Vilnius, Lithuania: During his first speech in the Baltics Saturday, Pope Francis told Lithuanian authorities to take pride in their country’s history of welcoming people of different faiths and ethnicities.
“All found a place to live in this land,” the pope said Sept. 22. “Lithuanians, Tartars, Poles, Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Germans … Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Old Catholics, Muslims, Jews – lived together in peace until the arrival of totalitarian ideologies that, by sowing violence and lack of trust, undermined its ability to accept and harmonize differences.”
He encouraged Lithuanians to draw strength from their past by recovering their roots of welcoming and keeping alive “all that continues to be most authentic and distinctive about you, everything that enabled you to grow and not succumb as a nation: tolerance, hospitality, respect and solidarity.”
Pope Francis was in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, for the start of his four-day trip to the Baltic States. His visit falls during the 100th anniversary of the states’ declaration of independence. They had been previously part of the Russian Empire.
They became part of Soviet Union in 1940-1941, endured Nazi domination in 1940-1944, and were returned to the Soviet Union in 1945. In 1991, they regained democratic independence.
The centenary, the pope said, is a “particularly important moment in your life as a nation.”
“It has been a century marked by your bearing numerous trials and sufferings: detentions,
deportations, even martyrdom,” he said. “Celebrating the hundredth anniversary of independence means taking time to stop and revive the memory of all those experiences.”
“In this way, you will be in touch with everything that forged you as a nation, and thus find the key to assessing present challenges and looking to the future in a spirit of dialogue and unity with all those who dwell here, careful to ensure that no one remains excluded.”
After his meeting with the Lithuanian president, authorities, civil society, and diplomatic corps, the pope walked through the streets of the Old City to the Gate of Dawn, one of the ancient points of access to Vilnius.
There, he prayed a decade of the rosary led by Lithuanian children and gave a speech before the revered icon of Mary, Mother of Mercy.
Referring to the image, he said, “this Mother without Child, radiant with gold, is the Mother of everyone. She sees in every person who comes here what we ourselves fail so often to see: the face of her Son Jesus impressed on our heart.”
He said that because Jesus is impressed on the heart of every man and woman, in every person one encounters it is possible to encounter God, “when we close our hearts for fear of others, when we build walls and barricades, we end up depriving ourselves of the Good News of Jesus, who shares in the history and the lives of others.”
Today is felt the need to look at one another as brothers and sisters, “to discover and experience with joy and peace the value of fraternity,” he continued.
“The Mother of Mercy, like every good mother, tries to bring her family together. She whispers in our ear: ‘Look for your brother, look for your sister.’ In this way, she opens to us the door to a new dawn, a new day.”
The pope concluded his first day in the Baltics with an encounter with youth outside the Vilnius cathedral. There he also venerated the original image of Divine Mercy, usually kept inside Holy Trinity Church.
During the meeting with youth he heard testimonies from two young people, Jonas and Monica, telling them to not ever be afraid “to put your trust in Jesus, to embrace his cause, the cause of the Gospel.”
“It is true that believing in Jesus can often demand taking a leap of blind faith, and this can be frightening,” he said. “But stand firm! Following Jesus is a passionate adventure that gives meaning to our lives and makes us feel part of a community that encourages and accompanies us, and commits us to the service of others.”
“Dear young people, following Christ is something worthwhile!” he said, and stressed that they should not let the world tell them it is better to do everything on their own. “Don’t yield to the temptation of getting caught up in yourself, ending up selfish or superficial in the face of sorrow, difficulty or temporary success.”
He said identity is found in being part of a people, a culture, and though it is at times painful, it is also beautiful and encouraged those present to “aim for holiness through your encounters and your fellowship with other people; be attentive to their needs.”
After the meeting, the pope stopped inside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus to pray before the tomb of St. Casimir.