‘I believe the Lord wants a change in the Church’: A private dialogue with the Jesuits in the Baltics

Pope Francis

 Pope Francis / Church Life / Published Date:17 October 2018/Last Updated Date:5 March 2021

The pope enters the room of the Nunciature and greets the Jesuits one by one, starting with the provincial, Fr. Vidmantas Šimkūna. In all, 28 Jesuits are present: 22 from the province of Lithuania and Latvia, two from the United States with close links to Lithuania, and four Jesuit bishops: Lionginas Virbalas, Archbishop of Kaunas; his predecessor Sigitas Tamkevičius who had been imprisoned by the KGB; Jonas Boruta, bishop emeritus of Telšiai; and Joseph Werth, bishop of Novosibirsk, in Russia, who did his novitiate in Lithuania. The pope speaks in Italian and his words are translated into Lithuanian by Archbishop Virbalas.

(Antonio Spadaro, SJ)

Thank you for the visit! I’m reminded of the saying Si cum Iesuitis itis, non cum Iesu itis… (If you go with the Jesuits, you won’t go with Jesus…) [here they all laugh]. Thank you! Today has been a busy day, but I think it has been for the good of the Church. Now, for our meeting, I think the best way is for you to ask questions and I’ll respond. OK?

La Civilta Cattolica

Archbishop Virbalas proposes: “If he wants, the provincial could say some words to start things off.” And the pope replies: “Yes, of course. Let’s do things hierarchically!” And laughter breaks out again. The provincial rises and presents the situation of the Society of Jesus in Lithuania and Latvia. “We are delighted with your visit. We all appreciated what you said to the priests and religious. For us Jesuits this is inspiring. Ours is a small province. I have one particular concern: the Jesuits will burn themselves out. In fact, all of us have three or four different jobs and we are certainly not lazy. I feel I should say thank you for having brought us joy and strength. Before the suppression of the Society the Lithuanian province had more than a thousand members. Now we are just 34, and soon we will join in a single province with Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Hungary. We have three schools in Lithuania and four churches. Recently we opened a house in Riga, the city you will visit tomorrow. We work to spread Ignatian spirituality. In this work we have the good experience of a beautiful ecumenical collaboration with the Lutherans. I must say that I am particularly grateful to the elderly of our province. During the Soviet era they maintained the novitiate and also the seminary for diocesan priests. Things were done in secret, obviously. One part of the Lithuanian Jesuits was outside the province, in the United States. A vice-province was created there. Then freedom came and some of the Jesuits who had been in America came home and helped us to live the spirit of Vatican II. At that time we knew how to live the situation of a lack of liberty. But now we have to learn to live liberty well. We ask your blessing on us and on our mission. Many thanks. Many, many thanks.”

I don’t think it’s hard for a Jesuit to work in secret, as a clandestine. Fr. Hugo Rahner used to say that Jesuits have to be able to discern both in the field of God and in that of the devil. I think discernment gives us this ability, this sense of the supernatural: the sense of the divine and of the diabolic in the moments of human life and in history. We need to ask to know both the intentions of the Lord and those of the enemy of human nature and his deceptions. The Jesuit needs to know how to walk even in the ugliest moments. Something else the provincial said that I liked is the fact of being concerned about some Jesuits having three or four different jobs. There is the danger of burnout. So discernment is needed. The evil spirit does lead us to a sort of “not-working-enough complex.” Sometimes we feel guilty just because with prudence we take a little bit of care of our own health! This is a temptation. Jesuits must work without losing peace, without losing the encounter with the Lord, and without losing rest. This is important. The first law of work for a Jesuit is above all to do what others don’t do or can’t do. The second is that the work should not get in the way of familiarity with the Lord. The third is that it should not remove peace. The fourth is not to do what you can delegate to others. This is what comes to mind in response to your concern. But you do well to be worried about these things.

Next to speak is Archbishop Tamkevičius: “If I had imagined 35 years ago when I was imprisoned by the KGB that one day a pope would have visited those cells, then it would have been much easier to put up with the suffering. Thank you, Holy Father! For me this is a dream. You came to visit our Lithuanian Golgotha!

