Volume 34, No. 3 - Fall 1988
Editor of this issue: Antanas Dundzila
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1988 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



In the life of European nations, the conversion to Christianity has been an event of momentous significance since it determined a country's future for centuries to come. Lithuania was no exception to this rule.

Of particular significance to Lithuania are three characteristics that distinguish its conversion to Christianity from that of most European nations. First, the Lithuanians had a choice between the Latin and Greek churches and elected Rome instead of Byzantium. Second, their baptism came late, after a long struggle and vacillation. Third, conditions under which Christianity were established crucially affected not only Lithuania's spiritual or cultural growth but also its statehood and indeed the evolution of an articulate Lithuanian identity as a nation.

A special word also needs to be added about the heritage of Reformation. While causing strife, Reformation in Lithuania neither led to civil war nor massive violent excesses of the kind experienced in Western Europe. It did not lead to any permanently disruptive divisions of society either. On the other hand, the movement had a positive effect both on the cultural and religious plane. It stimulated church reform, hastened the spread of schools, and prompted the publication of the first religious writings in the Lithuanian language. Ultimately, only small Calvinist and Lutheran churches survived after the containment of the movement during the latter half of the XVI century. Therefore, discussion of Christianity in Lithuania essentially amounts to a commentary on the development of the Catholic church.

Lithuania emerged as a state in the XIII century. Between 1219-1236, many Lithuanian tribes united into a state under the leadership of Mindaugas (ca 1236-63) who was crowned King in 1253. However, the militarily aggressive and diplomatically talented Lithuanian rulers spent their energy not on further unification and integration of the kindred tribes in the West or the North, but on the expansion into the Slavic principalities in the East. This was due, most likely, to the political realities of the time. In the XII-XIII centuries, the most significant political factor in the region, in addition to the rise of the Lithuanian state, was the arrival of German colonists and armed missionary Knights in Livonia and Prussia. The Order of the Knights of the Sword (Der Orden der Schwertbrueder) reached Livonia in the XII century. In 1186, Hartwig, the Archbishop of Bremen, consecrated Bishop Meinhardt of Uexkuel. This date is considered the date of the Christianization of Latvia. In 1201, a new Livonian Bishop by the name of Albert founded the city of Riga. The Livonian Order of the Sword attempted to expand into Lithuanian lands but was stopped.

After the defeat of the Livonian armies in 1231 by the Lithuanians at Saulė, a modus vivendi and even cooperation developed especially between the city of Riga and its Bishop and the Lithuanians.

The other German missionary order, the Order of the Cross, also came to the region about the same time. They were invited by the Mozurian Duke Konrad to help in the defense against the raids of the Prussians. The Prussians were kindred to the Lithuanians who inhabited the area later known as East Prussia. Emperor Friedrich II the Hohenstauffen donated to the Order the territories of Courland, Lithuania, and Zemgallia. Pope Gregory IX gave the Order permission to establish its own state. After establishing itself in Prussia, in 1237, the Order absorbed the Livonian Knights who were defeated and demoralized after the lost battle at Saulė.

Thus, by the middle of the XIII century most of the coastal land on the Eastern Baltic shores, all the way from Gdansk (Danzig) to Estonia, was conquered, controlled, or dominated by the German Order of the Knights of the Cross. The Knights, in possession of Prussia and Livonia, now sought to territorially unite these provinces by conquering Samogitia which lay between them. This created an immediate danger to the integrity of the young Lithuanian state and did not disappear for almost two hundred years.

The mission of the Knights of the Cross, approved by the Pope, was to christianize the pagan Lithuanians. The Knights endeavored to achieve this by military means. Their strong military machine, constantly re-invigorated by recruits from Western Europe, required organization of effective defense by the Lithuanians. Lithuanian rulers accomplished this task, but they could not dislodge the Knights. An expansion to the German dominated West or North became very costly. For reasons unknown, it was not attempted, but the eyes of Lithuanian rulers remained fixed on the East. Lithuanians marched into Slavic lands creating an empire which stretched out from the shores of the Baltic almost to Moscow in the East and the Black Sea in the South.

