April 19, 2020

Lithuania, the "map of light" against coronavirus from the shrine of Siluva

By Andrea Gagliarducci
The icon of Mary Health of the Sick in the Lithuanian shrine of Siluva - credit: Shrine of Mary Health of the Sick in Siluva
The icon of Mary Health of the Sick in the Lithuanian shrine of Siluva - credit: Shrine of Mary Health of the Sick in Siluva

We’ve become way too familiar with the maps, whose spots mark the places where the COVID-19 pandemic has struck. The shrine of Siluva, in Lithuania, launched a counter initiative: the “Map of Light”, where every spot marks a place where people prayed to God to end the pandemic.

The apparition of the Virgin in Siluva is one of the first Marian apparitions in Europe, if not the first one. The Virgin of Siluva is venerated with the title of Health of the Sick. The Map of Light initiative started as an invitation to multiply prayers, and is now become  a charity initiative.

Bishop Algirdas Jurevicius, the apostolic administrator of the archdiocese of Kaunas (where the shrine is located), stressed that “this project aims to help the people of the world to participate as much as possible in the prayer of intercession for those who are affected by the coronavirus pandemic and to provide the opportunity to support them with a donation.”

The goal of the initiative is “to spread the message of hope that together we can counterbalance the statistics of infections and deaths with the statistics of prayer, support, unity, and light,” said Bishop Jurevicius.  “Starting Apr. 8,” he added, “the project is expanded by inviting people from all over the world to join in the prayer and contribute with a donation to help those who are suffering the consequences of the pandemic.” 

The shrine invites people to join in praying the rosary and symbolically light a candle on the map, which can be found here

The bishop added that “those who wish are also invited to contribute their donations to Caritas or another organization in their country that cares for people who are most affected by the pandemic.” 

At press time, there were 3,393 lights of prayer lit. Among them, four prayers from Israel, one from Turkey and even one from Kenya. The donations currently amount to about €13,300 , roughly $14,500. 

The apparition of the Virgin Mary to Siluva has been one of the first apparitions of Mary recognized in Europe. The apparition took place in 1608, at the end of a century of religious turmoil. During that period, Lithuania had become a Protestant country. 

Siluva is a shrine where people go to pray for healings, for the fixing of family issues or the conversion of sons and spouses, as happens in the more famous Marian shrines at Lourdes and Fatima. The only difference is that Siluva is much older than either Lourdes or Fatima. Devotion to Mary helped Lithuania to overcome the Protestant period, but it was also a sort of “lifeline to faith” during the Nazi and Soviet occupations. 

The Popes recognized the importance of Siluva. St. John Paul II included a visit to Siluva during his trip to the Baltic States in 1993. Benedict XVI blessed new golden crowns for a miraculous painting of the Madonna and Child in Siluva. 

Marian veneration in Siluva dates back to the beginning of Christianity in Lithuania. In 1387, Grand Duke Jogaila converted to Catholicism, was baptized, and spread the Catholic faith in the country.

Among his successors, Vytautas the Great particularly distinguished in the spread of Catholic faith. The church in Siluva was built during Vytautas the Great rule in 1457.

The church was dedicated to Mary, and soon became a reference point for the people nearby.

In 1517, the Protestant Reformation spread in Lithuania quickly and powerfully. Churches were confiscated. The owner of the church of Siluva converted to Lutheranism in 1532.

A parish priest hid the documents about the foundation of the church and sacred items in an iron box and buried it, to avoid profanations.

In 1555, Calvinists took over and replaced the Lutherans. The Calvinists shut down the Siluva’s church and send the clergy in exile. The church was left unused until the end of the 16th century, and later torn down.

A period of religious confusion followed.

The Calvinists leaned toward a form of Arianism that denies the divinity of Jesus Christ. Many nobles found that drift unacceptable. As a consequence, Protestantism lost traction. On the other hand, a bunch of Jesuit missionaries who just got to those lands gave strength to Catholics to fight and win back their churches. This was the period right after the Council of Trent, which took place between 1545 and 1563 as a response to the Protestant reformation.

