The lay society can choose not to listen to the Catholic Church, but it must always be free to voice its positions on the political and moral issues of the day, says Archbishop Petar Rajič, the newly appointed representative of the Holy See in Lithuania, in an interview to LRT.lt.
The Apostolic Nunciature in Antakalnis, just outside central Vilnius, is a little different from other diplomatic representations. Apart from the representative of the Holy See – the nuncio – its modest staff consists of priests and nuns and there is a daily service in its chapel. Unlike other embassies, it is not preoccupied with the economic, political or military relations between Lithuania and Vatican.
The nuncio Petar Rajič arrived in Vilnius in 2019 and says the country has changed immensely since the 1990s when he also served in the Holy See’s representation. Pope Francis, whose statements do not always go down well with the more conservative members of the Church, spreads the gospel message, Rajič says: “Jesus knew he would face opposition and will be rejected by the powerful, but welcomed by the humble and the weak.”
In the interview, the apostolic nuncio discusses the situation of the Church in Lithuania, priests’ role in politics and issues such as homosexuality, sexual abuse involving the clergy and the obligation to extend Christian charity to refugees.
Did you choose to be appointed as apostolic nuncio to Lithuania and what do nuncios do?
I was appointed by Pope Francis as nuncio to Lithuania on June 15 and later on as nuncio to Estonia and Latvia. The Holy Father is the one who chooses where to send his representatives. The nature of our diplomatic service is such that we can be sent to any country or continent on the planet, in order to gain a broader vision and knowledge of the life of the Church in various regions of the world.
Our works as nuncios is primarily to maintain the relations between the Holy See as an international entity and the local governments and as well as local churches.
We also work on many issues regarding freedom of religion, catholic education, needs of priests, personnel, the appointments of bishops. At the same time, we try to maintain civil contacts with government authorities in order to assure that the catholic creed can be freely expressed here and in the region.
You served in the Nunciature in Lithuania in 1996–1998. Has the country and the local Church changed a lot since then?
Yes, I would say so. There has been great improvement, the Church has progressed. We have younger bishops who have been appointed over the years. We see an active Church that is still growing and many other activities, charitable organisations, youth groups, children's group, formation of adults as well.
Civilly, also, I would say the region has made an enormous progress now that it is a member of the EU, part of NATO, in the eurozone. Lithuania now finds itself in the real, you could say, family of European nations, very much an active part of Europe.
The Pope visited the Baltic states in September 2018. Did the visit give him a better understanding of the region?
I would say so. The fact that the Pope came last year to all the three Baltic states was a great gesture on his part and sign of his closeness to the people and especially the Church in this region. It was on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the independence and statehood of the Baltic countries.
In one of the parishes in Lithuania, we have an LGBT+ community support group. The Pope has expressed concern about the rights of LGBT+ people. Is it a topic that you work here on as well?
When he has spoken about the homosexual question in general, the Pope has always underlined the importance that we have to respect all people all the time. Even for the choices that they make in their lives.
The official catholic teaching is that homosexual behaviour is a disorder, intrinsically. And therefore, due to its, let's say, sinful nature, it cannot be condoned. But having said that, people are free to choose which behaviours and which lifestyles they want to lead. Every person, whether homosexual or not homosexual, must always be treated with respect, with compassion and sensitivity. These things are fundamental.
All people deserve this all the time, nobody should be discriminated for the choices that they make in life. And this is the key to the Pope's words. The non-discrimination of anybody due to even their life choices or their religious or non-religious beliefs. We have to try to get along with each other, always.
The Catholic Church has been mired in sexual misconduct scandals, though not in Lithuania. In Poland, there’s been a strong reaction against accusations of priests, although the Pope has said that not enough has been done to address the problem. Are you working with these issues?
Specific issues have to be dealt with at the local level. Each case is different, therefore they have to be treated individually and according to those who are in authority. We are trying to help bishops in resolving these cases and making sure that justice is provided to, first of all, any victims of any type of misbehaviour or sexual abuse according to Church law and also respecting civil law.
Therefore we are trying to encourage there to be more justice and transparency in these issues. Also, respecting at the same time any victims and any priests that could have been falsely accused, because this also can sometimes happen. There have been cases where some priests were falsely accused and their reputation was hurt or damaged because of these accusations. Anybody who is falsely accused of any crime or misbehaviour – it’s an injustice to that person.
The Church and the Pope have shown, I believe, courage and strength in wishing to tackle this issue, to confront it directly. Not trying to cover up, not trying to avoid the issues, but to handle it in a direct and very clear firm manner in order to rid the world of any type of abuse, especially in our Church circles.
But once again, one must keep in mind that it is not just a problem of the Church, it is a problem of our society in general. It is present in other religious communities, in the general society as well. Sexual abuse in general and especially of minors is something terrible that we have to all work on in order to eradicate. To have a sexually healthy society – this is what we are striving for.
In Lithuania, we’ve had politicians saying there are too few truly Christian parties, although what they seem to be talking is not quite in line with Pope Francis’ public statements. Even some local priests participate. What is the Holy See's view on priests’ involvement in politics?
Priests, in general, are not allowed to run for any type of political or civil office. This is not allowed according to canon law.
At the same time, the Church does have a voice to express its opinion on certain political issues, certain moral issues that may arise in the society. It's, let's say, more of a consultatory role, we're giving good advice.
We're trying to bring forth the teachings of the Church on certain moral issues, for instance, abortion or euthanasia. These are two very hot issues in the Western world and throughout the world as well. The church has to speak in the defence of life, that human life should be protected from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death. This is a position that won't change in the church.
Having said that, whether civil society will respect this or not, that's up to the lawmakers and the civilian level of society. But the Church has to be free in order to express this opinion which can be taken as good advice and adhered to or ignored. We hope that lawmakers will then examine their own conscience according to their own education or personal faith and realise that we're not causing harm to anybody, we're trying to protect society, human life, progress and growth of family life, even of the nation's life.
The church also stresses the duty to protect and accept migrants.
Very true. The Pope has mentioned this many times. That, with the recent migrant crisis, we have to be open at least to the possibility of taking in migrants and helping those who are legitimately fleeing terrible situations of war, of poverty or persecution for their faith.
The Pope has made a call to all Christians in all societies to be open to helping migrants as best as they can. Some countries will be able to take more, some less, it doesn’t matter, at least they are showing willingness to help them integrate, to transit and, if it were necessary, to help their countries of origin, so that there can be no more war and no persecution which forces them to leave the country so that they can live in a free and democratic state.