John O’Connor Participates in ESC Meeting in Lithuania

Jocelyn Thomas Features

VILNIUS, Lithuania — John O’Connor participated last week with many of the other 17 provincial ministers of the OFM English-speaking Conference at the ESC’s semi-annual meeting here. The gathering included time for meetings as well as cultural activities.

In addition to Holy Name Province, members of the conference include the seven other provinces in the United States as well as provinces in Canada, England, Ireland, Malta and Lithuania.

The event was hosted by the friars of the Province of St. Casimir, a community with a rich history.

The Lithuanian friars are part of the ESC because of their longtime association with the United States. When Lithuania was taken over by the Soviet Union in 1939 and the practice of faith was suppressed, some friars went underground and many friars relocated to Kennebunkport, Me., the custody of St. Casimir.

In 1991, after Lithuania was liberated from the Soviet Union, the underground friars sought the help of their brothers in Maine so they could reclaim their Franciscan identify after nearly 50 years of oppression.

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is a combination of old and new, according to John, who described Vilnius as a “gem in Eastern Europe.”

“The old city is being repaired and restored after years of Soviet neglect,” John said. “It has all the charm and excitement of old Europe. The modern part of the city is alive with new construction which stands in stark contrast to the structures the Communists built, which can only be described as junk. When you look at those buildings, you understand better why the Communist system is such a failure. It takes all incentive to achieve excellence away from the human.”

Vilnius will be the site for the European Union cultural year celebration in 2009, John said.

In Lithuania, which is adjacent to Poland on its northeast side, the friars are referred to as the Bernardines, John said. At right is the church of St. Francis and Bernardine.

The ESC meeting, held from April 16 through 21, was led by Melvin Jurisich, OFM, of the St. Barbara Province, who is president of the ESC. John, vice president of the ESC, was at his side providing input. The meeting site was the Domus Maria, a former Carmelite monastery that was recently renovated by the Archdiocese of Vilnius. The host was Astijus Kungys, OFM, the minister of the St. Casimir Province.

While together, the ESC provincials discussed a wide range of topics. In addition, they listened to presentations from Moisés Gutierrez, OFM, director of the General Curia development office, and Joseph Chinnici, OFM, professor of church history at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

Moisés discussed international fundraising projects and programs for formation, the missions, houses dependent on the order and the general administration of the order. Joe presented a day-long reflection on Christology, spirituality and ecclesiology  underlying the vision of  the priesthood in the Franciscan tradition.

Getting acquainted with culture and history
During their stay, the provincial ministers participated in a variety of activities ranging from tours and luncheons to cultural programs and meeting with government officials.

The week never had a dull moment, John said.

The president of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus, had a brief meeting with the provincial ministers to both welcome them and to reflect on the impact that the Lithuanian friars are having on the people, especially the youth, and the reestablishment of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, according to John Doctor, OFM, provincial minister of the Province of the Sacred Heart who wrote of his experiences in the Around the Province newsletter.

On Tuesday evening, the group went to the opera as guests of President Adamkus; they saw a performance ofMadame Butterfly. On Wednesday, they visited two of the Lithuanian friars’ houses of formation. It was a six-hour ride round-trip, John said.

That day, the provincial ministers also attended a youth Mass with a “nice congregation number-wise and an excellent youth choir,” according to John. Though the Mass was in Lithuanian, John said “Mel preached with a local friar translating.”

The friars had dinner in a restaurant in a private large banquet room which was shared by a group of members of the European Parliament who were meeting in Lithuania.

The friars also visited the Hill of Crosses near the small city of Siaulai, which is a national pilgrimage center. The hundreds of thousands of crosses represent Christian devotion and are a memorial to Lithuanian national identity.

Between their meetings on Thursday, the provincial ministers had lunch at the Irish Embassy.  That evening, they attended a reception with at Papal Nuncio to celebrate the Pope’s birthday. Friday included a reception with the president of Lithuania.

A DVD chronicling the meetings and activities of this spring ESC gathering is being produced.

Feeling the hope of the Lithuanian people and youth of friars
John said that he was delighted to see the resiliency of the Lithuanian people after years of oppression.

“I’d assumed that we would see people who appeared beaten down,” he said. “Instead, they seemed to be enjoying life and freedom. I was impressed with the number of young people who participated 
in the liturgies.”

The country has a large Catholic population; approximately 80% of the people are Catholic, John said.

The friars seem youthful in Lithuania. Their average age is in the 30s compared to 60ish here in the United States, John said, adding that the province is in a developing phase.  It was formed in the 1990s and is attracting many young people.

“I believe that if we Provincials who gathered in Lithuania over these five days were to use two words to describe our experience it would be that we were surprised and inspired,” John said. “I say ‘surprised’ because many, if not all, of us thought we would be arriving in a country somewhat impoverished and beaten down after years of Communist occupation and oppression. Instead we found a city, Vilnius, that is a just being discovered a gem in Eastern Europe.”

John said that he found the Lithuanian people to be positive and seemingly full of hope. They seem to be enjoying life and freedom, he said.

The fall ESC gathering will be in California and the spring 2008 meeting is set for St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y. John O’Connor takes on the role of ESC president in October.

— Jocelyn in Communications Director for Holy Name Province.