By this time, the Slavic principalities were firmly committed to the Byzantine Church. There is no need here to delve into the presence and influence the clergymen or adherents of the Eastern church had in the courts and families of rulers, nor into the conditions of religious tolerance that the rulers created to accommodate their international and domestic needs. Specialists have all this well documented by now. Still, it is important to remind ourselves that the Lithuanian rulers had the opportunity of accepting the faith professed by a majority of the subjects who professed Orthodox beliefs. This would have been a logical decision, but the rulers decided differently. Instead, they chose the faith of their enemies—the missionary German Knights though rejecting their mediation. It is also significant that christianization succeeded only when a Lithuanian ruler introduced it as a result of an alliance with an enemy of the German Knights, to be specific, Poland.

The choice of Latin Christianity bound Lithuania to Western European culture and institutions. The country, similarly to Latvia and Estonia, became very distinct from Russia, a nation which eventually emerged in the region as a dominant power and a major influence. Lithuanians developed different customs, social institutions, attitudes toward authority, work ethic, appreciation of Western European ideas, political institutions, church-state relations, and ties with the West. While these differences have been blunted and dulled largely by Russian occupations of the XIX and XX centuries, they still provide an essential strength to the maintenance of national cultures in all three Baltic countries today.

The Lithuanians joined the family of Christian nations very late. This was a direct result of the already mentioned international complications and the priorities of their own empire building, most likely intensified by the tenacity, stubbornness, traditionalism, and the feeling of superiority and indecisiveness in the national character. Indeed, Lithuania is the youngest Christian nation in Europe and, consequently, the Lithuanian Catholic church is the youngest daughter of the Roman church.

The Gordian knot was cut by the Grand Duke Jogaila (Jagiello in Polish, Wladyslaw II of Poland) in 1387. Having been baptized in 1386 in Cracow, Jogaila, now the King of Poland, in cooperation with his cousin Vytautas whom Jogaila had to appoint as his successor in Lithuania between 1387-1413, christianized the entire ethnic Lithuanian population. We do not know the exact reasons which moved Jogaila to such a decision at this particular time. Nevertheless, some suggestions can be made. First, christianization was simply the agreed price he had to pay for the Polish crown which he desired; the crown not only enhanced his personal prestige as a ruler but also extended his personal power. Second, acceptance of the Polish crown gave him an opportunity for stabilizing his own position in Lithuania's domestic political life torn apart by a decade of internecine strife, accompanied by assassinations in the ruling family which threated state unity and endangered Lithuanian rule in the Slavic principalities. These factors of internal struggle for power and involvement in Russian affairs are so important that they require a closer look.

Between 1345-1377, Lithuania was ruled by Grand Duke Algirdas and his brother Kęstutis. Algirdas expanded and fortified Lithuanian rule in Russian lands which preferred the Lithuanians over the severe Tartar occupation. This expansion made Lithuania the chief competitor to Moscow for the unification of Russian territories. Algirdas' brother Kęstutis (1345-82) defended the state against the Knights of the Cross from Prussia who sought to conquer Samogitia and frequently devastated Lithuanian territories. He also defended Lithuania southern borders.

Algirdas died in 1377. His first born son, Jogaila, became the Grand Duke. Jogaila began secretly to seek ties to the West. It probably was clear to him that Lithuania could not stay pagan any longer. Pursuing such ties, he entered into a secret armistice treaty with the Knights of the Cross. Upon learning about it, Jogaila's uncle Kęstutis occupied the capital of Vilnius, arrested Jogaila, and became Grand Duke (1381-82). However, Kęstutis could not continue defense against the Knights of the Cross because of his weakness in the Slavic provinces.

Lithuania's rule in Russia had been shaken by the victory of Moscow's Dimitri Donskoi over the Tartars at Kulikovo in 1380. Jogaila had an alliance with the Tartar Khan Mamay against Moscow, but the Lithuanian ruling family was divided on this matter. Jogaila's two brothers, Andrius and Dimitras, fought on the side of Moscow's Dimitri. Jogaila rushed an army to help Mamay, but the Lithuanians did not reach the battlefield in time to join forces with the Tartars. Mamay was defeated. Inspired by this defeat, some Russian princes refused to obey Kęstutis who was the new Grand Duke of Lithuania.

In 1382, Jogaila was able to regain his position in Vilnius. Through a ruse, Kęstutis and his son Vytautas found themselves as Jogaila's prisoners. Kęstutis died in mysterious circumstances, strangled by Jogaila's courtiers. Vytautas fled to the Knights of the Cross. Thus, the German Order gained an influential hand in internal Lithuanian affairs. Vytautas fled to the Order twice. Twice he also made peace with Jogaila.

