Vic Biorseth, Wednesday, January 13, 2010
What we now know to be Lithuania first came into being under the rule of Mindaugas, the first Grand Duke of Lithuania. Mindaugas first governed Eastern Lithuania, which was then known as the Duchy of Lithuania, through political and military alliance with the Livonian Order and victories against other nobles. The Livonian Order was a semi-autonomous sub-order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary’s Hospital, a German Roman Catholic Order that also served as a Crusading Order. In AD 1250 or 1251 Mindaugas was the first powerful nobleman to unite the Balts and become Grand Duke.
In AD 1251 Mindaugas accepted baptism into the Catholic Church, and all of Lithuania accepted Catholicism for the first time. But all was not peace and tranquility from that point on; internecine conflicts went on, and, the nature of man being what it is, political intrigues and changing alliances at different times had Mindaugas actually warring against the Teutonic Knights. He is rumored to have reverted back to pagan ways for some period of time. War was the order of the day until 1410, when the Teutonic Knights were decisively defeated by Vytautas the Great. From that date onward, Catholicism again began to spread and take hold in the hearts of all Lithuanians.
There was a very pious Lithuanian nobleman named Petras Giedgaudas who had a special devotion for Our Lady. Giedgaudas was an advisor and a diplomat in the service of Vytautas the Great. It was he who built the first church in Siluva in AD 1457 and dedicated it to the Nativity – meaning the birth – of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Rome, Giedgaudas obtained a beautiful icon of our Lady holding the Christ child, which he brought to the Chapel at Siluva, and he installed it in the Sanctuary there. Pilgrims walked to the Chapel at Siluva from all corners of Lithuania, Prussia and other neighboring countries for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Birthday. It became a major Catholic pilgrimage site. In those days, a pilgrimage was a major act of penance and piety, and as Catholicism increased, pilgrimage increased in popularity.
In the 16th century the wars of the Reformation reached Lithuania, and Calvinism seized control of the area surrounding Siluva. But Catholic pilgrims continued to come to the Chapel at Siluva, even under increasing threat from the Calvinists. Seeing what was coming, the parish priest, Fr. Honas Holubka, gathered the important church documents, including the icon of Our Lady and the Child Jesus, sealed them into a metal box and buried them nearby. In an effort to crush Catholic piety, the Calvinists demolished the Chapel and leveled the ground. Years later local Catholics sought to regain legal ownership of lands seized, including the land the church was on, and were unable to do so because they had no documentation showing ownership.
Siluva, Lithuania, AD 1608; some 80 years after the church was demolished. Children shepherds and their sheep were on the land of the old church. They were suddenly transfixed by a vision of a weeping woman, standing on a rock and holding an infant. She did not speak; she was weeping. Then, she disappeared. One of the children ran to the local Calvinist catechist and told him of the vision of the weeping lady, and he was not believed. The other children all told their parents, and soon there was quite a commotion, and a crowd gathered at the place. The Calvinist catechist, and another teacher named Saliamonas also went to the place.
The vision appeared again – a weeping woman, standing on the same rock, holding an infant. The catechist asked her why she wept. She responded, “There was a time when my beloved Son was worshipped by my people on this very spot. But now they have given this sacred soil over to the plowman and the tiller and to the animals for grazing.” And again, she disappeared. News of this second apparition spread more quickly than the first, and soon the whole countryside was in an uproar.
News of the apparition reached the ears of a 100 year-old blind man, who fondly remembered Fr. Holubka, and who had participated in the burying of the iron-clad chest beside the large rock. The people led him to the site, and when he arrived there, his sight was miraculously restored. Giving thanks to God, he pointed out the spot where the chest was buried. The chest was dug up and opened, and it contained the large painting of the Madonna and Child, Chalices, vestments and many documents, including the original church deed.
The Lithuanian people began an immediate return to the Catholic faith, including many Calvinists in positions of authority. With the original deed to the land now in hand, the land was eventually legally returned to the Catholics in a court action finalized in AD 1622. A wooden church was erected on the site and pilgrimages commenced, particularly on the indulgenced Feast of the Nativity of Mary. More miracles began to be attributed to the icon in the Chapel. In AD 1775 Pius VI extended the celebration of the indulgenced feast from one day to an octave; eight full days. The image of Mary and Jesus was also adorned with golden crowns. The current Basilica of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was dedicated in 1786.
Basilica of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Chapel of the Apparition
Pre-Communist Tsarist Russia occupied Lithuania during the 19th century and tried to force the Russian Orthodox faith on the citizens. Not only Catholicism, but even speaking the Lithuanian language was forbidden. But the Lithuanian people maintained their religion and their language and their culture underground. Pilgrimages continued, although low keyed. Pilgrimages hit a high point between the two Great Wars. Of course, the second Great War devastated Lithuania, and left her under brutal Communist domination.
