HE President Valdas Adamkus speech in Club de Madrid, South Caucasus forum
Club de Madrid ( Baku) 2013 05 08d.
Distinguished Participants of the Forum,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When speaking about the present, it’s always worth looking at the past. After the waves of reform in the 17th century receded, Lithuania remained an essentially Catholic nation. When Lithuania came under Russian control, the Catholic church was persecuted through an official policy of forced conversion to the Orthodox faith. Despite this, the Catholic church survived the persecution and, in modern Lithuania, became an influential public force. The Soviet occupation destroyed Catholic institutions, like the theological faculty, educational institutions and charitable organizations, but it failed to destroy the Church itself.
Although its activity was restricted through the closing of holy places and persecution or even incarceration of the clergy, the Church became one of the most important catalysts of resistance to the totalitarian communist regime. “The Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania” was a form of dissidence potentially without any precedent in the Eastern bloc. The banned publication’s aim was to protect the rights of the faithful. It was published without pause, despite arrests and searches, from 1972 until 1989, right up until the Republic of Lithuania once again became independent.
In independent Lithuania, the Church once again became free and whole. A Lithuanian ambassador once again took up residence at Vatican City and, once again, there is a papal nuncio in Lithuania who is dean of the diplomatic corp. Immediately after Lithuania regained its independence, a Restitution act was signed that returned most of the property wrongfully seized by the communist government back to the church. Construction started on new churches in new parts of the city. This allowed the church to rebuild its network of parishes and paved the way for a revival of many of the Church’s activities that were banned and destroyed during the Soviet occupation. All seven of Lithuania’s diocese resumed their normal functions, and all seven received proper bishops. The Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania adopted the principles of a secular state – the nation would have no state religion, but it also acknowledged the freedom of religion. Religious communities that had been influential in the nation’s cultural and public development were acknowledged as traditional. These traditional groups include the Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist churches, as well as the Jewish, Sunni Muslim and Karaim religious communities. This guarantees broader opportunities for cooperation between these religious communities and government organizations.
Today, the Lithuanian public is pluralistic. 20 percent of the nation’s inhabitants are active practitioners of some religion. On the other hand, the most recent 2011 census indicates that 77 percent of the nation’s inhabitants consider themselves catholic. Many of these people consider the Catholic Church to be a trustworthy social institution, although they don’t pay much attention to the religious and moral truths it preaches. Indeed, the Church has a highly visual role in the public sphere. Catholic educational institutions are few but prestigious. Two Jesuit high schools in particular are held in very high esteem. Even non-religious intellectuals do what they can to place their children into these schools. Religious education in national schools is organized on the basis of a pluralistic society. Students (or, for grade school students, their parents) can choose between ethics and religion classes. After the end of a school year, the students have the option to change their choices.
In this way, religious education is incorporated into national programs without undermining the right to freedom of conscience.
Through an agreement with Vatican City, the national government and the Church cooperate to protect the nation’s cultural heritage. Many Lithuanian churches are of historical, architectural or artistic value. The national government ensures that they are restored and maintained, while church communities ensure that researchers and tourists alike may easily access the churches.
The Church’s charitable work has expanded over a relatively short time. The church’s charitable activities began as a few modest cafeterias for the poor, but they have become far more diverse. The Caritas network, through parishes, takes care of various social issues.
At this time, however, there are programs dedicated to taking care of prisoners and to the integration of runaways and migrants into Lithuanian society. Some convents, like the Sisters of Mother Teresa, take care of especially socially isolated individuals. The Church’s role in civil society is especially important because its social services are offered regardless of religious beliefs or ethnic background. The Church serves to draw many people into activities new to a post-Soviet society, like volunteering, which sets the example for a responsible and sensitive social position.
The Catholic Church tries not to become directly politically engaged. Before elections, bishops usually publish circulars outlining support for the Church’s traditional social teachings without directly supporting or referencing any actual political party.
Occasionally, a small city’s priest might make a claim supporting one party or another before an election, although the clergy is officially barred from political agitation. The Church also doesn’t allow priests to participate in elections. As such, the Church’s influence on the political sphere is relatively small, especially because Lithuania currently lacks a strong Christian democratic party. On the other hand, Catholics are defending their traditions very actively, especially when it comes to questions of family.The Church expresses its opinion in a peaceful tone whenever legislation is considered that impacts family or public moral issues.
In general, one can say that the Catholic Church’s impact on society expresses itself primarily through educational programs, cultural cooperation with the government, and statements on moral and family questions. The Church integrated well into a pluralistic society and understands its role therein.