The Lithuanian shrine of Our Lady of Šiluva is a Marian treasure which much of the world is just starting to discover. Šiluva guards the site of one of Mary’s earliest apparitions in Europe. That event in 1608 helped return the region to Catholicism following a century of religious tumult. And ever since, people rich and poor, old and young, have sought and found here divine help amid persecutions, foreign occupations and personal trials of every kind.
Archbishop of Kaunas Sigitas Tamkevičius, in whose territory the sanctuary stands, calls Šiluva “a spiritual oasis” that has helped the faith survive in difficult times, like the Soviet occupation of Lithuania during much of the 20th century. Favors attributed to our Lady’s intercession include physical healings, solutions to family or employment problems, personal decisions to lead a better Christian life and similar conversions of children and spouses. Šiluva thus has much in common with better-known sites of Marian apparitions, such as Lourdes or Fatima, except it is much older.
Pope John Paul II prayed at the shrine in the humble Lithuanian village of Šiluva in 1993, two years after the Baltic nation regained independence. Benedict XVI in 2006 blessed new crowns of gold for a miraculous image of Mary and Jesus at Šiluva. This year he is sending a papal legate to take part in festivities at Šiluva to mark the fourth centenary of the Marian apparition.
Marian devotion at Šiluva goes back almost to the beginning of Christianity in Lithuania. Grand Duke Jogaila was baptized Catholic in 1387 when he married the queen of neighboring Poland. Later he and his successors, especially Vytautas the Great, worked to spread the Christian faith in their territory, which until then was pagan. They established the ecclesiastical hierarchy, built churches and even personally taught catechism to their subjects.
The establishment of a church in Šiluva was the initiative of a nobleman named Petras Gedgaudas who worked in the service of Vytautas the Great. Gedgaudas in 1457 allocated land and other resources for a temple in honor of our Lady. The new church gained fame as a Marian shrine. In the 16th century, a Lutheran pastor complained about members of his flock traveling to Šiluva to attend the indulgenced Catholic feast of the Nativity of Mary.
In fact, the Protestant Reformation, sparked by Martin Luther in 1517, hit Lithuania fast and strong, beginning with the nobility. By 1532, the owner of the church property at Šiluva became a Lutheran. In the following decades, many Catholic churches were confiscated and closed.
During this period a parish priest at Šiluva buried an iron chest with documents regarding the shrine’s foundation and sacred items. He probably hid these things to protect the property rights of the Church and avoid profanations.
Calvinists replaced the Lutherans as the dominant force in Šiluva around 1555. They soon closed the Catholic temple and exiled its clergy. The church stood unused until the end of the century, when it was demolished.
These were times of religious confusion. Many of those in power passed through various protestant denominations in the space of a few years. Most simple folk preserved their Catholic convictions but couldn’t practice that faith.
The Reformation began to lose strength in Lithuania around the start of the 17th century, for a number of reasons. On the one hand, local Calvinists had shifted toward Arianism, which denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, an extreme unacceptable for much of the nobility. At the same time, Jesuits began to arrive in the region with fire in their souls and the clear teaching of the Council of Trent on their lips, and Catholics began fighting to recover lost churches.
But one more factor strongly influenced the change of course back toward Catholicism: an intervention by the Mother of God and of every Christian, who urged believers to return to the true worship of her divine Son.
The year was 1608. The oldest surviving account, written in 1651, describes the event in this way. Some young shepherds were tending sheep in the territory of the old shrine. On top of a large stone in the field, they saw a girl with flowing hair, holding a baby in her arms and weeping sadly.
One of the children ran to tell the Calvinist catechist of Šiluva what they had seen. The catechist, together with the rector of the Calvinist seminary, came to the place, saw the girl, and asked her: ‘Young woman, why are you weeping?’ The girl responded: ‘I am weeping because people used to worship my son in this place, but now they just plow and sow.’ Then she disappeared.
News about the apparition spread quickly. The bishop sent an official to investigate the matter and speak with the witnesses. This official then tried find the exact site of the old church as well as the documents from its foundation, as a legal recourse for recovering the property. The only person who knew where the iron chest was buried was now old and blind. When they brought him to the field with the stone, he miraculously regained his sight and was able to locate the chest with the shrine’s documents and valuables.
Thanks to those documents, the Catholic Church won a court case to recover its land in Šiluva. A chapel was built over the stone of the apparition and nearby a church was erected on the site of the original 15th-century shrine.
The new church at Šiluva immediately attracted crowds of thousands, something rather unexpected in a predominantly Calvinist area. According to historical accounts written at the time, it had fame as a place of special graces and miracles, where people became more devout Christians. Within a few years, the church had to be enlarged.
