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Interview with Cardinal Audrys Juozas Backis

ROME, JULY 14, 2006 (Zenit) - Cardinal Audrys Juozas Backis, archbishop of Vilnius, Lithuania, says his country needs a policy that ensures a decent life for families.

He explained this need and others to us after participating last month in the ad limina apostolorum visit of the bishops of the episcopal conferences of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Q: Could you summarize the report prepared for the ad limina apostolorum visit on the situation of the Church in Lithuania?

Cardinal Juozas Backis: It is difficult to summarize the report ... but it underlined the problems of the family, the formation of young people for marriage, the secularization of society which results in the loss of the values of life and family. Hence, we are becoming European in that sense!

The Holy Father has spoken to us especially about the family, so he took up this aspect of our report.

However, as usual, there are lights and shadows, difficulties and positive points in the area of the family, family centers, catechetical centers and youth centers. In brief, something is happening. There are small groups, small cells, which bring hope for the future.

I would say that we did not stress many other problems, such as the demographic decline (or) attendance at religious instruction courses in the school, which is only 50%. We concentrated, above all, on the problems of people who do not find many values, who even prefer to go away for the sake of money.

Q: What impression did you get and what issues arose in your meetings with members of the Roman Curia?

Cardinal Juozas Backis: I have just come out of a meeting with the Pontifical Council for the Family, where we spoke about the problems of the family, our participation in the World Meeting of Valencia, and other problems relating to bishops.

We reflected on our responsibility as pastors, on the way to address certain problems, emphasizing above all fraternity among the bishops. I would like to say that, when we come together to Rome, we are in fact freer than when we meet in Lithuania and must address different critical issues.

Here, in fact, in a very tranquil way, we have fraternized and experienced that affective collegiality of which there is so much talk. We visited the four patriarchal basilicas, concelebrated Mass; there have been many moments of prayer, of faith. We have come to the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul and, finally, we have had the joy of seeing the Holy Father.

The problems of the clergy were the other concrete issues we brought up, along with the problems relating to the present state of the sacraments and the liturgy. We have questioned ourselves on precise and concrete problems: what we should do, for example, about the question of pseudo-apparitions here and there, how we must react.

And we were given a very beautiful answer: they are not things that must be condemned, but to be taken advantage of to launch a healthy catechesis addressed to those people who go there moved, perhaps, by erroneous ideas or information.

Q: During the audience with Benedict XVI at the end of the visit, the Holy Father encouraged you to be always "strong defenders of life and of the family." What can you tell us about the situation of the family institution in Lithuania? What is the Church saying in this respect?

Cardinal Juozas Backis: The Church, as a great family, invites us to still do something more. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, all of us bishops are concerned about this situation and I regard with joy the courses of preparation for marriage, which perhaps are not well followed outside the large cities because of the lack of qualified personnel.

It would be lovely if, also, after the wedding, young couples continued to get together, forming small communities to pray together, to have outings together, to travel together and to support one another in prayer to live their marriage in a Christian way in a secularized society such as ours, with a press and television that do not help the education of children. This, hence, is one aspect.

Other aspects are all those laws that come to us from Brussels or resolutions that some people try to translate into laws. We must make every effort to make laws that do the least evil. So, we try to work in this area.

Moreover, I believe it is the families themselves, the parents, who must organize themselves and fight to make their rights respected, rights whose source is the state, rights also in the realm of the school in order to demand a good education in a healthy atmosphere for their children.

I believe, moreover, that it is the parents -- and not bishops or priests -- who must speak out; they are the ones who must defend their rights and those of their children, as well as the right to educate them according to their own conscience and conviction. I think here something is happening in the right direction.

Q: The phenomenon of a great emigration of qualified young people from Lithuania for socio-economic reasons is one of the consequences of the Communist regime. How can the Church respond to this reality?

Cardinal Juozas Backis: I don't think the Church can respond. We can activate people to love their country, family, and not go in search of adventure goodness knows where. This has to do with conscience. A person who loves his country, parents, environment, prefers to stay. I believe this is rather a problem of the state, which does not offer opportunities to so many young people after finishing their studies. And here there is truly a growing social injustice.

In my judgment, it is a socio-political problem and, returning to the topic of the family, I believe that what is most needed in Lithuania at present is a healthy family policy. Yes, the state does give some aid to families, but this is not the point.

A healthy family policy consists in helping families to have a home, to live decently, and to prepare a better future for their children. If these problems are not resolved, from the social point of view, and if there is no healthy family policy, I can say that I understand why young people go away, and this distresses me very much.

Q: What is the present situation of vocations and seminaries in the country, in the wake of the long persecutions suffered due to the Communist regime?

Cardinal Juozas Backis: I would say the situation is almost stable. Entrance to the seminary has not increased, if anything, it has diminished somewhat. We had a passing increase immediately after independence. I recall that in 1993, when I re-opened the seminary in Vilnius after 50 years, 22 youths entered, many of whom I ordained later. Hence, it was a joy, but in recent years I have ordained an average of 304 priests, while five to 10 years ago there was a more consistent group.

But there is another factor linked, I believe, to a very severe selection. In all the dioceses we have introduced a "propedeutico" year, which is really essential for a youth who wants to be a priest, to observe exactly what he aims at, for his maturation, for the maturation of his vocation and also for those responsible, so that they are able to discern better the reasons why a candidate chooses the priesthood and if he is able to follow that path.

Therefore, this experience brings very good results and I see that youths who have spent those periods of formation enter the seminary more or less stable. In Vilnius, for example, there are 116 diocesan priests, while 10 years ago there were some 100. And, above all, they are very young. I believe that 65% of the priests are less than 40 years old. The age of the clergy will not be so important for the future as the fact that they are faithful to their vocation and are apostles of the new evangelization.

Q: What message of hope will you take back from this experience?

Cardinal Juozas Backis: The joy, fraternal spirit, fraternal communion among ourselves, the bishops. We have received great encouragement and support from the Holy Father, as well as from all the dicasteries we visited, and now the time has come for us to resume with greater enthusiasm the path we have already undertaken.

Moreover, the main message is the right of the family, and the call is to make it resound more in Lithuania because, in my judgment, when there is a family in which love reigns, numerous problems disappear. Also, in regard to vocations: where do they come from if not from beautiful Christian families!

Therefore, for me the message is that the family is at the center of our pastoral concern, as well as the aspect of life related to it. We pray to the Lord that he may bless our Lithuanian families.

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Family, Bishops, Backis, Life

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