“The coronavirus has changed the usual way of life of the modern world and made us think about the place of God and man in our lives and human history,” he said noting that Belarus’s political woes have “become a new challenge” which ought to inspire Christians to “to pay more attention to God and the observance of God’s law.”

“How different would be our Fatherland and our lives if we lived according to the law of love for God and neighbor!” he said. “If only they could forgive each other! If, being different, were united by a concern for the common good!”

Difficulties related to the coronavirus and the country’s turmoil should also be a call to return to a sense of true religiosity,” meaning a recognition that humanity is made for more than just terrestrial satisfactions.

“Today we must ask ourselves: is there a place for Jesus in our hearts?” Kondrusiewicz said, adding, “It makes no sense to be sentimental about the fact that under normal epidemiological circumstances, the doors of the Nativity Basilica in Bethlehem and our churches are broken by a large influx of people when there is no place in our hearts for the same Jesus.”

Christmas is a special holiday, he said, noting that the doors of the militant atheism adopted embraced under the rule of the Soviet Union eventually “opened to Christ.”

“We got freedom, including religion,” Kondrusiewicz said, but lamented that “we soon forgot that freedom is not only a gift but also a responsibility. As a result, they were enchanted by the golden calf of material prosperity, pleasures, and unlimited freedom without moral responsibility, and began to worship him.”

Recognition that Christ is necessary in order for one’s problems to be solved is both important and relevant for modern Belarus, he said, referring to the months of socio-political crisis the country has endured.

“Our peace-loving and tolerant Fatherland has divided and turned into a springboard for confrontation, which is very dangerous,” he said, adding, “No wonder Christ says that a divided kingdom has no future.”

To have a happy future requires a swift return to the Gospel principles of forgiveness, reconciliation, and love of God and neighbor, he said, adding, this is possible “only if we allow Jesus to be born in our hearts by his grace.”

For the sake of the common good, “we cannot afford to be enemies,” he said. Rather, “It is necessary to be united in dialogue. No wonder the Holy Father Francis in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti says that a constructive dialogue is always possible between dissidents, thanks to which the country prospers.”

Kondrusiewicz then urged Catholics to heed the call of St. John Paul II to open the doors of their hearts to Christ, “and to learn from him love and forgiveness remain relevant today.”

“Let us, therefore, dear brothers and sisters, open the door of Jesus, who is born through the ministry of the Church, and let him visit us,” he said. “Do not be afraid to open the door of your hearts to Christ! Give Him a place in them! He does not take anything, only bestows his saving grace and hope!”

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