After welcoming Pope Francis in Latvia some weeks ago, the Archbishop of Riga, Zbignevs Stankevics, is taking part in the Synod in Rome focused on “young people, the faith and vocational discernment”.
In this recent conversation with Catholic World Report, Archbishop Stankevics addresses several themes: accompanying of young people in the Church (“do not neglect the movements, the prayer groups, since they are a great resource for the Church”), the scarcity of priests (“the real challenge is how to develop the Christian life, the faith”), and the 40th anniversary of the election of Pope St. John Paul II (“he affirmed the truth and the youth was aware of it… I think we must not invent anything else!”)
Last but not least, the Archbishop of the Latvian capital recommends “sincerity” in order to face the scandals of sexual abuse of minors inside the Church: “zero tolerance, towards pedophilia and towards the problem of homosexual relationships”. But at the same time, his message for young people in front of those scandals is: “do not look at these negative examples, look at the saints, who in the Church are more numerous than these sinners”.
CWR: Archbishop Stankevics, what voice are you giving to the young people of Latvia at the Synod?
Archbishop Stankevics: Young Latvians are the same as the rest of the world. They want to be respected, heard, welcomed in the Church, they want a space where they can be protagonists in the Church, nothing else! Here at the Synod, I made a discovery: first I believed that only in Latvia there is a lack of those to accompany young people, then I realized: the situation is practically the same everywhere. It’s a pity that the Instrumentum Laboris does not speak enough about the accompaniment offered to young people by ecclesial movements.
CWR: Why, in your opinion?
Archbishop Stankevics: At the Synod on the new evangelization, in 2012, I urged the bishops to encourage their priests to not neglect the movements, the prayer groups, since they are a great resource for the Church awakened after the Second Vatican Council. But unfortunately, the priests and even the bishops are afraid of them. I remember when I was a young vicar priest, the other vicar told me: “I see you take care of these groups, but if I were sent to take care of them I would not know what to do! I have no experience…”
This is really a challenge for pastoral care. We know that priests are not enough for all needs. But if a priest takes care of the lay leaders of a movement, who in turn take care of others of the same movement, then a “pyramid” of accompanying ties is created. I would say that this is “modus” to be made to the Instrumentum Laboris.
CWR: The Synod is dedicated to young people, faith, and vocational discernment. Has the scarcity of priests been touched? What message will the Synod send to those who are contemplating priesthood?
Archbishop Stankevics: At the Synod, of course, we speak of vocation. But, as many stress, not only the priesthood or the consecrated life are vocations, but also marriage and family. As I precisely said a few days ago during the free interventions: the real challenge is how to develop the grace of Baptism and Confirmation, so that this will also help flourish vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The real challenge is not the few vocations to the priesthood, but how to develop the Christian life, the faith.
CWR: What was the impact of the Pope’s recent trip to Latvia and the Baltic countries?
Archbishop Stankevics: Yesterday, I told the assembly that there has been a seven-year discernment, because I sent the first invitation to Latvia to the Pope seven years ago, to Pope Benedict XVI, on behalf of the Episcopal Conference. The Pope has arrived at the right time, the kairòs, to disarm the voices hostile to the Church. I was really amazed at how he managed to touch the heart not only of Catholics or other Christians, but also the heart of those who habitually criticize the Church; even if not all of them, at least the most important “public” voices: journalists, civil authorities… In this sense, I would say that the impact was really positive.
CWR: The preamble of the Latvia Constitution clearly affirms the validity of Christian values for Latvia, despite strong opposite pressure from the rest of Europe. Do you feel encouraged by the recent experience of the Pope’s journey in supporting this struggle?
Archbishop Stankevics: Yes, absolutely, against any attempt to erase these values from the life of our society!
CWR: At the Synod, we have heard a lot so far about listening, of listening to the young. But what does the Church propose to give them? And how?
Archbishop Stankevics: In Latvia, for example, there are religious who organize retreats for young people, for the discovery of vocation, not just that of consecrated life, and I see that they work. In Riga, we have introduced mandatory courses for engaged couples, at least two months. It also happens that some couples renounce marriage: “we have understood that we are not yet ready, we have to reflect a bit more …” This is also an accompaniment.
