AGLONA, LATVIA - Pope Francis praised Latvians on Monday for persevering through the horrors of Soviet and Nazi occupation, persecution and exile, and urged them to keep their Christian faith alive as subsequent generations confront new oppressions today.
On the third day of his Baltic pilgrimage, Francis traveled to Latvia and placed flowers at the monument to Latvian independence. He joined Lutheran and Orthodox leaders at a music-filled ecumenical prayer and acknowledged the many trials Latvians endured during two Soviet occupations and the World War II-era occupation by Nazi Germany: "the horror of war, then political repression, persecution and exile."
"Yet you remained steadfast; you persevered in faith," he told a gathering of elderly Latvians in Riga's Catholic cathedral. "Neither the Nazi regime nor the Soviet regime could extinguish the faith in your hearts," he said. "You fought the good fight; you ran the race, you kept the faith."
He continued the theme during a pilgrimage later Monday to Latvia's most important Catholic shrine at Aglona, near the southeastern border with Russia.
During his homily outside the rain-drenched Mother of God basilica, Francis said Mary always stood near those who suffer "including those who have been put on trial, condemned by all, deported."
"Let us be ever ready to lift up the fallen, raise up the lowly and to help end all those situations of oppression that make people feel crucified themselves," he told the faithful who stood through rain showers awaiting his arrival.
The basilica is home to an important icon of the Virgin Mary that draws pilgrims from across the Baltics and Russia each year.
Francis is visiting Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to mark their 100th anniversaries of independence and to encourage the faith in the Baltics, which saw five decades of Soviet-imposed religious repression and state-sponsored atheism. In addition, the Nazi occupation nearly exterminated their Jewish populations.
In his arrival speech to Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis, Francis praised the Christian spirit that enabled the country to endure.
"You know all too well the price of that freedom, which you have had to win over and over again," he said. He praised the cooperation among different Christian churches that he said "shows that it is possible to build communion within differences."
Latvia's population of some 2 million is about a quarter Lutheran, with Catholic and Orthodox minorities.
Francis on Sunday paid equal tribute to the partisans who fought the Soviets in Lithuania, as well as the Jewish community as it marked the 75th anniversary of the final destruction of the ghetto in the capital Vilnius.
Kristine Atrens, a Latvian-Australian, said she admired the pope and was thrilled with the visit.
"I feel he's very open minded I think he's a pope of this time and he's really listening to what is happening in the world," she said.