After regaining power in Lithuania in 1382, Jogaila thus found Lithuanian rule in Russia impaired and the influence of the German Knights enhanced. Lithuania was at a crossroads. To save the Lithuanian throne and strengthen the state, Jogaila's mother Julia had made an agreement with the victorious Dimitri Donskoi of Moscow for Jogaila to marry Dimitri's daughter Sophia and also accept Orthodox Christianity. Such a marriage might have stabilized Lithuanian rule in Russia but could not contain Moscow's inroads into Lithuania's provinces nor protect it in the West against the militarily efficient and dangerous Order of the Knights of the Cross. In 1384, however, Poland's nobles negotiated with Jogaila an offer for him to become the King of Poland. Jogaila decided against his mother. Marriage with the Polish Queen Jadwiga would not only enhance his own power as King but also provide an effective alliance against the Teutonic Order. Acceptance of Western Christianity would eventually dry up the flow of recruits from Western Europe to fight the last Mohicans of pagan cult in Europe.

The Polish offer exacted a price. Namely, in 1385 at Kriawo (Krėva), Jogaila agreed to unite Lithuania with Poland. Actually, the act of Kriawo did not create a union between the states but was a document acknowledging agreements on marriage, baptism, and alliance between Lithuania and Poland. However, it opened the door to Polish claims on Lithuania.

Jogaila thus introduced Lithuania to the West European faith and culture. He also forged an alliance which merely 23 years later, in 1410, at Tannenberg destroyed the military might of the Order of the Knights of the Cross. On the other hand, uniting Lithuania and Poland in an alliance under a single king, Jogaila established a base for the rise of the Polish empire in Central Eastern Europe. This empire eventually swallowed up Lithuania, that is, the country that made the empire possible. Jogaila's ascendance to the throne of Poland, whether sought by Jogaila himself or engineered by Polish churchmen and noblemen, remains without doubt the greatest coup Polish diplomacy achieved in that country's thousand-year history.

However, let us not forget at this point that Jogaila was not the first Lithuanian prince who sought to christianize the non-Orthodox, ethnic Lithuanian part of the pagan state. The first attempt was already made 150 years earlier by Mindaugas, the founder of the Lithuanian state. In 1250 or 1251, Mindaugas was baptized with his family, relatives, and many others by Father Christian, a priest of the Livonian Order of the Knights who shortly afterwards was appointed first bishop of an independent Lithuanian diocese. In 1253, Mindaugas was crowned king of Lithuania, the first and only one the country ever had. However, within ten years (1263), King Mindaugas was assassinated. Modern excavations in Vilnius, capital city of Lithuania, show the ruins of a Christian cathedral built in Mindaugas' times. The same excavations in Vilnius also show remnants of a pagan temple on top of those of the Christian cathedral. A controversy persists as to whether Mindaugas himself had abandoned the Christian faith before his untimely death or not. Yet, the country and its rulers did return to their pagan religion. Mindaugas' baptism was conditioned by an alliance which the King had established with the Livonian Order of the German Knights. Unfortunately, Christianity did not survive the termination of this alliance in 1261.

Had the Christian faith survived in Mindaugas' day, Lithuania's history would have been very different. The king's successors would have saved the Christian crown and thus stopped the European crusades against Lithuania sponsored by the German Knights. Relations with the German Knights, as well as with Poland, would have turned out different without doubt. Neither would subordination to Poland, in all likelihood, have occurred. Furthermore, according to the late Zenonas Ivinskis, a distinguished Lithuanian historian of the period, "the fruits of the Christian culture of the West would have reached Lithuania much sooner. This would have served and protected better the Lithuanian national culture." None of this was fated to be.

Medieval popes and neighboring rulers attempted to induce Lithuanian rulers who followed Mindaugas to accept Christianity. Lithuanian princes, foremost among them Gediminas (1316-41) and Algirdas (1345-77), used this Christian interest as a leverage in fending off the attacks by the Knights of the Cross. The issue of baptism was convenient as a foreign policy instrument, but chirstianiza-tion was not the goal.

Jogaila changed this policy. As earlier explained, he paid a price for it. Generally, Lithuanian conservatism expressed by the refusal to accept Christianity in the XIII century produced fatal political problems at the end of the XIV century.

