How to share the journey of Pope Francis to the Baltic countries, celebrating their 100 Independence and 25 years of John Paul II’s visit, the day after the withdrawal of the last Soviet troops ? You can find excellent reports on Vatican news media, or KTO websites. Zenit gives the texts of his speeches, improvisations included. The content is rich and if it is adapted to the reality of here, the scope is universal. The following tells only a little about the experience of the Vilnius community.
In community, in church but also in the country and the region, we lived the preparations for the visit of Pope Francis in an intense way. The theme was "Christ Jesus, our hope". In the pastoral agendas had two times : before and after the visit of the Pope. Large welcome posters and billboards hung from church towers and on the highways. At our school Teofil Matulionis we spoke about the Pope not only in religion classes but also in language classes. Video clip, written texts, quizzes, crafts ; the means varied according to the age but the subject was the same. The papal culture of the sisters has increased significantly.
The reception of the Pope upon his arrival in the Baltic States was entrusted to the pupils of Catholic schools. Saturday morning before 9:00 nearly 200 children and young people including 50 (two in wheelchairs) of our school with the director, teachers, the driver, some parents and three sisters (Bénédicte, Erika and Miriam) passed the security checks to airport and were directed to the VIP room. One little girl was a trifle disappointed because she thought we were going to fly to see the Pope. The wait was long and we were packed like sardines but since it was raining outside, nobody complained. Around ten o’clock we were invited to go out and set up on the tarmac. The head teacher encouraged the children by saying that we were in Lithuania, where hospitality is a fundamental value. Whether it’s cold or raining, we welcome - and out we went with courage.
Once outside we waited nearly two hours. The little ones were singing at the top of their voices (long live the songs of the charismatic renewal), the big ones more quietly, but we had the arrival of the military and the president of the republic and some planes to distract us. With the announcement that the Pope’s plane was flying over the territory of Lithuania, the wait became more intense. When his plane finally landed after 11:30, the nuncio and the chief of protocol went up. We are used to the photos of the smiling Pope ; but when the Holy Father came down, he was sober, tired. Two children in national dress presented him with a bouquet, the president and the archbishop greeted him. The Pope turned to the children but did not stop. I was afraid that the children would be disappointed, but no. According to Kotryna Danguole’s echoes on Monday, they know they were attending a national event and are proud of it.
Danguole and schoolchildren were meeting the Holy Father with the young people in the cathedral square. Again, the Catholic schools were spoiled, and we had 250 places in front of the podium. Again, it was necessary to be in place before noon for a meeting scheduled for 16:30 (and which took place well after 17hr). Songs, dances, testimonies from two young people, including a girl who told the story of the faith and a parish community to help her overcome the wounds caused by her father’s violence. A young married man, struggling with an autoimmune disease, testified to the role of the sacrament of marriage in that he lives. In the Pope’s speech, vigorous and encouraging at the same time, he relied on these testimonies. In the end, the bishop in charge of the youth ministry invited them to pray for the Pope and spontaneously - it was not in the protocol - the choir then all the young people present raised their hands and blessed the pope by a traditional song.
At 3am Sunday morning, the community, except Benedicte who had left the night before for the last rehearsal of the choir that would animate the meeting with priests and religious, drove to Kaunas. After having parked the car before the last roads were closed, had breakfast, and completed the security checks, we were in place at 6am. The consecrated persons, grouped just behind the priests, took advantage of 4 hours of waiting for a fraternal reunion the warmth of whichmade us forget-almost- the cold and the wind. (It had rained at night but by dawn the sun was on the way). A huge crowd - probably more than 100,000 people - some of whom came come the neighbouring Baltic countries, but also from Belarus, Poland, Scandinavia and even beyond the Urals. A huge choir made of young people and children with a splendid orchestra. 800 priests, 300 bishops. When the Holy Father arrived for the Eucharist, a rainbow appeared. It was Sunday Mass ; the crowd sang and participated actively. The Pope’s homily which he anchored well in the history and the actuality of Lithuania, took up themes which concern all Europe. He evokedthe country’s suffering, the Soviet occupation, the exile in Siberia, and the extermination of the Jewish community : it was the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Vilnius ghetto. He pleaded for a open, welcoming church, not turned in on the wounds of the past, but attentive to the poor, the fragile, the immigrants. After the communion, we were invited to give thanks for the gift received : there was an intense silence in which one could have heard a fly (except that it was too cold for flies).
After Mass, the religious were invited to have a quick meal in the Seminary courtyard. Then we rushed to the Cathedral where the Holy Father was to meet priests, religious and seminarians. A choir, led by a Benedictine sister, helped us pray while waiting. There was, among other things, the Akathist hymn : the solos were performed by an Orthodox deacon and a priest whose wife also participated. On arriving, the Pope greeted the elderly priests and religious and then went to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, where the contemplative nuns were. It seems that he improvised a speech saying that if they were locked up, it must be because they are dangerous. For whom ? For the devil. May they continue !
The Holy Father’s sermon in the choir of the cathedral, where he improvised a great deal, lasted nearly an hour. The Pope was in verve : there too, the bottom line joined what he said to priests and consecrated elsewhere but it was incarnated and he did not hesitate to give as examples a priest, a nun, confessors of faith, known to all, present in the assembly. It would be interesting to take his speech and read it with Mother Marie Eugenie’s chapter on the joyful detachment. He spoke as a father, a religious, fraternal and demanding at the same time. In the end he invited us to be fathers and mothers of mercy.
We came back filled, moved - and with some work to do. Pray, may the Lord finish what he began with his vicar. Thank you.
for the community of Vilnius