True Lithuania

Roman Catholicism in Lithuania

With some 86% of poulation its followers, Roman Catholicism is the main faith of Lithuania since the 15th century. It is thus closely associated with Lithuanian culture. While Lithuania has no state religion, the laws generally permit support for religion by public institutions as long as such support is proportional to the number of adherents of those religions in the area. As Catholicism has the most followers almost all over Lithuania, this leads to it enjoying a semi-official status in some cases (for example, the public TV station provides a live coverage of Catholic masses during the key festivals).

Roman Catholicism in Lithuania withstood both the Reformation (16th century) and the church closures under the Russian Empire (19th century). In 1940-1990 Catholicism served among primary forces of defying Soviet occupation and publishing the anti-Soviet “Chronicles of the Catholic Church” that documented the persecution of Lithuanians. As such, the Catholic church has gained an image of the "defender of truth and human freedoms" in Lithuania, which it lacks in the West.

Many small Lithuanian towns or villages are adorned by tall elaborate churches, mostly dating to the early 20h century when the ban of new Catholic churches was lifted. In other places, older wooden churches (18th – 19th centuries) remain. They are great examples of traditional people’s architecture.

Next to the roads you may still see some large crosses and small chapels erected by the local people. Lithuanian cross-making is inscribed into UNESCO list of immaterial heritage and the best place to see it is the Hill of Crosses near Šiauliai.

Interior of a modest Žagarė church, with explanations. Every Catholic church has a Main Altar where the priest celebrates the Mass. The high point of every Mass is the distribution of Holy Communion. This wine and bread, representing Jesus's flesh and blood, is kept in the tabernacle outside of Mass. Glowing eternal lamp indicates their presence. Bible and sermon are read at the front pulpit (ornate side pulpits were used to make the priest heard better before the microphone/speakers era). Followers sit, stand or kneel (depending on the time of Mass) at the benches. Stations of the cross are 12 paintings or bas-reliefs representing the passion of the Christ. There are many other paintings depicting saints and Bible scenes, the most important ones hanging behind altars. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

But probably nowhere Roman Catholicism is felt as much as in Vilnius Old Town, where there are many church spires of different periods gone by, from 14th to the 18th century. There are also several miraculous paintings that are visited by pilgrims from far away in Vilnius: the Divine Mercy and the Mary of the Gates of Dawn are the prime examples.

Another famous miraculous painting exists in Šiluva. While the elaborate processions to the holy sites across Lithuanian countryside are less popular than they were 100 years ago the religious town holidays are still the main event of the year in many places.

Vilnius Cathedral is likely the oldest Roman Catholic church in Lithuania, dating to approximately 1251. The current façade was created in Neoclassical style in 1801. Like many churches, the Cathedral was nationalized by the Soviets and its sculptures of three saints torn down (they were rebuilt after independence). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

As the Lithuania’s major religion Roman Catholicism was the prime target of the Soviet anti-religious drive. The Soviets closed many churches and all the monasteries. After independence, most of these buildings have been reopened and repaired but a lack of money means that many others still stand derelict with their priceless artworks destroyed. Despite the rebirth of religious practices, they are still nowhere as prevalent as they were before the occupation. Only several percents of Lithuania's Catholics actually go to mass every Sunday (nominally a requirement for the believers).

See also: Christian holidays in Lithuania, Top 10 Christian locations and activities in Lithuania

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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