As previously explained, to accede to the Polish throne Jogaila had to agree not only to christianize Lithuania, but also to unite the two states at Kriawo. This controversial agreement initiated a process which led to the union of Lublin in 1569 and an eventual submergence of Lithuania as a region within the Polish empire.

The social result of this union was an almost total polonization of the Lithuanian nobility, an apparently opportunistic social class wholly lacking in ethnic self-esteem, and the neglect of the native Lithuanian tongue in public affairs. The fruits of Western culture henceforth were brought to Lithuania through Poland, which in turn fostered the influence of Polish culture and a resultant political identification. Schools were established; in the XVIII century, there were three hundred church schools in the Grand Duchy. But, hardly any of them furthered the Lithuanian language or its native culture. It seems paradoxical that the Jesuits established, on the one hand, the Vilnius Academy which almost immediately became a university (1579; today it is the oldest university in the Soviet Union). While on the other hand, the first Lithuanian religious and secular books were produced by Protestant Lutherans in the German ruled neighboring Prussia.

Historians of modern times and Papal representatives of the past have criticized the Church of this period for a number of sins but primarily for pastoral neglect and the resulting religious illiteracy caused by the failure to educate a native Lithuanian clergy and to communicate with believers in their native language. This contributed to the retardation of the development of religious and secular Lithuanian culture and even prevented the emergence of a native clerical leadership. Archbishop Jurgis Matulaitis-Matulewicz, for example, who was the Bishop of Vilnius in 1918-1925 and whose beatification was proclaimed on June 28, 1987, by Pope John Paul II, was the first ethnic Lithuanian bishop of Vilnius in 250 years.

This state of affairs which worsened after the containment of the Reformation movement, is to be blamed at least partly on the neglect or inability of Jogaila and later Vytautas to establish an independent Lithuanian bishopric as was done by King Mindaugas in the XIII century. An independent Lithuanian church province under indisputable Lithuanian leadership was only organized in 1926. For centuries before, the Church was directed from Poland by ecclesiastical authorities and by the Royal court.

This situation changed, paradoxically, after the last partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795. Lithuania was annexed by the Russian Empire. The Tsars imposed restrictions upon the Church, but within the Church itself restrictions eased and eventually disappeared preventing commoners from becoming priests. Doors were opened to the priesthood for young men of peasant origin which meant Lithuanian stock. The clergy came now more frequently than not from the people they served. This produced an intimate relationship between the Church and the people which remains the hallmark of the Catholic church in Lithuania to this day. This process led also in a dialectical relationship to an increasing identification by the clerics and the Church with the linguistic, cultural, and ultimately political views and desires of the native ethnic population.

This relationship was inadvertently strengthened by the Tsarist's religious and nationality policies. To begin with, the Catholic church was suspect as a source of disloyalty because of its Latin faith and subordination to Rome. In addition, the Tsars considered the Catholic church to be a breeding place of Polish nationalism which had ignited twice, in 1831 and 1863, insurrections against the Empire. At the same time, St. Petersburg ardently sought to pull the Lithuanians away from the Poles by a policy of Russification. This resulted often in a virtual persecution of the Church in Lithuania. Relations with Rome were obstructed or even forbidden, papal appointments of bishops disapproved, the bishops themselves frequently banished or put under house arrest, admissions to theological seminaries either prohibited or limited, convents and monasteries abolished or their membership condemned to extinction, sermons and even prayer rituals prescribed, the movement of priests controlled, religious or charitable organizations banned, religious processions forbidden outside church grounds, erection of wayside crosses outlawed, and so on. These restrictions were topped by a ban of Lithuanian language books in Latin print and even by a selective closing of churches which led to resistance, Cossack violence, and tragedy as in Kražiai in 1893. The enforcement of such restrictions became, however, increasingly difficult; as a result they gradually were repealed until the revolution of 1905 which finally restored civil rights to Catholic citizens.

In the Samogitian diocese, Bishop Motiejus Valančius-Wolonczewski adopted a policy of peaceful resistance to protect the Catholic faith. Especially concerned with religious education, he organized the printing of religious and secular literature in the Lithuanian language in German ruled Prussia, beginning with prayer books. Encouraged by the Bishop and supported by his clergy, these books were then smuggled into Lithuania and secretly used in homes and in clandestine schools. It was of course inevitable that by raising the level of religious literacy the Bishop would raise the level of secular literacy and ethnic consciousness and thus prepare the peasant readership for the secret publications of national awakening soon to appear. At the same time, more and more churchmen identified themselves with the national movement. By 1918, the Lithuanian church hierarchy openly and actively supported the establishment of an independent Lithuanian state, separate from Poland, which was an enormous change from earlier times when the Church frequently served as the handmaiden of linguistic and political polonization.

