Friday, April 20, 2007

Hill of the Crosses

This week I have been in Vilnius, Lithuania for the Spring meeting of the English Speaking Conference of the Order of Friars Minor. We've had a very good and fruitful week of meetings, but I wanted to share a little bit of the experience we had on Wednesday.
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The Hill of the Crosses is nothing short of a living monument here in Lithuania. It took us about three hours by bus to get there from the capital city of Vilnius.
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No one is quite sure where this tradition of placing crosses on this hill began. But, the fact of the matter is that it was a tradition that had really taken hold, long before Soviet Communism came to this Christian country.
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One plausible story is that the modern hill developed in its present form with crosses erected to commemorate insurgents killed in the anti-Russian revolt of 1831 which were further augmented by those honoring the fallen in the subsequent revolt of 1863-4. During the 1950s, Lithuanians returning from the Siberian gulags placed crosses to honor those who had died in captivity and in thanks for their own deliverance.
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The Soviets reacted harshly to this expression of both Christianity and nationalism by destroying the crosses and patrolling the site. But, despite their efforts to rid this hill of its crosses, the powerful faith of the people continued to prevail and the hill became a sign of faith as well as a sign of protest against the atheistic communism that was occupying their land. The crosses continued to appear.
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At the end of Soviet occupation in 1991, the hill had 40,000 crosses, a number that has incredibly increased in the intervening years and still grows each day. There could be close to a million (maybe more) crosses on that hill today.
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The crosses range from cheap plastic versions sold by vendors at the site to full-sized traditional carved crosses (one of which was erected by Pope John Paul II himself) is almost as striking at their number. The Francsican Order also erected a beautifully carved cross there a number of years ago under our then-General Minister Giacomo Bini. And, while we were there on Wednesday, the Lithuanian Franciscans erected a large (perhaps 10 foot high) cross in honor of the English Speaking Conference. We held a beautiful prayer service and blessed the cross there.
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Visually, the hill resembles a densely packed forest in many places and will likely continue to expand outward. Seeing the hill from a distance as you approach it is powerful
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At the urging of Pope John Paul II the friars have built a very nice friary at the Hill of the Crosses that serves as their novitiate. One of the most interesting features is the Chapel. It is built to look out onto the Hill of the Crosses and the Chapel itself has no crucifix - the crosses on the hill serve as the crucifix for the Chapel.
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It was an incredibly powerful experience of the deep and abiding faith of these people and the strength of their spirit that would not allow the destruction of their faith in Jesus Christ.
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Pax et bonum!

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