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Tuesday, 03 September 2013 21:25

Papal visit to Lithuania remembered 20 years later

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John Paul II visits Hill of Crosses, Sept 7, 1993 John Paul II visits Hill of Crosses, Sept 7, 1993

For Genutė Kazakevičienė, the historic visit by Pope John Paul II in Lithuania twenty years ago seems like yesterday.

"Oh, gosh, I don't know, I felt like crying," Kazakevičienė, my Lithuanian aunt from Šiauliai said, whom I called last week to congratulate on her 82nd birthday.

My aunt was among many thousands of people who gathered at the foot of the Hill of Crosses to get a glimpse of the pontiff.

"It was beautiful. He was throwing holy water at the people, blessing us, and praying with us for the future of Lithuania at a place where for centuries Lithuanians have upheld a tradition of raising crosses," Kazakevičienė recalls.

“I have my own cross on that hill which I put long time ago, back in the Soviet times,” Kazakevičienė said, adding that as far as she's concerned, "there will never be another pope like him."

The Pope's trip to a remote Hill of Crosses about 125 miles northwest of the capital Vilnius that my aunt Kazakeviciene was referring to was one of the highlights of the visit.

In the Soviet era, efforts to destroy the site and keep it cleared of various religious symbols repeatedly were challenged by people like my aunt who risked imprisonment and exile to sneak crosses up the hill at night.

For my aunt, the Pope's visit to the Hill of Crosses and in Lithuania in general was not simply about pilgrimage. It was a major religious milestone for Lithuanians, for whom the church had been a rallying point of national identity and opposition to communist rule.

The long-awaited visit of Pope John Paul II to Lithuania took place from September 4th through 8th, 1993.

He became the first and so far the only Roman pontiff to visit Lithuania.

The visit blessed the cultural and political independence of Lithuania that it had regained only two years ago.

It is symbolic that the Pope's visit to Lithuania took place just days after the withdrawal of the last Soviet troops from the country.

For years Lithuanians had hoped for a pastoral visit. John Paul II had also wanted to come to the country with which he had a special relationship. But the Soviet authorities refused to grant his request to visit Lithuania.

Thus when the Pope was invited by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to visit Moscow in 1988, the Pope excluded this possibility unless he also is allowed to visit Lithuania.

Pope John Paul II’s special relationship with the Lithuanian people and Lithuania was evident and manifest in many ways and on many occasion.  In the very beginning of his pontificate John Paul II spontaneously pronounced his famous phrase: “Half of my heart is in Lithuania”. As John Paul II set foot on Lithuanian soil, at the Vilnius international airport, he fell on his knees and kissed the ground. The Pope's visit was seen as inspirational to many people in Lithuania who felt they were no longer alone.

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