One sign of the vitality of the revived Marian shrine is the historical fact that in 1677 as many as 12 priests resided in Šiluva to tend spiritually to pilgrims. Since that time, the pastoral activity has sometimes grown and sometimes diminished, in direct correlation with wars and famines and persecutions, but it has never again been interrupted.
The current church of Šiluva was built between 1760 and 1773 in the late baroque style, with external walls of red brick. Inside, the iconography intertwines the dominant themes of the Mother of God, Christ and the Church. Pope Paul VI gave it the status of minor basilica in 1974.
The present Chapel of Our Lady Health of the Sick rises over the rock of the apparition in the form of a 44-meter high tower. Its construction began at the start of the 20th century to commemorate the third centenary of the apparition, and was completed after World War I, in 1924. The decoration of the chapel, however, reached completion only in 1999, having been blocked for decades by Soviet religious persecution.
The painting of Mary and the Child Jesus which presides over the main alter of the shrine was considered, until recently, a relic of the 15th-century church which had been hidden in the iron chest with the legal documents and rediscovered with those documents at the site of the apparition in 1608.
But scientific studies during work to restore the image in 2001-2003 showed, almost without doubt, that the image is the work of a local painter from the early 17th century. Most likely it was painted after the apparition, for the new church in Šiluva, and later was enlarged, adding the part below the feet of the Child, to suit better the enlarged church which was completed in 1651.
It is a copy of the icon Salus Populi Romani, which is venerated in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome, the oldest Western church building dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The icon portrays the Mother of God with great dignity. Her eyes seem to draws viewers to look at her Son. The Child, seated in her arms, looks at his Mother while blessing the people with his right hand.
The Šiluva image, an oil painting on cloth, follows the same scheme as the Salus Populi Romani. Usually it is covered, except for the faces and hands of Mary and Jesus, by a coat of gold and silver. The cover was made in 1674 using ex votos (devotional items that pilgrims often left in thanksgiving for special graces). Since the 17th century, local bishops’ reports to the Holy See about Šiluva stress that people have great devotion to this image and obtain special graces when praying before it.
In 1775 the Holy See granted permission to solemnly crown Mary and Jesus in the miraculous image of Šiluva. But before going ahead with the coronation, the recently installed Bishop Steponas Giedraitis decided to investigate the widely believed miracles. He set up a commission to interview people under oath, and to examine the ex votos and the written accounts of miracles.
Finally, in 1786, the bishop set a date for the coronation: September 8, the shrine’s titular liturgical feast. He announced the decision in a circular letter which said the following:
“We have made a thorough investigation, in accord with the regulations and norms of the Church, with objectivity, relying not on the imagination but on declarations by eye witnesses and experts: theologians, doctors and others with competence in the matter. Finally, based on the opinion of wise and learned advisors, we arrived at the conviction that since 1622 the eternal and almighty God, by means of graces clearly granted, truly has wanted to be miraculous in that painting of the most noble Virgin Mary of Šiluva.”
The image was adorned with two crowns, made from a pound of gold. Some 30,000 of the faithful took part in the solemn three-day celebration. Besides multitudes of ordinary people, high ranking state officials from Lithuania and Poland were on hand, as well as members of the nobility and a dozen bishops.
That was neither the first nor the last multitudinous act of worship at Šiluva. In 1886, a crowd of 40,000 turned out for the centenary of the coronation. People came despite efforts by Czarist Russia to prevent access to the sanctuary. Russia had annexed Lithuania in 1796.
During Lithuania’s first period of independence in the 20th century, between the two world wars, between 100,000 and 150,000 pilgrims typically visited Šiluva each year during the octave of the Nativity of Mary. One published account of that titular feast in 1933 describes the roadways all around full of cars and buses, and of pilgrims walking and singing:
“Over here a poor fellow arrives from the other side of Žemtaitija with his sick child. Over there a worried mother prays the rosary for her son or husband. On and on they go, the thousands of Lithuanians who silently suffer, to complain to their Miraculous Mother and ask help in their needs… Even the hardest heart would melt into tears on seeing the pilgrims who fall to the ground from the edge of the woods and make their approach on bleeding knees… Dear God, what deep faith shines in those faces which gaze up at the towers of the shrine.”
People come to Šiluva seeking motherly consolation, sense, assistance, encouragement. There were many such during the 18th century as Polish, Swedish and Russian soldiers crossed the territory of Lithuanian time and again, battling it out among themselves for control of the region; also afterwards, as famine and plague spread through the land, killing half the population. There were also many troubled souls in the 19th century as the Czarist occupiers tried to “russify” the area, prohibiting the Lithuanian press, closing eastern-rite Catholic churches and generally making life difficult.
