True Lithuania

Roman Catholicism in Lithuania

The main faith of Lithuania since 15th century Roman Catholicism withstood the Reformation (16th century) and the church closures under the Russian Empire (19th century). In 1940-1990 was among primary forces of defying Soviet occupation, publishing the anti-Soviet “Chronicles of the Catholic Church” that documented persecution of Lithuanians.

Many small 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.

As the Lithuania’s major religion (some 86% its followers) 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.

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.

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

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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