This is the context of the apparition of the Virgin in Siluva in 1608.

The first account of the apparition dates back to 1651. The report says that some shepherds who were grazing their flock in the territory where the church used to stand. There they saw, on the top of a large stone, a young woman with a beautiful head of hair, who was crying while holding a baby in her arms.

The shepherds alerted the Calvinist catechist of Siluva, who went to the place of the apparition along with the rector of the local seminary. Both the catechist and the rector saw the young woman and asked her why she was weeping.

“I weep,” the woman said, “because the people used to worship my Son in this place, but now they just plow and sow.” She then disappeared.

The news of the apparition quickly spread. The bishop sent an envoy to investigate the issue. The envoy also looked for the exact place where the ancient church was built, and for the documents of its foundation.

There was only one man who still knew where the iron box with the documents was buried. By the way, that man was old and blind. He was brought to the place of the apparition, and there he miraculously regained his sight and was able to indicate the exact location where the documents were.

Thanks to these documents, the Catholic church could initiate and eventually win a lawsuit to regain its lands in Siluva. A chapel was built on the place of the apparition, while the church was rebuilt in the same place as the old one. The new church promptly attracted many pilgrims, which was unusual, since it was still a Protestant territory.

The pilgrims were so many that in 1677 there were 12 priests taking care of them in Siluva. The church was rebuilt in late-Baroque style between 1760 and 1773. It has been a minor basilica since 1974, when  St. Paul VI  decided to elevate it to that status.

On the stone of the apparition, there is the chapel of Our Lady Health of the Sick. The chapel is shaped as a 144,3 -foot tall tower. The construction of the tower began at the beginning of the 20th century, intended to be the commemoration of the 3rd centenary of the apparition. However, the chapel was completed only after the First World War, in 1924.

The painting of Our Lady with the Child Jesus is quite recent. For years, it was thought that the picture was one of the remnants of the 15th-century church. It turned out it was painted in the 17th  century by a local artist.

The painting is a copy of the icon Maria Salus Populi Romani (Mary, the Salvation of the Roman People), worshipped in the St. Mary the Major Basilica in Rome. For most of the year, the painting is covered by a golden and silver cover, except for the faces and the hands of Mary and Jesus.

In the 18th century, the Holy See granted permission to crown Siluva’s painting solemnly. Before the coronation, bishop Steponas Giedraitis established a commission to investigate the apparition and the miracles that took place thanks to the intercession of the Virgin of Siluva.

The bishop concluded that “since 1622, the Eternal and Omnipotent God, through graces granted, really wanted to operate miracles through that painting of the noblest Virgin Mary of Siluva.”

The celebration of the coronation took place on Sep. 8, 1786, in the day of the liturgical feast of the shrine, and about 30,000 people took part in the celebration.

The first century of the coronation was celebrated in 1886 and attracted some 40,000 people. The number is noteworthy since Lithuania had been annexed to the Czarist Russia in 1796, and Russian authority made every effort to prevent people from going to the shrine.

When Lithuania gained independence between the two world wars, Siluva became the destination for some 150,00 pilgrims, who gathered there mostly during the octave of the feast of the Nativity of Mary.

The pilgrimages also continued during the Soviet domination, although the Communist authorities closed the streets that led to the city and even sent people in exile or to prison when caught taking part in religious processions.

Despite being the first Marian apparition recognized in Europe, the Virgin of Siluva’s characteristic is that her message was directed to non-Catholic Christians. Through her, the followers of the Protestant Reformation were called to return to the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

This is the history that stands in the background of the prayer initiative launched from the Shrine of Siluva. So, we can shine a light for the most ancient Marian apparition in Europe and pray for the end of the pandemic. We are trusting that Mary Health of the Sick will hear our prayer.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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