AGLONA, Latvia – Be they poor, elderly, young or deported, Christians are called to be near their brothers and sisters especially in suffering, Pope Francis told the faithful at the Marian sanctuary of Aglona, Latvia, on Monday.
“Mary ‘stands near the cross of Jesus,’ close to her Son. She stood there, at the foot of the cross, with unwavering conviction, fearless and immovable,” Francis said during his homily to the thousands of faithful gathered at the site.
“Mary also shows us how to ‘stand near’ these situations; it demands more than simply passing by or making a quick visit, engaging in a kind of ‘tourism of solidarity’,” he added. “Rather, it means that those in painful situations should feel us standing firmly at their side and on their side.”
The Aglona Basilica is the principal Catholic Shrine in Latvia, which attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over the world every year for the Feast of the Assumption on August 15.
Everything at the shrine is white, from its two 197-foot-tall twin towers to its Baroque style façade. White lilies circled the entire podium where the pope stood to say Mass, surrounded by clergy clad in white.
White is a powerful word in the Latvian language, combining the words “good” and “fair” with the term “clarity.” In Aglona, Francis delivered — once again and in no uncertain terms — the message he has been repeating during his pastoral visit to the Baltic States Sep. 22-25: The faithful must be brave and go out toward the other without fear.
“We too are called to ‘touch’ the sufferings of others. Let us go out to meet our people, to console them and accompany them,” Francis said. “Let us not be afraid to experience the power of tenderness, to get involved and let our lives become complicated for the sake of others.”
The Aglona shrine is also home to the 17th century icon “Our Miraculous Lady of Aglona,” representing the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus and dressed in silver and gold. The icon is believed to have miraculous powers and to have once saved and infant child from drowning in the nearby Lake Cirisu.
The site was believed to be sacred even before the spread of Christianity in Latvia and Baltic tribes venerated the spot where it is deemed as holy. The springs from the nearby Lake Egle is credited with having healing properties.
The Dominican Order erected its monastery and a first church here in the 17th century, and it was later reconstructed and improved, adding architectural characteristics from Baroque to Rococo.
Francis called faithful to “remain steadfast” like Mary and be close to those who through their suffering feel “crucified themselves.” But the pope warned that being near our neighbors in not enough if one is not willing to receive them in the same way the disciple John and Mary received each other underneath the Cross.
“For we can stand at the side of many people, even sharing the same home, neighborhood or workplace; we can share the faith, contemplate and experience the same mysteries, but without embracing or actually ‘receiving’ them with love,” the pope said.
This openness, he continued, may sometimes lead to people being “badly hurt,” just as past conflicts in the Baltic States under Nazi and Soviet occupation left enduring scars on their societal fabric.
“Mary shows herself to be a woman open to forgiveness, to setting aside resentment and suspicion. She does not dwell on ‘what might have been’, had her Son’s friends, or the priests of his people and their rulers, acted differently,” Francis said. “She does not give in to frustration or helplessness.”
Francis cited the example of Latvian Bishop Boleslavs Sloskans, who is buried in Aglona and was imprisoned and tortured by Soviet authorities between 1927 and 1933. The bishop, who was made venerable by St. Pope John Paul II, spread a message of forgiveness and meekness toward his oppressors.
“Sometimes we see a return to ways of thinking that would have us be suspicious of others, or would show us with statistics that we would be better off, more prosperous and more secure just by ourselves,” Francis warned. “At those times, Mary and the disciples of these lands invite us to ‘receive’ our brothers and sisters, to care for them, in a spirit of universal fraternity.”
The pope recognized that differences put a strain on the efforts to achieve harmony, something that the multifaith and multiethnic Latvian people know all top well. But he encouraged to “build unity in diversity” by looking at differences as a reason to take a closer look.
“Mary wants to give us her courage, so that we too can remain steadfast, and her humility, so that, like her, we can adapt to whatever life brings,” the pope said concluding his homily.
“In this, her Shrine, she begs that all of us may recommit ourselves to welcoming one another without discrimination. In this way, all in Latvia may know that we are willing to show preference to the poor, to raise up those who have fallen, and to receive others just as they come, just as they are.”