Let me say this to you: we say that Jesus descended into hell, and I advise you not to be afraid of descending into the hell of the people. Sometimes, this means entering the field of the devil. But suffering, be it human, social, that of the conscience… we need to go down into hell, we need to be there. Touch the wounds. And touching people’s wounds, you touch the wounds of Christ. The Jesuit should never be afraid of this. It is a grace that we receive from the hand of the Lord. And these wounds have not only been opened at Vilnius and they concern not just the past. The same thing happens today in many sociopolitical situations around the world. I am thinking of a film that witnesses to the situations of some prisons in North Africa built by human traffickers. When governments send back those who have survived, the traffickers put them in these prisons where the most horrible torture takes place. This is why it is important that you speak about your time in prison. People need to know what it means. It is good that this be talked about. Today we beat our breasts for what the Communists, Nazis and Fascists did… but today? Does this not happen today? Certainly! And it is done with white silk gloves! When Ignatius offers us the third week, there is something that might seem too voluntarist, but it is not. It is just very human. You know, St. Ignatius asks us to force ourselves to experience pain, to cry for Christ who suffers the passion. This is not Pelagianism, no. Ignatius knew our resistance to welcoming the pain of others inside our own hearts. This is why he asks us to force ourselves. This is why meditating on the Lord’s Passion is important. I have to share something with you. I always carry in my pocket this via crucis to recall the Lord’s passion [and he pulls it out of his pocket]. It is the passion of so many people today, who are tortured, in prison. It’s good for me to meditate on the via crucis. Thank you, Father! Thank you for your witness!

Archbishop Tamkevičius adds: “In 1994, at the Synod on religious life, I was present and there was a young Jesuit bishop from Argentina. It was you!”

Yes, I’d been a bishop for two years. They’d elected me because the first two chosen were diocesan and for that Synod they wanted a religious. And they chose me. In 1994. We were together!

One of those present asks another question: “I want to ask a favor for the new residence of the Jesuits in Riga. It is a house of the Spiritual Exercises. St. Peter Faber is its patron. A brother Jesuit from Warsaw has painted a portrait. I’d ask you to bless it and to give your blessing to our work, which is so important ecumenically. In fact, as the provincial said, the Lutherans in Latvia are interested in the Exercises. The Lutheran archbishop of Riga completed the entire Ignatian month in England and has done the Exercises in Spain, at Manresa. For him, the Exercises are very important. And this is a good ecumenical sign during a secular period such as ours. 

Yes, I too know a Jesuit who does the Exercises with Lutherans. It’s good that Faber is the protector of the house: he is the man of dialogue, of listening, nearness, of journey. He was different from Canisius. He was not the man of opposition, of debate. He had that spiritual sweetness that you can well understand by reading his Memoriale. And he worked with the help of the angels. He prayed for his angel to speak to the angels of those who had appointments with him. A great mafia of angels! Cardinal Arborelius of Stockholm gives retreats to Lutheran pastors. Let’s remember: dialogue adds, it doesn’t take away. I wish your work in the Exercises well. The young people with a desire to do the Exercises have a beautiful experience. Go forward then!

Another Jesuit rises and says: “I see you have a special love for the youth and for the apostolate of the young. You have great attention for those who do not seem important, for the lost, the abandoned…”

I’m glad that an elderly Jesuit can speak so nicely of the young. This is very important: the encounter of the young and the old. For it is the grandparents who transmit to their grandchildren the memory of a people, its experience and religion. Parents are halfway there, they give something, but the roots are in the elderly. And young people need to make an effort to listen to the elderly, just as you make an effort to listen to the young. Thank you!

Another Jesuit speaks to Francis: “Holy Father, I was very touched this afternoon when we were in the cathedral and you put an accent on nearness. I think this is what is missing in our countries. Sometimes we create distance out of fear of meeting people. Then I think what you said about confession was particularly strong. The confessional is the place where the ministry of mercy lives. I am still a deacon and do not yet have this experience. But what you said struck me as being very strong. And also when you said that you need to be welcoming even in cases where absolution can’t be given.

Nearness is God’s oldest stance. He himself comes to us this way: in nearness. In Deuteronomy, God says: “Which great nation has a divinity so near to it, as the Lord our God is near to us each time we call on him?” He presents himself as the God who is near. And then he came closer: he became one of us. Synkatabasis: God became down-with-us, near in the flesh. All pastoral activity has to remember this or otherwise fail. God became near to the marginalized, to the dead – whom he raised – and to the sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes… The pure, the religious professionals were scandalized. If a priest ungraciously chases away a penitent, the bishop needs to ask himself if he should take away that priest’s license to hear confessions, for the confessor should be paternal. The confessor is there to embrace the prodigal son, the lost child. And always, always, if you are a father, you will always find a way to forgive. A cardinal from the Curia who confesses regularly in a Roman church once said to me: “I don’t understand how some confessors send people away. I always try and ensure that the penitent can feel at ease, can speak well. I never ask strange things. And if I can’t give that person absolution and the penitent begs forgiveness, tell me: what father does not forgive a child?” His testimony touched me. It’s clear that I am not saying that we have to be indulgent. It is true that one thing is mercy and another thing is being indulgent. We have to be fathers, merciful fathers. In Buenos Aires there is a great Capuchin confessor. There is always a long line outside his confessional. All sorts of people go to him: lay people, priests, sisters, the rich, the poor… He’s a great forgiver. To be a good confessor, you have to be a great forgiver… or be deaf! Sometimes this confessor feels the scruple of being too fatherly, too forgiving. And so he goes before the tabernacle and says: “Lord, sorry, forgive me. I forgave too much. But you gave me the bad example!” This confessor is not indulgent, but he is a truly a father.

