100th Year of Independence: The cost of freedom for the Baltic countries
The Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all celebrating the 100th anniversary of their declarations of independence. This celebration is also a time of reflection on the gift of freedom, as well as the cost of freedom. This gift requires us to work for the common good and for peace. The 50 years of Soviet occupation require a reflection on the cost of that freedom – the suffering, deportations, persecutions and sacrificed lives that must never be forgotten.
Although the last century was a time of great change, a longer historical perspective is useful. The long-standing relationship between the Lithuanian nation and the Holy See began with its evangelization and the crown sent to King Mindaugas by Pope Innocent IV in 1253.
This year we are also commemorating the 300th anniversary of the crowning of Our Lady of Trakai, the patroness of Lithuania, which was only the second icon of Mary to be crowned by the pope outside of Rome. During the years of Soviet occupation, the Holy See continued to recognize the independent States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which was a great sign of hope for the people of Lithuania even during the darkest moments. September also marks the 25th anniversary of the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Baltic States, an important visit that gave courage to these three countries at the outset of their new journey as independent republics. He talked of the challenges that lie ahead with respect to reconciliation and rebuilding a society that had suffered greatly. Even the long-standing tradition of harmony in religious and ethnic diversity was undermined by third parties who provoked conflicts for their own political gain.
As Divine Providence would have it, this September Pope Francis will visit us. This visit will serve to reinforce the unfading support of the Holy See for the self-determination of these small countries and once again to bring hope to people facing the challenges of freedom today.
During these years of freedom Lithuania has joined the EU and served as the presidency, joined NATO, served on the UN Security Council - seeking to ensure that this hard-earned peace is preserved.
As we prepare for the Holy Father’s visit, we reflect on the challenges of freedom. It is no longer the freedom from oppression, but the challenge to properly use the freedom we have for the common good. Lithuania has lost 25% of its population over the past 25 years – mostly due to economic migration, some of whom have been caught in the traps of human traffickers, others caught in the problems affecting society such as the gap between the rich and poor in society, alcoholism and suicide. The dreams of a free society for many have been shattered by the difficulties faced in such a society, by the changes in the values of society that contrast greatly with the free society that had been imagined and fought for.
The Holy Father’s visit will be a chance to reflect on the type of society that we are creating, the true purpose of freedom in society and the direction that we are to take as individuals and as a society. Truly Pope Francis’ presence, as with St. Peter’s mission to strengthen his brothers, will be a renewed reflection of the gift of freedom – based on the hope rooted in Jesus Christ, to build a strong society, respecting the intrinsic value of every person, their nationality, culture and religion. This message for the Baltic States echoes loudly to all of Europe.
President of the Lithuanian Bishops Conference