Hill of Crosses, Near Šiauliai, in northern Lithuania

5 December 2011

After leaving Palanga, we drove toward Latvia for a meeting in Riga. Along the way in northern Lithuania, we stopped at the Hill of Crosses (Kryžių kalnas). Rev. Dr. Darius Petkūnas explained that after the fall of communism in Lithuania, people began to bring crosses to this hill. No one knows exactly why the practice of bringing crosses to this place began, but today it is estimated that there are over 200,000 crosses on the hill.

Rev. Dr. Darius Petkūnas Speaking about the Hill of Crosses

The plaque Dr. Petkūnas points to reads, “The Hill of Crosses is a unique place in terms of both its scale and its history. At present some 200,000 crosses of various sizes adorn the hill. By continually putting up crosses there people express their devotion to Christ, pray for his help and mercy, and identify Lithuania as a Christian land. The site is a reflection of the nation’s spontaneous religiousness and is probably the place in Lithuania that is most often visited by pilgrims today. The Hill of Crosses gained immense significance in the lives of Lithuanian believers during the Soviet era as a sign of resistance to the totalitarian regime. After the re-establishment of independence new life has been breathed into the Hill of Crosses and it has become a symbol of the entire nation’s unshakeable faith, its past suffering and hope. The Hill of Crosses gained fame throughout the world on 7 September 1993 when Pope John Paul II visited it and celebrated the Holy Mass for 100,000 people who gathered there. In 1994 a cross was put up on the site using the crucifix that Pope John Paul II gave to Lithuania. The cross blessed by Pope Benedict XVI was added in 2006. At the foot of the Hill of Crosses stands a Franciscan monastery built with the encouragement of Pope John Paul II and consecrated in 2000. The Feast of the Hill of Crosses, reinstated in 1997, draws large crowds each year on the last Sunday of July.”

Dr. Collver standing among the crosses

Of the Hill of Crosses, Pope John Paul II said, “(…) Here where our ancestors in the faith witnessed, by their martyrdom even to the point of death, to the love with which Christ loved us. Here in this spot of the globe, in ancient Rome, I am thinking especially of the ‘Hill of Crosses’ in Lithuania, to which I made a pastoral visit last September. I was moved by that other Colosseum, not of Roman times, but a Colosseum of our age, of this last century…”

Pope John Paul II continued, “I thought of those other Colosseums, so numerous, of those other “Hills of Crosses” that are on the other side, throughout European Russia, throughout Siberia, so many Hills of Crosses so many Colosseums of modern times…”
The Ten Commandments with an inscription referencing the 1st Commandment,
“Praise God! Not Graven Images.”

Pope John Paul II noted, “… at the end of the second millennium the Church has once again become the Church of martyrs. The persecutions of believers – priests, Religious and laity – has caused a great sowing of martyrdom in different parts of the world…”

Looking Back Upon the Crosses

The 20th century had more martyrs for Christ than any other century in the history of the world. Before the Communist Revolution in the early 20th century, Lutheranism was the second largest Christian confession in the Russian Empire after Orthodoxy. It was the third largest Christian confession in the world after Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Before 1918, there were 220,000 Lutherans in Lithuania. Today, there are 20,000. Dr. Petkūnas in his book The Repression of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania during the Stalinist Era details how Lutherans were persecuted more intently than Roman Catholics in Lithuania. The communist executed half of the Lutheran clergy in Lithuania.

The Cover of Dr. Petkūnas’ Book
(A Link to the Book’s Site in Lithuanian)

Before the Communist Revolution, Latvia had over a million Lutherans. Today, there are about 400,000 professed Lutherans. Of those Lutherans in Latvia today, about 40,000 are active members. In Russia proper, the Volga Lutherans and the Lutherans in Siberia fled, were deported, exiled to the Gulag, or executed. These numbers reflect only the Lutherans and do not include other Christians persecuted such as Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and other Protestants.

A Franciscan Monastery Resides at the base of the Hill of Crosses

The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania serves as a good reminder of how the church was persecuted under Communism. It reminds how the 20th century martyred more Christians than any other era in the history of the world. During this Advent season, Jesus’ words resound, “And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” (Matthew 24:22)

A Cross Placed for Babies Who Died Before Birth

This cross was placed for babies who were never born due to abortion.

Dr. Quill, Dr. Petkūnas and Pastor Johnson

We departed the Hill of Crosses singing the hymn, “Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow” (Lutheran Service Book 428).

Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow,
Where the blood of Christ was shed,
Perfect man on thee did suffer,
Perfect God on thee hast bled.
— Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver, Director of Church Relations