And of course there were many people in need of Mary’s help and consolation during and after World War II. The Soviet Union invaded the country and sent thousands of persons to Siberia. Then Nazi Germany invaded, sending thousands of others to concentration camps. Then the red army returned, and this time the Soviet Union with all is inhuman, atheistic power took control of the country for half a century, until Lithuanian independence dawned anew in 1990-1991.
Archbishop Tamkevičius says Šiluva has contributed greatly to the preservation and growth of the faith in very difficult times. He personally has attended spiritually to many pilgrims there, beginning in the 1960s. As he puts it: “People sought God there, and they found him. It’s no coincidence that the Soviet government did everything it could to impede access to Šiluva.”
Among other measures, the communist authorities closed streets leading to the town, forbade the means of public transportation to carry people there, spread rumors of dangerous epidemics in the area, and even sent people to exile or jail for participating in religious processions. But there were always people who dared to come to the shrine, whatever the obstacles or the consequences.
Among the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin, the one at Šiluva stands out not only for its antiquity, according to Mons. Tamkevičius, but also because it is perhaps the only time that our Lady has directed her message to non-Catholic Christians, a fact with theological and ecumenical significance. The apparition shows that the Mother of the Redeemer is concerned for everyone, since Jesus died on the Cross not only for Catholics, but for all people.
Yes, Mons. Tamkevičius continues, at Šiluva our Lady called the children of the Reformation to return to the plenitude of the Church founded by her Son, to the adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist, to the worship of God by the Rock of Peter. But above all, she called everyone without exception to make place in their life for Christ, to examine their consciences as to whether, preoccupied with “plowing and sowing”, they haven’t forgotten God.
He says the message of Šiluva is no less relevant in our days, because the secularized world only understands economic and material things, leaving spiritual values aside. “If Mary were to appear today,” the bishop says, “she would have to repeat the same thing she said 400 years ago: ‘My Son used to be worshipped, but now the majority of the people occupy themselves with something else.”
Šiluva thus has a universal message. And one could compare its impressive fruits of Christian life with those of more famous Marian shrines. 98-year-old Father Eduardas Simaška is an eyewitness. During many years working at the Lithuanian shrine, he says he has personally written up about 450 miracles and spiritual favors received by pilgrims.
What most impacts Mons. Tamkevičius are the constant queues by the confessionals in Šiluva, and the extraordinary sincerity with which people confess their sins and reconciling themselves with God. At Šiluva, he says, souls come alive with new piety and decide with Mary’s help to put all the aspects of their life in order.
So it is not surprising that such an impressive Marian shrine still be little known outside the country, considering Lithuania’s relative isolation in recent centuries. To be sure, Lithuanian emigrants during the first half of the 20th century carried their devotion to Our Lady of Šiluva with them to the United States, Australia and elsewhere. The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. even contains a chapel dedicated to Mary’s apparition in the Baltic nation.
Today the Lithuanian nation is flourishing. Over the last 15 years, the country has revived its national culture, achieved economic growth and joined the European Union. At the same time, devotion to Our Lady of Šiluva is spreading, with its invitation to center one’s life on Jesus Christ – a much needed counterbalance to the new temptations of Western-style materialism.
In this context, the 400-year jubilee at Šiluva seems providential. During two years of preparations, the shrine has seen an increasing flow of pilgrims, especially on feast days of the Blessed Virgin and on the 13th day of each month - which since 1981 has been deemed “Mary’s day”.
Meanwhile, copies of the shrine’s miraculous image have traveled through Lithuania and to Lithuanian communities abroad, sparking a rebirth of religious life in many parishes and numerous personal conversions. The jubilee year includes Mariological and Eucharistic congresses, in addition to the main fourth centenary celebration at the shrine during the first half of September.
Material preparations to receive large groups of pilgrims from many countries have been intense. The shrine has been renovated, road access has been improved and a new information center for pilgrims set up. Support from the Lithuanian government (which Mons. Tamkevičius calls a surprise favor of Our Lady) helped to finance an enlargement of the shrine’s central plaza.
The good bishop has more projects in mind to develop the shrine when Our Lady sends the means. They include on-site lodging for pilgrims, retreat houses and a small convent of nuns who could care for the sanctuary.
“The Soviet authorities did everything possible to leave the town of Šiluva half-empty and inaccessible to pilgrims,” Mons. Tamkevičius notes. He considers it his mission to rectify that, so that many more souls can come here and benefit from the Blessed Virgin Mary’s powerful motherly intercession.
(Translation of: Bradley, Bryan P., “La Virgen de Šiluva”, Scripta de Maria, 2008)