The Catholic Church’s authority and clout has been challenged recently. But Kestutis Kevalas, an auxiliary Bishop of the Kaunas Archdiocese in Lithuania is upbeat the Church will get through these trying times as it has in the past. His Excellency calls some social shifts, like being more embracing towards homosexuals, “a social experiment” and insists it may languish as some others did throughout history. “It is all about ups and downs in history, but the Evangel stays forever,” Bishop reminded The Baltic Times journalist. Still, he agrees that finding new ways of communicating is crucial for Church.
How challenging is the 21st century for the Catholic Church? What do you believe to be the biggest challenge it faces?
The biggest challenge is the people, I’d say. I mean the shrinking population, which can be seen not only in the pews and parishes but everywhere. As a result, there are now not enough human resources to sustain operations as there were years ago. Like all the society and state, the Church is suffering from demographic changes - thinning and aging communities in rural Lithuania — and we face increasingly the issue of the appropriate delivery of Church’s message in urban areas. With the means of communications rapidly changing, delivering it to young people especially is crucial. Social media is so fast nowadays that, sometimes, the Church, I believe, is behind the pace and needs, certainly, to catch up. To sum up, it’s all about the means of communications, not the centuries-old message itself.
The second big challenge is secularism, obviously. It is not that people stopped believing in God, but they have stopped paying attention to the issue of the meaning of life — what is it about and what the purpose of life is, etc. People, nowadays, seem to be preoccupied with issues of their career and money-making. Few understand that life, alas, is beyond temporary occupation — it is about the incredible human destiny, eternity. Giving a thought on these issues is considered as something too philosophical and religious, unfortunately.
What does secularization bode for the Catholic Church? Can it withstand it?
Ongoing secularization is not a new thing in world history. If you were to look carefully through history — not only humanity’s, but the Church’s as well — you’d see it was taking place – and is happening now — not only outside the Church, but within it, too. I mean all those new ideas are finding their way into the Church, too.
I reckon what the Church has to focus on amid the trying time is building a community life. In other words, foster relationships among the people to build communities within the Church. Do the work despite the immense individualism around. We know that each individual yearns deeply in their heart for a relationship, for being part of a community. That is how the most popular networks are built and operate, as a matter of fact. As erasing individualism is hardly possible, the Church wants to build communities with an individualistic approach — i.e. set up communities of self-education, self-training, as well as communities of prayer, hobbies and family institute enhancement. I see the Church as a roof for those kinds of communities.
For many centuries, the Catholic Church has been, often, a single policy-maker on the governance of a state, culture, science and social life. Where do you see its new niches, yet untapped spheres for activity with the Church’s clout waning?
Over the years, the Church has exerted tremendous efforts to guard human dignity and we are heartened to see that, in the general policies of Western countries, it has been preserved. Nevertheless, we cannot agree with the interpretations of human dignity the Western world debates. The interpretations boil down mostly to the institute of family. We see attempts to broaden the family concept, including same-gender couples, or even a number of persons in it, as erosion of human society, as an irresponsible experiment.
The Church strongly denounces the attempts and fosters the traditional family concept. Although acknowledging the reality — we do not say homosexual persons are less worthy or sinners — we insist though that the centuries-old family institute cannot be changed just because others want to live differently. With respect to the differences, the minority cannot impose its interpretations of family on the majority.
In fact, speaking of interpretations, there are other fields, like, for example, intro-fertilization with the quintessential questions whether embryo is a human person or not, where the Church’s stance is in opposition with the modernists’. Can we use cells from embryos for research? If we give the green light for that, we consider we are taking a very dangerous path.
But you have to agree the Church is slowly losing its grip on the family issues, therefore the admired-by-most Pope Francis’ more lenient stance on gay people. Isn’t just a matter of time when the Church will have to adapt to the swiftly changing reality and embrace same-sex unions?
We do not judge a person for his or her sexual orientation. Pope Francis is reminding all of us that judging someone for who she or he is is not the Church wants to deal with the reality. But at the same time, it is very hard for Church to see the ongoing attempts to change and destroy the family concept that has been around for ages. The debate on family issues has also a positive side, too – Church is compelled to rethink how it articulates and delivers the message on family and what is related to it. As I mentioned, we, the pastors, believe that humanity with the interpretations of family is kind of experimenting with itself. This is not new – similar goings-on we also were witnessed in the last century, for example. With economy, to be specific.
Where the experiment will take us, remains to be seen, but I am sure the evangelical take on family the Church stands for and defends won’t go away anywhere. Still, the Church might need to adapt itself for the changing times and think how to deliver the evangelical message against the new background surrounding family issues.
The Church cannot just scrap all the teachings on family because of an experiment. What if humanity after the failed experiment wants to come back to the family foundation forged over the centuries?
This is likely (to happen) as human history is full of upswings and downswings.
A media leak quoted Pope Francis as saying that the upcoming Church’s Family Synod in the autumn might be “scandalous.” What do you make of the words?