We have a diocesan youth center where we do two-year courses for youth leaders; this year we have had already the second release, so those who finish the course can be animators, can be leaders in the parishes, we are at the beginning of the road. Then two years ago, we hosted the European Youth Meeting of Taizé in Riga. Many young people worked as volunteers. And the same happened for the Pope’s visit: not only Catholics, also Lutherans, Baptists, young people who do not take part to the Church life but are ready to commit themselves when there is something concrete to do. This is beautiful!
CWR: Some have observed that after all that has been done, the questionnaire, the pre-synodal meeting, there are topics not yet developed enough in the Instrumentum Laboris. It is not made clear what the Church has to offer young people.
Archbishop Stankevics: Cardinal Baldisseri said—and it was confirmed in our minor circle—that the new final document will not be a revision of the Instrumentum Laboris. It will be a new document, rewritten again. In the Instrumentum Laboris a strong emphasis has been placed on listening to what young people say and on more sociological aspects. But in the final document—this is at least my desire—the strongest accent should be placed on faith, the sacraments, the importance of the Eucharist.
To build a good building you need a solid foundation first, then everything else is built, the details, the sociological issues… I hope for a change in this direction.
CWR: And the participation of young people at the Synod, how would you describe it? Is it a strong presence?
Archbishop Stankevics: Yes, absolutely! Perhaps at the beginning the Synod Fathers spoke above all, but their reactions already showed on which points the young are more or less sensitive. Then they posed the questions to analyze in the minor circles. Many of those questions were already quite practical. But the foundation of the answer is faith. The answer must be reached looking at the issues with the eyes of faith, as the Pope himself emphasized, when he said that discernment is not a technique, but a spiritual process: listening together what the Holy Spirit wants to put in our hearts, and grasp the answer. Otherwise we get lost in this psychological/sociological analysis and so on.
CWR: We just celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the election of St. John Paul II, a Pope who fascinated a huge amount of young people without discounting the teachings of the Church. Can Pope Wojtyla still be an example for the Synod today?
Archbishop Stankevics: The first example is his inner integrity: he believed in what he preached! He was a man who walked on the threshold between the visible world and the invisible world. He was rooted in God. He transmitted the light and the love of God to the world, to the youth, and these young people felt it, because this flow of grace that passed through him touched their hearts.
John Paul II was truly prophetic! He affirmed the truth and the youth was aware of it, even if often they were not able to follow his words. But they knew it, in their hearts: John Paul II said the truth! So, I think we must not invent anything else. To live a whole life, to say nothing we do not even believe ourselves, to announce the Gospel by updating its languages but without changing its contents.
CWR: In February, a meeting will be held with all the presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences of the world, dedicated to the protection of minors. What measure will be taken to make the meeting really useful?
Archbishop Stankevics: The first thing is sincerity. Do not try to show yourself better than you are, because this attitude has already cost so much. Sincerity means recognizing that there is the problem and not entering into compromises, as has been declared by the last three Popes: zero tolerance, towards pedophilia and towards the problem of homosexual relationships. If a priest or a bishop or a person in the mission of the Church practices this kind of relationship, it means that he can’t continue in that service, if outwardly he shows himself as a saint but he has a double life. This is not acceptable.
And the problem was that so far it was too quiet! See the problem, but do not face it—do not talk openly, pretend not to see … that’s not good!
CWR: Do you need accountability for the bishops? Do we have to change something?
Archbishop Stankevics: Yes, face the problem openly and do not run away, this is a very important point. And I hope the February meeting will help [us] go that way.
CWR: And to the young people who do not accept to be part of a Church where these scandals occur, what message would you like to send? Why, despite everything, is it worthwhile to be part of the Church?
Archbishop Stankevics: My invitation to these young people is only one: do not look at these negative examples—look at the saints, who in the Church are more numerous than these sinners, these traitors of their own mission, of their vocation. This I would say first.
Second point, look for people who inspire confidence in you, and follow them. But the first person to look at and to follow is Jesus!
CWR: To summarize, what is your advice to a young man today to live the faith every day?
Archbishop Stankevics: As Pope Francis said at the Synod, do not be afraid to have dreams, to express these dreams and to follow them. Do not suppress them, but try to realize them, by looking at those raised by the Holy Spirit and those purely human, because God raises within us a nostalgia for beauty, goodness, of the truth … follow it! Follow it! Follow these deepest desires and God will open the way for you. God, creating man, in the womb brings you skills and talents and if we offer our lives to the Lord these talents can be made to flourish 100%.
Discovering Jesus is discovering that life is beautiful, and that I was created for a mission greater than myself.