First the Calvinists; then the Tsarists; then the Communist-atheists sought to crush the Roman Catholic faith in Lithuania. They all failed. The pilgrimages continued. The KGB did everything they could to discourage pilgrims. They once even declared an outbreak of plague as an excuse to close all roads to Siluva. Then, the Soviet Union collapsed upon itself.
In 1991 Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevicius and Vytautas Landsbergis, the Speaker of the Parliament, at Siluva, signed an act consecrating Lithuania to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
On September 7, in the year of our Lord 1993, the Holy Father John Paul the Great prayed in the Apparition Chapel and took part in a celebration of the Liturgy of the Word in the Basilica at Siluva. The parish of Siluva celebrated its 550th anniversary in AD 2007. AD 2008 was the 400 year jubilee of Mary’s apparition at Siluva. Benedict XVI send Cardinal Joachiim Meisner as his legate for the solemn events of the 400th jubilee.
For the 2008 400th Jubilee, the Basiica and the Apparition Chapel were both renovated, and they were joined together by a common open walkway and square. A Pilgrim Path was also begun, with Stations of the Cross, from near Raseiniai about one mile through the woods to the Apparition Chapel.
The original church soon proved much too small for the numbers of pilgrims. In one feast day in AD 1629, some 11,000 faithful received Holy Communion. A much larger church was built in AD 1641, and it served until the current renaissance style church was built in 1786.
The first chapel was built over the rock in 1663, and served until 1818 when a larger one was built by Bishop Giedraitis. The current chapel was begun in 1912; interrupted by war, it was completed in 1924. The altar was built over the rock. Pilgrims were accustomed to go up to the altar on their knees and kiss the rock, which remains visible.
The miraculous image of the Madonna and Child is the original – first installed by Giedgaudas, hidden and buried in the chest by Fr. Holubka, and reclaimed by the blind man who had his sight restored. It is installed in the Basilica. Many gold and silver votives were attached to it over the years. In 1671 they were melted; the gold and silver were then carefully used to artfully decorate the icon. Gold leaf and precious stones were used to enrich the icon and add to its beauty.
A marble statue was commissioned by bishop Jonas Lapascinskas in London between 1770 and 1775. It was placed in the chapel, and publicly crowned September 3, AD 1886 by Bishop Mecislovas paliulionis, under the title “health of the Sick.” At an unknown year, a new statue replaced the old one.
Upon completion of investigations by local bishops, Pope Pius VI approved of the cult to Our Lady of Siluva with enriched indulgences. On September 8, AD 1786, the miraculous icon was solemnly crowned with a pure gold crown in the presence of four bishops, the senate, many nobles and approximately 30,000 witnesses, under the direction of Bishop Steponas Giedraitis, Bishop of Zemaitija.
Pope John Paul the Great visited Šiluva on September 7, 1993. The Holy Father knelt in prayer in the Apparition Chapel, and he took part in a celebration of the Liturgy of the Word in the Basilica on the theme of the Christian family. He also crowned a statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary which had been brought from America; it had travelled through many Lithuanian parishes, entrusting the Lithuanian nation to Mary’s protection. The Holy Father left a golden rosary made by Vatican craftsmen as a memento of his visit to Šiluva.
John Paul asked Our Lady of Šiluva to strengthen Lithuania’s resolve to hear Jesus’s word, the Word of Life, which was sown here centuries ago. He urged people to follow Mary’s example as a “pilgrim of faith”, to direct their entire life toward Christ, to listen to God’s word and to live by it.To commemorate the visit of Pope John Paul the Great to Šiluva, a cross was erected in 1994 on a small hill on the edge of town. In 2003, for the 10th anniversary of the Pope’s visit, the John Paul II House was blessed, while in 2008, a sculpture of this Pope was erected in the square between the Basilica and the Apparition Chapel. A street adjacent to the square and monument was named in his honor.
Most Holy Virgin Mary, you appeared in the fields of Šiluva to young shepherds, shedding tears on the rock that lies beneath this altar and saying reproachfully: “My Son used to be worshipped in this place, but now people only plough and sow.” Grant that, moved by your tears, we might like our forefathers glorify your Son, rebuild the neglected shrines of our hearts and win the Lord’s pardon for the negligence and sins of our people.
O Mother of God, we long to revive the forgotten glory of your apparition, to honour you even more as our Protectress, and with your aid to win from God a spirit of living faith for all this land. Amen.
O my Mother and my Sovereign, Queen of Heaven and earth, blessed by God with special graces, and the most exalted of all his creatures! Whatever your wish, God will grant it. In this very place where I, a sinner, now kneel before your miraculous painting, you have often shown your might, thus encouraging us to hope in your intercession. You have saved us from errant teaching and worked miracles to restore health to the sick, and even now you lead us along the paths of Divine Providence.
O most merciful and most powerful Mother, look kindly upon us sinners. Instil in the hearts of all your children an ardent love for your Son, Jesus Christ, so that, living in peace and brotherly love, we might ever worship Him and trust in your protection… O Mary, guard and defend our nation. Amen.
Other famous Lithuanian pilgrimage sites are the Hill Of Crosses, and Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn.
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