Church in Lithuania Showing Signs of a Comeback
Seminary Rector Says Youth Have a Key Role in Re-evangelization
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For centuries Catholicism and national identity went hand in hand in this Baltic country. Not even the Soviet regime, which killed, imprisoned or exiled a quarter of the population, succeeded in destroying the faith of the Lithuanians.
Youths, such as those in St. Joseph Seminary here, "are the workers who must reconstruct the Lithuanian Church, but the whole of society needs them," says Father Gintaras Grusas, rector of the seminary and secretary-general of the bishops' conference.
Born in the United States 41 years ago to a family of immigrants, Grusas studied in Vilnius and then in Rome. He arrived in Lithuania in 1992, a few months after the proclamation of independence. The following year he helped oversee the Pope's historic visit.
Despite Catholicism's strong roots in the nation, only 20% of the population goes to church, and sects are spreading rapidly.
"We are experiencing the exhaustion of a new beginning, at once risky and fascinating, and the Church is trying to prepare youths capable of contributing to this construction," the secretary-general of the episcopal conference said.
Altogether there are 200 youths in Lithuania's four seminaries. "We prepare the new sap that will have to nourish the Christian community. Between priests and religious they add up to 650 -- prior to the Soviet period they were 2,500 -- for a population of 4 million," Father Grusas explained.
"Many of our brothers ended up in Siberian camps, others died in prison, some were transferred to be freed from persecutions," he recalled. "Over these 50 years, only one seminary remained open, but income was limited and dwindled."
After independence, there was a flowering of vocations, which continues, but there are other urgent matters, such as education.
"In schools, where atheism was a course of study, now it is possible to speak about God and to teach the Catholic religion, but it is only a short while since we have the personnel that have received an adequate formation," Father Grusas said.
In the social realm, families are burdened "with the onerous legacy left by Communism: alcoholism, recourse to abortion, which continues to be practiced as a method of birth control, [and] separations and divorces, which represent more than half of the marriages," he added.
The post-Communist age has also seen religion pushed into the background.
"The privatization of faith is the great snare in a country where for centuries faith itself characterized social coexistence, culture and art in a positive and fruitful way," Father Grusas said.
Given this situation, the Church challenges Lithuania today with the "proposal of Christianity as a possibility for every person and as a richness for the whole nation," he said.
This is not about a challenge "that opposes," but rather "a proposal for the freedom of all," the priest clarified.
Lithuania's young people are of special concern to the Church, he added.
"We must offer credible and practical answers; we cannot live from the returns of a past that the greater part of youth has not experienced," Father Grusas explained. "Many of them have been unable to receive a Christian education. At most, they have learned something at home, because outside the topic was taboo. But it is not enough."
In this kind of situation, the "Church must be positive," he said. This is precisely the direction in which diocesan youth centers, parishes, and groups of teachers in school are working. Present too are lay movements and ecclesial groups such as Focolare, Communion and Liberation, Charismatic Renewal, Opus Dei and Taizé.