ROME – Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to the Baltics in late September will focus on youth and encouraging the local Church rather than relations with Russia and the sex abuse scandals that have been circling the Vatican this summer, according to a Lithuanian cleric.
“The government asked that the pope come give a word of encouragement especially for young people but also for the Church so that it might give its contribution,” said Monsignor Visvaldas Kulbokas, counselor at the Vatican embassy to Russia during a press briefing in Rome Sep. 5.
After Francis’s August trip to Ireland, marred by scandals regarding the clerical sex abuse crisis involving high ranking Church members, including the pope himself, the upcoming Sep. 22-26 papal visit to Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia is geared to be an opportunity to bring the pope’s message home to the European peripheries.
The formerly Soviet countries, now part of the European Union, struggle with political imbalance, financial issues and slowing birthrates. Lithuania, the priest said, ranks high for suicide rates, alcoholism and depression with many emigrating to find better opportunities elsewhere.
Lithuania is also the only Catholic majority country of the three, with Estonia and Latvia being mostly Protestant Lutherans or Christian Orthodox. Yet skepticism toward the institutional Catholic Church is still very present, Kulbokas added, and the pope’s vision echoes with uncertainty in these Northern European outposts.
Francis’s visit, he said, hopes to breach that distance by bringing home the message of a Church that goes outside itself, toward youth, the disenfranchised and the local clergy.
Youth Ministry: Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks
For years under the Soviet power, the Church in the Baltic states was muzzled from having any influence on young people, building a generation of priests that were unable to create the framework for youth involvement.
“In all of the Soviet Union and probably in some socialist or communist countries there was an explicit prohibition to priests to do anything with young people,” Kulbokas explained.
The result, he added, was that most priests lack the connection with youth in the country. Considering that the Vatican will host in October a Synod on young people and vocations, the trip to the Baltics presents a key opportunity for the pope to convey a spirit of hope and zeal for the Catholic faith in the country.
But much of the work, Kulbokas said, will have to do with speaking to the local clergy – which in his opinion has retreated within itself – and encourage it to reach out to society, including non-Catholics and the mass media.
“There is a lack of courage and entrepreneurship and creativity,” he told reporters based on his personal experience growing up in Lithuania, adding that years of Soviet influence created a climate of jadedness and disenfranchisement not only within society but in the Church itself.
“In the Church, one of the consequences is also that priests, my colleagues, are not used to working with youth because it used to be prohibited,” he said. “The know-how was lost, and the experience of youth work was lost.”
According to Kulbokas, the general impression of the Church, in Latvia and Lithuania especially, is that the Church is a conservative institution. “But,” he said, “my impression reading the Gospel, I think, is completely opposite.”
“I hope that the pope will ask the priests to renew themselves constantly with joy,” he continues, and present a “view of the Church that is not closed, but more modern than the society there.”
Speaking of Lithuania, Kulbokas explained that journalistic freedom remains limited in the country and that democracy is still a slow process. “In my opinion, democracy has not grown yet and there needs to be an effort to democratize concretely,” he said.
For this reason Francis’s visit is met with enthusiasm, he continued, especially by local authorities who hope that a papal visit will galvanize public opinion and bring optimism to these states that have seen many of its youth leave for other European countries.
While the Vatican hopes to minimize the political aspect of the papal visit to the Baltics, no doubt the Kremlin will keep a fixed eye on Francis’s four-day promenade to the neighboring states. After all, the trip takes place on the centenary of the restoration of their independence, though Kulbokas said that it’s just a coincidence.
“I think in Russia they will ask themselves whether there is a message or not,” the priest said. “But I would exclude it,” he added, explaining that Francis wishes to avoid political statements and has stressed that the visit is simply pastoral in nature.
Kulbokas expects that the four Russian bishops will visit one of the Baltic capitals graced by the papal visit followed by parish groups, rather than wait for a hypothetical visit to the Motherland by Francis.
On that front, the priest explained that less is more to promote a papal visit to Russia and that excessive media attention would only make the trip less likely.
“Young priests in the Orthodox Russian church want much more contact with the Catholics but realize that a part of their faithful and colleagues are not ready,” he said, adding that “the pope tries to avoid initiatives that have a high political charge.”
Changed Countries meet a Changed Church
The last time the Baltics welcomed a pope was when St. John Paul II visited the countries in 1993, packing fields and streets with faithful and curious onlookers. Francis’s visit will come at a time when Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia have witnessed profound changes as the Church faces challenges within itself.
This time around, Kulbokas said, the pope will be met with “less enthusiasm” and smaller crowds, since Mass participation has dropped in the three countries. Money will be a question, as was made clear in an early August statement by Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis specifying that all expenses for the papal visit will be accounted to the public.
“I think this trip risks having less of an impact, but I consider it to be very important to give a new energy, especially to the Church,” Kulbokas said.
Yet another shadow looms over the visit, as Francis and many high-ranking clerics especially in the United States face blowback from allegations by former papal envoy, Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, that they were involved in sexual abuse cover-up.
According to Kulbokas, Lithuanian media “is pretty critical” of the Vatican and its management of such issues and will put their efforts into “putting the Church in a negative light.”
Unlike Ireland, Baltic states have not witnessed large scale clerical sexual abuse scandals and, the priest said, a lot has been done to bring forward the pope’s zero tolerance policy on abuse in the countries.
Kulbokas said that clerical sex abuse will most likely not be a “main concern” and that the Viganò allegations that have been enveloping the Vatican and the Western press have not created a heated debate in the Baltics.
In many ways the Baltics incorporate Francis’s peripheries philosophy, nestled in the outskirts of the European Union and the outskirts of Russia. It also contains a large number of the pope’s most avid followers, mainly young people, the unemployed and marginalized providing Francis a prime opportunity to shake off the scandals and get back to basics.
“In Rome it’s easier to understand the sense of what the pope says and means, but at 2000 km it’s harder to understand what is going on in the Church,” Kulbokas said. “They wish to understand the pope’s thinking and what he wants to encourage in the Church.”