Pope Francis arrived in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to celebrate the centenary of the country’s independence. There, the pope encouraged Lithuanians by telling them that by “welcoming differences” as they have done, and through “dialogue, openness and understanding,” they “can become a bridge between Eastern and Western Europe.”
Francis spoke in front of the presidential palace in Vilnius to an audience that included some of the political leaders of the 3.3 million people of this land. “It has been a century marked by your bearing numerous trials and sufferings: detentions, deportations, even martyrdom,” he recalled referring to what they suffered from almost two centuries under Russian domination and a short period under Nazi Germany.
He told them that celebrating the centenary of the declaration of their independence requires “taking time to stop and revive the memory of all those experiences.” By doing so, he said, “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 regaining their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, this small nation, along with Latvia and Estonia, joined the European Union in 2004.
After regaining their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, this small nation, along with Latvia and Estonia, joined the European Union in 2004. Today, with its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania is one of the most pro-European countries on the continent.
In his address, Francis alluded to the rising spread of populism and other forces of division that are threatening the European Union. He pointed out that “more and more voices are sowing division and confrontation—often by exploiting insecurity or situations of conflict—and proclaiming that the only way possible to guarantee security and the continued existence of a culture is to try to eliminate, cancel or expel others.”
Pope Francis told them that “all conflicts presently emerging will find lasting solutions only if those solutions are grounded in the concrete recognition of [the dignity of] persons, especially the most vulnerable, and in the realization that all of us are challenged to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all.”
As they celebrate the centenary of their declaration of independence, he reminded them that “each generation is challenged to make its own the struggles and achievements of the past, and to honor in the present the memory of all those who have gone before.”
He recalled that throughout its history, “Lithuania was able to shelter, receive and accept peoples of various ethnic groups and religions. All found a place to live in this land—Lithuanians, Tartars, Poles, Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Germans...Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Old Catholics, Muslims, Jews.”
In his address, Francis alluded to the rising spread of populism and other forces of division that are threatening the European Union.
He reminded them that they had “all 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 asserted that “to draw strength from the past is to recover those roots and keep 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 also urged them to “encourage the active participation of young people in society. By doing this, the country can create “a seed of hope, for it will lead to a dynamic process in which the ‘soul’ of this people will continue to generate hospitality: hospitality towards the stranger, hospitality toward the young, towards the elderly and the poor, and, ultimately, hospitality toward the future.”
He concluded this address by telling them that the Catholic Church supports Lithuania.
After bidding farewell to the president, Dalia Grybauskaite, Francis drove to the nearby nunciature to eat and rest a little. Later in the afternoon, he drove along the beautiful old streets of Vilnius’ historical center, lined with cheering crowds waving Lithuanian and Vatican flags, to the famous Marian shrine of the Mother of Mercy. In his brief homily at the shrine, he reminded them that rather than give in to the forces of division and fear, they must continue to be a welcoming, hospitable nation as they always have been.
He recalled that this Marian shrine stands before the Gate of Dawn, the only remnant of the defensive walls of this city, which served to defend Vilnius from external danger and threat. When, in 1799, the invading forces razed that wall, leaving only this gate, he said, even then, it sheltered the image of the Virgin Mary “Mother of Mercy.”
“Mary has sought to teach us that we can defend without attacking, that we can keep safe without the unhealthy need to distrust others.”
From that time on, he declared, “Mary has sought to teach us that we can defend without attacking, that we can keep safe without the unhealthy need to distrust others.” This is because “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 told them that “because the image of Jesus is impressed on every human heart, every man and every woman make it possible for us to encounter God.”
However, he told them, “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.”
He spoke as well to other countries in Europe. He recalled that “in the past, we built all too many fortresses, but today we feel the need to look one another in the face and acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters, to walk side by side, and to discover and experience with joy and peace the value of fraternity.”
He noted that every day people come here from numerous countries to visit the Mother of Mercy and remarked: “How good it would be if this ease in moving from one place to another could be accompanied by ease in establishing points of encounter and solidarity, so that we can share generously the gifts we have freely received. So that we can go out and give ourselves to one another, receiving in turn the presence and the diversity of others as a gift and a source of enrichment in our lives.”
In today’s world, Francis said, “at times it might seem that openness to the world draws us into the ring of competition, where, ‘man is a wolf to man,’ and there is room only for conflict that divides us, tensions that exhaust us, hatred and enmity that get us nowhere.”
He told Lithuanians present at the shrine, and the million or more following the ceremony on national television, that “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, he said, she opens to us “the door to a new dawn, a new day.” She “brings us to the very doorstep” of this dawn “where today children and families with bleeding wounds await us.” Their wounds, he said, “are the wounds of Jesus, and they are altogether real. In their pain and darkness, they cry out for us to bring to them the healing light of charity.” He urged all Lithuanians to “ask Mary that we may be a community capable of proclaiming Jesus Christ our hope” so that “we can build a country capable of accepting everyone, of receiving from the Virgin Mother the gifts of dialogue and patience, of closeness and welcome.”
His long day, after a three-hour flight from Rome, did not end at the shrine. He traveled from the Marian shrine of the Mother of Mercy to the cathedral of Vilnius, and in the square in front of the cathedral, engaged in a festive and very warm encounter with young people.
Tomorrow, he travels 65 miles by car to Kaunas, the country’s second city, where he will celebrate Mass at Confluence Park and meet with priests, religious, consecrated persons and seminarians at Kaunas Cathedral Basilica.