Lasma Latsone of Latvia graduated from Fordham University with a PhD in Religion and Religious Education in the spring of 2004. She was sponsored by the Office to Aid the Church in Central and Eastern Europe at the United States Bishops’ Conference. Today back in Latvia she teaches religion at the Institute of Religious Science and the Pedagogical Academy, and she is involved in the newly-established Latvian Catholic Women’s Association.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Liepaja, a city in Latvia on the coast of the Baltic Sea. My parents died early, so I grew up with my aunt and with my sister, who is five years older than me. She is married now and has three daughters.
How is it you decided to pursue doctoral studies in religion? Have you always been Catholic?
No, I was not raised Catholic. When I was a child, Latvia was part of Soviet Union, where religion was strictly forbidden. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, when the cultural and religious climate changed and Latvia regained its independence, many people converted to Christianity, including me. In 1989, I became a member of a Lutheran parish which had a very progressive pastor who worked with youth and invited me to be part of the parish choir. Three years later, while on pilgrimage to Aglona—the national Catholic shrine of Latvia—I converted to Catholicism.
Looking back, I understand that actually my conversion was more an emotional response than a conscious choice. I didn’t have much understanding of the Catholic faith and why I wanted to change my denomination. I just wanted to be like everyone else in the group and receive Communion. My decision to convert didn’t come from theological understanding but more from desire to be together with a particular group of people with whom I experienced closeness of God during this pilgrimage.
What happened next? What led you to do a Ph.D. at Fordham University?
After the conversion I became deeply involved in the life of my new Catholic parish. Since I had graduated from Music College and was a piano student at the Conservatoire, I got involved in music ministry and volunteered at the parish in other ways. Also I worked as a music and religion teacher in a recently established Catholic elementary school. Soon I stopped my studies in music, wrongly thinking that in general I didn’t need much education to serve the Church. But then something unexpected happened.
In 1994, a professor from the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education of Fordham University in New York, Gloria Durka, and Sr. Elene McCarron, who at that time worked for the USCCB, visited Latvia. They wanted to evaluate religious education in post-Communist Latvia. Since I knew English, when they came to our school I could communicate with them. They immediately understood the urgent need for educated teachers. After their visit, I received a letter from Professor Durka. She asked me to consider coming to Fordham to study. I was not the first to be invited. Already in 1995 there were three Latvian women who were studying at Fordham University. Now Professor Durka has established a foundation called L.E.A.D. (Latvian Education and Development) to help Latvian women to come to Fordham University to study religious education.
What did you learn from your time at Fordham that you hope to bring back to Latvia and pass on to others?
My years at Fordham totally changed my life and my perception of what education and faith are all about. I learned to think for myself, and to value the power of education. I learned that the Church is not something static and frozen but that it is a living organism where everyone can find a place and use their gifts and talents. I learned that all kinds of information can serve as sources of learning. We just need to evaluate these sources and put them to good use. Even critique is not something to fear, but to learn from.
How do you understand the new role of laywomen in the Church in Latvia and what role do you see yourself playing?
The role of the laywomen can only grow and become stronger as the areas of ministry get wider and people become more and more aware that priests are not the only ones who can help people in their religious needs. I want to work in adult education and have been offered teaching positions at both religious and secular educational establishments, the Institute of Religious Science, and the Pedagogical Academy. I see my role as helping women find their voice and recognize the value of religion in their lives. Also, I am involved in the Latvian Catholic Women’s Association which has started its work in Latvia very recently.
What do you see as the most important challenges of the Church in Latvia?
As the theme of my dissertation I chose “Renewing Parish Education in the Catholic Church of Latvia: Implementing the Reforms of Second Vatican Council.” I chose this theme because I see that valuing education and implementing the spirit of Vatican II is a very great challenge for the Church in Latvia. Another challenge is to appreciate the gifts of women and value their contribution to the Church. The Church in Latvia has been developing and recovering from the damage done by the Soviet regime, but now it is time to move on. We need to translate the documents of the Council and make them available to people, and also introduce their spirit into the life of the Church. The most important challenge for parishioners that I see is to change their perception of the Church from a place for private devotions to a community, and to learn to connect faith with their daily lives.
What are your plans for the future?
I have started teaching and I want to use my knowledge as best as I can. My background education is in music; therefore besides teaching I also want to continue to contribute to the Church by playing the organ and using my knowledge to improve the music ministry in my parish and in the diocese.
Is there anything you would like to say to Catholics in the United States who helped make your studies possible?
I am extremely grateful to everyone who has helped me on my way towards the degree. While studying in United States I experienced such generosity and love. I want to give that back to people here in Latvia. When I graduated from the Master’s program at Fordham, my mentor asked me a question: What were some of the most difficult things during your stay here? I said that it was difficult for me to be only a receiver—people give and give, but I have nothing to give them in return. Then she said that we don’t need to give back to the same people who give to us. We need to pass on what we have to others. Therefore I will try to do my best to pass on what I have received.