I am not sure how far the Synod can go, but I believe that through the lips of the Pope will invite all in the Church to be more accepting of homosexuals. As of now, we perhaps do not always have necessary skills how to treat the individuals – with respect and dignity. Nevertheless, the Synod, I am sure, will not change the perception of family. It cannot change Jesus’s words about it. I reckon the Synod can lay out ways for treating homosexual people — in a respectful way, obviously.
The Irish overwhelming vote for homosexual marriage has been a big blow to the Irish Catholic Church, you have to agree. Is only the secularization to blame for the reverse in public opinion on gay marriage in the country? How much is the Church accountable for what happened in Ireland?
Certainly, the Irish Catholic Church has failed to deliver the message it has been trying to send. It failed to do so because it sought to juxtapose the bias society against gay people. But the radical opposition against the gay community has just blown up as if a balloon. In fact, it has moved swiftly to the other side of the pendulum – in staunch support of gay people. I believe that many of the people, who would be usually against gay marriage, voted for it in protest of the Church’s ardent and radical opposition to it.
How damaging have the paedophilia scandals been to Irish Catholic Church?
This is the reason number 2, behind the radical rhetoric and a dialogue with the local gay community. The scandals have dealt a huge blow to the Church. The damage, I’d say, has been horrific, beyond the imagination. To reiterate, some of the people voted in support of gay marriage to protest against crimes committed by the Church. Third stands the mass culture broadening the limits and expressions of freedom, which often is about doing whatever one wants.
Pope Francis is an outstanding example of chastity, humbleness and modesty. He wants the Catholic priests to go back to the roots of the priesthood- strip of the fancy liturgical vestments and move out from luxurious residences. How does it reverberate among the Kaunas Archdiocese clergy? Have the priests changed anything in their daily life?
Indeed, Pope Francis is lambasting the Church’s clericalism, which is its ailment and temptation and which is very detrimental to the Church as it opening gaping gaps between the ordinary people, clergy and Church itself.
Upon the Pope’s invitation, the archdiocese has started organizing the so-called Kaunas City missions, during which the clergy leaves churches and residences — goes out, meet the people and mingle with them in various events organized by the Archdiocese. This is a new thing. We’ve recently launched a new initiative, called Priests in Cafes, which, as the name hints, has the priests going out and talking to the people in local coffee shops, bars and cafes. Quite on daily, earthly topics, let me stress it. We have been organizing for the Kaunas youth, for a couple years now, the festival to celebrate Valentine’s Day - we called it Valentine‘s Day Differently. In addition, we’ve started Family Days in Vilnius. All of this is done to reach out to the people that normally would not come to Church. This is done in response to the Pope’s message on humbleness and simplicity.
If one wants to insist us on moving out of the Archdiocese’s palace to a cheaper and simpler lodging, I’d respond that it would be too expensive.
Do all the bishops and priests you know support Pope Francis in his endeavors and visions 100 percent?
I cannot speak on behalf of all of them, but the majority, clearly, supports the Pope. Frankly, the topics and conversations he raised up and keeps raising have long been in the conversations the in the inner circles of the Church. We clearly understand if it does not reflect on the developments in the society, harm to its authority and trust will be inevitable. Sometimes I believe the priesthood needs quite some more time to get adapted to the new rhetoric by Pope Francis. And moreover: give him the shoulder.
Can Lithuania expect Pope Francis’ visit soon?
We have invited him to pay such visit to Lithuania on numerous occasions and one of them — Pope Francis’ visit to Krakow next year — seems to be the best for the extension of his visit to Lithuania. Especially, that the Year of Compassion starts at the end of the year, and Vilnius has long been known as a temple and fountainhead of compassion. But the papal visit arrangements will depend on many things — the situation in the world, first of all. We are just a tiny part of the Church with large archdioceses in the US, South America, Africa or elsewhere in Europe trying to get the Pope going to them.
How immense do you believe for Pope Francis is the task of reconciliation all the positions on key issues Church deals with? Is it possible to do? Can pursuing a reformed Church lead to its schism?
The structure of Church prevents it from seeing the latter, I’d say. I mean that all’s compliance and obedience to Pope is a must. Technically, schism can always happen, but I believe there are too many safeguards to prevent it from happening. We can disagree with what I call certain interpretations, but I don’t see people in the Church disagreeing on some fundamental questions, like, for example, on Jesus.
Let’s imagine earthlings get in touch with far-advanced alien forms of life someday. Obviously, the Pope, a big UFO believer himself and his led Church, would expect them to shore up the Bible teachings and the claim about Jesus as God’s son. Excuse me for my blasphemy, what happens if the aliens insist the Universe is God-less – created through evolution, an idea which Pope Francis also finds plausible?
Whatever the alien tells me I won’t start jumping excitingly about the news. The alien won’t necessarily have authority to talk about God. If he denies His presence, then the alien will have to substantially explain where from existence is derived; how thinking emerged and how self-reflection is based, and some other questions like that. Catholic Church considers alien forms, if they ever turn out to be there, as God’s creation, by the way. The theory of evolution has been repudiated neither by Pope Benedict nor Pope Paul II, but it (theory) is flawed — i.e. unable to fully explain the evolutionary process.
The complete interview can be read online at www.baltictimes.com.