A young Lithuanian Jesuit who did his theological training in Africa asks: “When you were elected pope I was studying theology. Three years ago when I was ordained priest, you became a source of inspiration for my life as a Jesuit priest. You have given so much to the Church. I want to ask you how we can help you.”

Thank you! I don’t know what to ask from you specifically. But what needs to be done today is to accompany the Church in a deep spiritual renewal. I believe the Lord wants a change in the Church. I have said many times that a perversion of the Church today is clericalism. But 50 years ago the Second Vatican Council said this clearly: the Church is the People of God. Read number 12 of Lumen Gentium. I know that the Lord wants the Council to make headway in the Church. Historians tell us that it takes 100 years for a Council to be applied. We are halfway there. So, if you want to help me, do whatever it takes to move the Council forward in the Church. And help me with your prayer. I need so many prayers.

Another Jesuit asks: “Education is a priority in our province. We have two schools with 220 teachers and 1,500 students. What message would you transmit to our teachers and students?”

I would like to say something about education that might help the teachers and the Jesuits working in education. We need to move on from the negative heritage of the Enlightenment that is seen in the vision of education as filling heads with ideas. Today, there are schools and universities that have the sole goal of preparing students for so-called “success.” And they do it by filling their heads with notions. Education engages the whole person, not only the head. I’ve said this many times and I’ll repeat it: there is a language of the head, but there is also the language of the heart, of sentiment. You need to educate the heart. There’s a need for an education of the sentiments or feelings. And there is also the language of the hands. These are three languages that go together. The young people are called on to think about what they feel and do, and to feel what they think and do, and to do what they feel and think. Ours is a human unit, and everything is found therein, including concern for others, engagement. Let us not forget feeling and sentiments. Ignatius was a great educator of the sentiments. And this has to be the road of education. Clearly, the task of the Jesuits who work in schools is also that of training capable educators. They have to build an educational community able to discern situations and learn to bring education in these three languages of heart, head and hands. And please, don’t let the Jesuits abandon education. The Society should never abandon this mission, as it is a strong road. 

An elderly Jesuit asks: “Can we add to the Marian litany the intercession “Regina Lithuaniae, ora pro nobis?”

Of course! Here you can do that among yourselves, as we Jesuits say “Regina Societatis Iesu, ora pro nobis.” Do it!

The pope says there is just time for one more question. A young Jesuit gets up and asks: “Holy Father, you said that we have to go out onto the road, where the people are. You have said that the Church is a field hospital. You’ve said we shouldn’t be scared of chaos. And the world seems to be in chaos. How can we face this without being afraid?

Look, if you go into chaos by yourself, you’re right to be afraid, for it will finish badly. But if you enter it with the grace of spiritual counsel from your provincial, from your community, if you do it as a mission and with the Lord, then the fear you feel comes from the evil spirit. You’re right, today there is chaos. And there is the chair of fire and smoke of which St. Ignatius speaks in his meditation on the Two Standards. But with the Lord there is no need to be afraid. With the Lord, though, not with your own desires. God is strong. God is the strongest! I said this before, recalling Hugo Rahner: you need to be able to enter two fields, even that of our enemy, in chaos. Let me make the most of your question, for it allows me to say something I wanted to raise with you today. I said to enter chaos and the difficult situations. But not alone, rather enter with the Lord, and in dialogue with your superiors and the community. And here comes the topic of the “account of conscience.” Do not be afraid! The provincial is a brother. Perhaps tomorrow it will be his turn to give an account of his conscience to you. The grace of this opening up is that the superior and the subject are both brothers sharing so as to better serve the Lord. It is not a question-and-answer session. The provincial must enter into the life of the brother he is listening to. And the Jesuit who is opening his heart must engage in the life of his superior. This is a dialogue of interaction where all conflict with the superiors comes undone. And the Society becomes a body to counter chaos. Let us go forward in community and brotherhood.

Coming to the end, the pope says:

Thank you! Thank you for coming to visit me and thank you for what you do for the Church! Pray! I’ll advise you read two things, as I often do with Jesuits. Read the talk that Paul VI gave on December 3, 1974, to the fathers gathered in the 32nd General Congregation. For me this is the best thing a pope has ever said to the Jesuits. It is a treasure. Take it, reflect on it. And I recommend that you also read the last thing that Fr. Arrupe said: his talk to the Jesuits working in the refugee camps in Thailand. It was his swansong. Then, during his return flight to Rome, he had a stroke. The talk he had given to the Jesuits working with the refugees was: do not overlook your prayer lives! Read these two documents. They are more substantial and rewarding than the things I could say. Pray for me! Thank you. Now, let us pray with the Madonna, Regina Societatis Iesu…

With prayer and some more personal greetings the meeting concluded, just over an hour after it had begun.