Popiežiaus Pranciškaus vizitas

CATHOLIC CHURCH IN LITHUANIA CENTURYWISE

Though the toponym «Lithuania» is for the first time mentioned in Annals of Quedlinburg (Saxony-Anhalt) in 1009, a history of the Church in Lithuania began only two and a half centuries later. In April or May 1251 a Lithuanian duke Mindaugas, his family and the members of his court received a sacrament of baptism and a royal crown from the Pope. The Kingdom of Lithuania did not last long: in 1263 Mindaugas was killed by the contestants of his power, and Lithuania – not a kingdom anymore, but a Grand Duchy again – relapsed into paganism.

A war with the Teutonic Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary that started in XIII century and raged during the following centuries, did not help to win Lithuanians and Samogitians to the Christian faith. As the Lithuanian State expanded, it included more and more Christians of the eastern rite, but the dynasty of Gediminaičiai, architects and rulers of the Grand Duchy, held firmly to their pagan beliefs.

The Christian transformation of Lithuania began in 1385-1387 when the Grand Duke Jogaila was offered a Polish throne, was baptized and started a baptism of the Lithuanian population. The first ecclesiastical structures of the diocese of Vilnius (founded in autumn of 1388) were established but the penetration of the western Christianity was very slow. Though the nobility has quickly accepted Christianity, the Christianization of the members of lower social strata took centuries.

The XV century brought an erection of the diocese of Medininkai (1416) and a beginning of a christianization of Samogitia. This century has also produced the first Lithuanian saint – the royal prince Kazimieras that died in Hrodna in the odor of sanctity in 1484. He was to become the principal patron of the vast Grand Duchy of Lithuania and an example of sanctity for thousands of Lithuanian Christians in the centuries to come.

The XVI century brought to Lithuania not only the beauty of the Humanist culture but also the deterioration of the Church due to the process of confessionalization. This trend of fragmentation was halted only by a combined energetic action of Jesuits (that arrived in Lithuania in 1569) and a new generation of bishops, eager and ready to change a situation of the Church.  and subsequent explosion of interest to the Catholic faith. An opening of the first Lithuanian university in 1579-1580, diffusion of literacy and schools, but most importantly a «discovery of the little man», meant the beginning of the real pastoral care of the majority of population. An implementation of ideas, generated by the Popes and the Fathers of the Council of Trent, have in a comparatively short period of time (70-80 years) transformed Lithuania into a flourishing Catholic monarchy in the north east of Europe.

In the first half of the XVII century Vilnius was admired by visitors from abroad for its many churches and monasteries, as well as for its lively religious life. The pompous consecration of the new chapel of St. Casimir in the Cathedral of Vilnius August 14, 1636 might be considered an apogee of religious and cultural development of Catholicism in Lithuania before the era of wars and the beginning of religious and cultural decline. The Moscovite and Swedish invasions in 1655-1661 have destroyed religious structures in Lithuania, and everything has had to be rebuilt from ashes and ruins. Despite all the efforts, a religious life in Grand Duchy of Lithuania has never again reacquired its former intensity and heights.

XVIII century with its many invasions, occupations and epidemics, with its rationalistic and revolutionary ideas was an age of decline and slow-down. Still, there were examples of religious fervor and expansion too: in 1772 a number of convents of the Lithuanian province of Franciscans Observant rose to 31 and Piarist Brothers have rapidly grew in numbers too. Unfortunately, the three divisions of Poland-Lithuania between Russia, Prussia and Austria (1772, 1792 and 1795) and the resulting annihilation of Lithuanian statehood submerged the Catholic Church into a deep pond of persecution and russification.

The imperialist aspirations of Russian tsars of the XIX century resulted in closing of hundreds of monasteries and in expropriation of the major part of Catholic churches. It was in these gloomy times that the Providence brought to Lithuanian Catholics personalities like Motiejus Valančius, Bishop of Samogitia (1801-1875) who inspired and led a successful movement of religious and cultural resistance. After the uprisings of 1831 and 1864 against the tsarist tyranny followed the repressions, the most notorious of them being a prohibition of Lithuanian press printed in Latin letters. Imposed in 1864, this measure of cultural warfare was lifted only in 1904.

The beginning of the XX century saw a liberalization of political regime and a revival of the Catholic Church. Following the «warming up» of the political climate, many religious communities have re-established their activities in Lithuania. Many new communities were founded, while confraternities and Catholic cultural, economic, social or sporting societies were founded. Following the collapse of Russian and Prussian monarchies at the end of the First World War, in 1918 an independent Republic of Lithuania was established. In 1926 Pope Pius XI issued a bull Lithuanorum gente that established the Lithuanian ecclesiastical province with the metropolitan archdiocese of Kaunas and four suffragan dioceses of Kaišiadorys, Panevėžys, Vilkaviškis and Telšiai. The first Soviet (1940-1941), Nazist (1941-1944) and the second Soviet (1944-1990) occupations have left many deep scars both in the Church life. Half a century of violent atheism and repressions against bishops, priests and faithful have divided a population: while a handful of brave have started spreading the truth by establishing an underground press (e. g., Chronicle of Catholic Church (1972-1989)), the other part of faithful chose not to resist openly or even collaborated with the mighty KGB.

An independence, regained March 11, 1990, has gradually brought a freedom of religion and new perspectives to the Church. In 1991 Saint Pope John Paul II reorganized the Lithuanian ecclesiastical province and established a metropolitan archdiocese of Vilnius with dioceses of Panevėžys and Kaišiadorys as its’ suffragans. New seminaries were opened in Telšiai (1989), Vilnius (1993), Marijampolė (1997) and hundreds of candidates to priesthood flocked in. Pope John Paul II has visited Lithuania on September 4-8, 1993, urging not to have fear but open the hearts to Jesus.

25 years after the visit of now canonized Pope John Paul II, another Supreme Pontiff, the reigning Pope Francis is going to visit (again in September!) Lithuania. Lithuania is eager to welcome His Holiness on its ancient soil, in its historic Churches, asking for His prayer and blessing, and reassuring Him that Christ Jesus is our hope.