In independent Lithuania (1918-1940), religion was not a state religion but enjoyed the protection of the state. The Catholic hierarchy supported the adoption of a democratic system of government and a land reform of historical importance. Later it quarreled with the government over the rights of Catholic action organizations, but the Church was criticized in turn for the involvement of clergymen in partisan politics and for refusing to share control over some social institutions, for example, marriage. The greatest achievements of the Catholic church during the period of independence were in the fields of education and publication. The Church helped to educate an entire new generation of Lithuanian intellectuals who proposed a Catholic modernization alternative as part of the development of the young state. However, the opportunity to compete for the adoption of this alternative as a public policy was denied to this generation by Moscow's occupation of Lithuania in June of 1940. The intellectual heritage which was accumulated during this period and diffused among the masses helped nurture the nation during the trying years of Nazi occupation (1941-1944) and Stalin's terror and one is tempted to say, still strengthens the religious and national spirit today.

New challenges had to be faced under Soviet rule (1944-). Stalinist terror decimated the leadership of all religious groups. Two Catholic bishops, Msgr. Pranas Ramanauskas and Teofilis Matulionis were deported; Msgr. V. Borisevičius was executed; Archbishop Mečislovas Reinys died in prison. Hundreds of clergymen and hundreds of thousands of Catholics were deported. The church survived Stalin's despotism, but Stalin's legal principles concerning the control of religion remained unfortunately imbedded in the Soviet law books. Neither the Soviet constitution nor the laws guarantee freedom of religion, as we frequently assume in the West, but merely permit the exercise of liturgy under strict limitations and in total isolation from society. Restrictions on religious groups are actually more severe than in the XIX century under the Tsars. Religious education of children is completely forbidden; the admission quota to the theological seminaries was for years so small that, since 1971, the number of Catholic priests has been reduced from 772 to 667. As is known, Archbishop Julijonas Steponavičius is on internal exile. Religious publications practically do not exist; for the unofficial printing of prayer books Soviet courts have meted out prison sentences. Parts of the Church community, especially those in monastic orders, have been driven underground. The Soviet constitution (Art. 52) discriminates against religious citizens by refusing them the right to communicate their faith while the right to propagandize is granted to atheists. Atheism is officially supported and promoted as a substitute for religion. By this asymmetric allocation of rights, the Soviet constitution enables practical discrimination against believers on the job, at school, and in public life in general.

The majority of Lithuania's Christian community, which today consists of the Catholic church and small denominations of Lutherans, Calvinists, Orthodox, Old Believers, Baptists, Pentacostalists, and Adventists, have refused to accept such Soviet policy of discrimination and seek reform by peaceful means which would make all religious citizens equal before the law. Among the Catholics, demands for reform have been spearheaded by the Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Lithuania which on March 19, 1987, celebrated its 15th year of underground publication. Government authorities have denounced the Chronicle as extremist. The Chronicle, however, merely seeks to achieve for Lithuania what scores of philosophers, theologians, and political leaders had managed to secure in earlier centuries for Western Europe and North America—that is the right, equal to that of other citizens, to profess and to communicate a religious belief freely and without any peril to personal security or welfare. The Chronicle is really a successor to the liberal traditions of Europe and very much in tune with the philosophical and theological thinking of the Second Vatican Council. It does not request more of the government than the recently announced code of religious freedom by the Holy See.

Lithuania's Catholic church is the nation's oldest religious and social institution. Through centuries it has merged with the people and remains the people's institution for which political substitutes simply do not exist. As such, it is a depository of religious as well as national traditions and culture. It is Lithuania's historical memory, and it nurtures its future. Throughout the centuries, it has survived attempts by secular or ecclesiastical powers to use it and to subordinate it for secular purposes, but it has never deviated from its religious mission and therefore has insisted on independence from the state. In its mission and struggle for independence, it has become a herald of freedom and a depository of Western traditions for all Lithuanians. This has been the ultimate historical consequence and responsibility sparked 600 years ago by the country's conversion to Christianity.


* Based on the lecture presented at the Katholische Universitat, Eichstatt, West Germany, 1987.