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Pope visits Baltics amid promise, perils.

History left religious and civil differences

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Pope John Paul's trip to the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is his 61st outside Italy and his first ever to the former Soviet Union.

The papal message to these churches was that "having left the enforced tunnel of atheism," they should emerge into the light of Vatican II renewal while guarding against "the perils of indifferentism and secularism."

Lithuania, where Catholics represent 80 percent of the 3.7 million population, was the chief object of papal concern. John Paul's mother, Emilia Kaczorowska, was of Lithuanian origin. But he had never ever been there before.

In the interwar period, Poland and Lithuania did not have diplomatic relations until 1938, by which time it was too late for him to go. No Polish priest or archbishop was allowed in during the Soviet period.

Previous attempts to go to Lithuania as pope -- in 1984 for the 500th anniversary of the baptism of St. Casimir, patron of the nation, and in 1987 for the 600th anniversary of the "baptism" of Lithuania -- were rudely rebuffed. For the persecution of the church in Lithuania was intense and lasted until the Sajudis movement overthrew the communists early in 1990. Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevicius, archbishop of Kaunas, the prewar capital, was under house arrest as late as 1982. Fr. Juozaz Zdebskis, a crypto-Jesuit, was killed in a KGB-inspired "car crash" as late as 1986.

This was, after all, the Soviet Union. President Mikhail Gorbachev, reformer though he might be, had no wish to see the dissolution of his empire. Whenever Vytautis Landsbergis, the first president after the declaration of independence, called Gorbachev, he was invariably "out to lunch."

It took the fall of Gorbachev at the end of 1991 to realize Lithuanian independence, and it took the prospect of John Paul's visit for Gorbachev's successor, President Boris Yeltsin, finally to remove the last Soviet troops at the end of August this year.

The visit to Lithuania was beset with difficulties. Coming through them unscathed provided one of the hardest tests of John Paul's diplomatic skills.

The major difficulty was that he is Polish, and that the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, was occupied by Poles until 1939. In the 19th century, under the Russian czars, it was a predominantly Polish city with a famous Polish university. The great romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz studied there. So did contemporary Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz. In Central Europe, proximity does not mean neighborliness.

The heart of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the Polish interwar leader who seized Vilnius from the Lithuanians in a brief war in 1920, is buried in a Vilnius cemetery, alongside the body of his mother. Lithuania still has a Polish minority of 260,000 or about 8 percent of the population.

John Paul went to the cemetery, but heroically directed his gaze toward the graves of the 13 young people killed by Soviet tanks at the Vilnius television station Jan. 13, 1991. These were the martyrs of the Lithuanian independence movement. He compared the sufferings of Lithuania to the passion of Christ. By a similar self-denying ordinance, John Paul also refused to have a special Mass for Polish Lithuanians on the grounds that this would "create an artificial division between believers." Instead he held a simple "evening meeting" in the Dominican church of the Holy Spirit.

The pope would also have had to swallow hard when President Algirdas Brazauskas kissed his hand at the airport. Last February in the presidential election, Brazauskas defeated Stasys Lozoraitis, former ambassador to the Holy See, who had lived in exile since 1939. The Vatican never recognized the Soviet occupation of the Baltic republics.

Brazauskas, leader of the Lithuanian Communist Party in the Soviet period, became the first communist to be elected as head of state in the former Soviet Union. His election was almost entirely due to the disastrous decline in living standards since independence. Average family incomes have fallen by 73 percent. Official statistics say three-quarters of all households are below the poverty line.

So there was no "consumerism" for the pope to denounce. Meanwhile Brazauskas has been conciliatory toward the church. His past has been rewritten. It is said that he was secretly married in church and had his children secretly baptized, while his wife collaborated with "underground" sisters.

The new archbishop of Vilnius, the former Vatican nuncio to Holland; U.S.-educated Audrys Backis, another returning exile, explained that he "tried to be above the contending parties, with the result that I am now attacked by both sides." John Paul backed him up in his speech to the embryonic diplomatic corps by saying that the "church of silence" has now to address social questions but without party political involvement. At Vilnius University, founded by the Jesuits in 1569, John Paul warned against the "individualism" of Western democracy which, he said, ignored both morality and social justice. Yet Lithuanian democracy is a tender plant that needs nurturing.

Perhaps John Paul's biggest tribute to the Lithuanian national spirit is that he devoted the past six months to learning its language, and spoke it most of the time. This is something not all Polish Lithuanians have done, and it is sore point.

Thus in these various ways, John Paul earned the right to issue critical warnings against narrow Lithuanian nationalism, which contributed in the 1940s to anti-Semitic feelings and the Holocaust.

The post-1990 version of nationalism is more likely to be anti-Russian, for the tragic reason that hardly any Jews are left in Vilnius -- once known as "the Jerusalem of the north," where Jews numbered 35 percent of the population and Yiddish was their lingua franca.

John Paul went out of his way to urge good relations with the Russians and in particular with the Russian Orthodox Church which, in Lithuania at least, sided with the independence movement.

He offered an olive branch to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexis, a native of Estonia, who has had some hard sayings about Roman Catholic "proselytism."

President Boris Yeltsin has invited the pope to Moscow, but he cannot go until he also gets an invitation from Alexis. Getting that will be the next object of Vatican diplomacy.

The trip to the Baltics says: Don't be afraid; a papal visit to Moscow would not be subversive.
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Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 17, 1993
Words:1048
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