The period of Czarist occupation
The government of the Czarist Russia banned all processions to Šiluva, they did not allow priests to go there without a special permission. But despite that with tens of thousands of faithful in attendance the centenary of the paintin’s crowning was celebrated in 1886.
Czar’s government had thought of a plan to build an Eastern Orthodox church in front of the church in the town’s square, but the pastor quickly bought the land of the square and built a statue of Mary there.
During the prohibition of the written word, Šiluva was a distribution center of books in Lithuanian; from here various publications went to farthest corners of Lithuania. Around 200 book smugglers came to festivities every year, and to catch them and the faithful using banned prayer books around 300 Russian police officers used to come. However, it was a rare occurence for them to catch a book smuggler.
After independence was regained the first time, Šiluva recovered even more. From 1933 during festivities in Šiluva religious congresses were organized – apostolic men’s prayer, movements of Catholic men and women. Schools were organizing piligrimages to Šiluva. Cultural events were taking place in Šiluva from the begining of 20th century – films, plays. A committee for organizing trips to Šiluva for the faithful was active in Kaunas.
There was never a shortage of the faithful during Šilinės. They used to come from various places in Lithuania. Among them were the blind, the deaf, the mute, the physically disabled, and the sick. They were praying the Way of the Cross, prayed at the miraculous painting of the Mother of God asking for help from God. Šiluva was also known for its beggars who tried to get people’s attention with their poor looks, songs and cries.
The Soviet occupation
During the Soviet occupation, Šiluva, which was already known very well, was purposely belittled by the government. Trying to get rid of people praying in Šiluva, a monument “For the people of Šiluva who died fighting for the Soviets” was built in front of the churn in the town square.
The Soviet government was putting huge efforts in dispersing the faithful or at least in scaring them while going to the festivities in Šiluva. From 1960 with the help of the Soviet militia they started to prevent people from coming to Šiluva – took away driving licenses from some drivers, told the passengers to step of cars and etc. In 1979 they even declared swine plague just to prevent the faithful from going to Šiluva.
But on the last Sunday of each August, the youth, especially the “Friends of the Eucharist” still travelled to Šiluva from Tytuvėnai. The Chronicles of Lithuanian Catholic Church write about their third hike to Šiluva on August 2nd 1977:
“Militia and the intelligence services were observing the forest where we were gathering for the trip since 5am. Their cars were on every road leading to Šiluva and they were cheking all passing cars, asking the passengers to get out and taking away driving licenses from some drivers. The militia wrote down plate numbers of private cars and checked their documents. Many of us had to hurry on foot to the meeting place. But the people, full of enthusiasm and courage did not get lost. They built a cross in the meeting place in the woods, covered it with a crown made of rue and prayed the rosary standing around it.”
The people did not give into the scares and we read about it in another article of the Chronicles of Lithuanian Catholic Church (CLCC, 1974, No. 12):
“In the beginning of September, during the festivities of Šilinės, thousands of people came to Šiluva. The cars could not fit in the town on Sundays and inspectors had to park them on the fields. They demonstratively wrote down their plate numbers. Every year around 50 thousand communions are given out during the Šilinės festivities.”
The Chronicles also give some statistics about the numbers of people going in processions to festivities of Šilinės: in 1975 there were about 500-600 people, 1976 – 600-700 people, 1977 – 800-1000 people. Knowing how the Soviet government tried to disperse any kind of religious gatherings, truly a lot of people attended these processions.
Organizers of these pilgrimages were especially persecuted. Sister Gema Stanelytė from the congregation of Eucharistic Jesus and Vytautas Vaičiūnas were sentenced to three years in prison for organizing processions to Šiluva.
But despite the efforts of the occupying government Šiluva remained the witness of the strength of the Church, a place where the Lord is worshiped and where people get spiritual and physical strength from.
Lithuanians living in the free world did not forget the festivities in Šiluva.
The first festivities of Šiluva were celebrated on September 8th, 1947, in Altötting, Bavaria, the second – on November 16th, 1947, in Absam, Austria.
Festivities of Šilinės were celebrated in Lithuanian parishes in Argentina, Uruguay and the USA. From 1959 there were processions of the Lithuanian faithful in Chicago. Allowed by the American bishops, the Committee of American Lithuanian Affairs organized a spiritual journey to Šiluva in Lithuanian parishes from 1957 on the days of Šilinės festivities.
After Lithuania regained indepedence, the festivities of the Nativity of Virgin Mary in Šiluva became one of the most important events in Lithuanian religious life. They were popularised, booklets about Šiluva were published.
On September 8th, 1991, in Šiluva, while thanking God for the gift of freedom, with all of Lithuania’s bishops in attendance, Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevičius consecrated Lithuania to the care of the Virgin Mary. The act of consecration is kept in Šiluva. This act meant that the hopes and expectations of independence were entrusted to the Mother of God, because she has led the nation’s road to freedom with her prayers.
The Soviet occupation was unable to root out the tradition of pilgrimage to Šiluva. The exact opposite happened. Banned by the government, prosecuted processions to Šiluva encouraged people, especially the youth, to keep their faith.
People came on organized pilgrimages not only from nearby parishes, but from Kaunas also. Up to 100 thousand people came to festivities in Šiluva. Even a committee for organizing pilgrimages was founded in Kaunas.
The visit of Pope John Paul II to Šiluva on September 7th, 1993, gave new hope to call upon the Mother of God.
Šiluva remained a visited and kept contemporary pilgrim sanctuary for the Lithuanian people creating new, independent lives during their own struggles and challenges of the time.
Every year in the beginning of September, the pilgrims from Lithuania and other countries celebrate the festivities of Šilinės that last all eight days. Their tradition, restrained in various forms during the years of occupation, remained alive. One might say that the festivities of the Nativity of Mary in Šiluva are celebrated for almost 500 years.