Christian PilgrimagePilgrimages in LithuaniaJohn Paul II and Lithuania

Mother of Mercy, we fly to your protection!
XX a. pradžios maldininkai prie Aušros Vartų

Traditions of Piety

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Vilnius was ravaged in rapid succession by the Swedish and the Russian armies and devastated by numerous fires. Residents of the Lithuanian capital believed it was the protection of Our Lady of the Dawn Gate that saved their city from total destruction. The Blessed Virgin restrained the fires and, like the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, dealt mercilessly with attacking foes. Western and Eastern-rite Christians, Catholics and Orthodox all prayed with devotion before the miraculous image of the Mother of Mercy.

People turned to Our Lady of the Dawn Gate for aid not only against fires and wars. After the last partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, the greater part of Lithuania (and later the entire country, including Vilnius) fell under the control of Russia. Three uprisings, in 1794, 1731 and 1863, did not manage to liberate either Poland or Lithuania, but they did demonstrate an undying resolve to regain freedom. The uprisings brought increased persecution as well as growing devotion to the Dawn Gate Mother of God. The shine became not just a place of worship, but also a venue for political resistance.

The Gate of Dawn gradually became a symbol of both the Polish and the Lithuanian struggles for freedom and statehood. After World War I, when the region of Vilnius was incorporated into Poland, the two nations’ paths separated for a time. Our Lady of the Dawn Gate came to be called “Patroness of the eastern Polish borders”. Pope Pius XI, seeking to avoid any further discord between the two peoples, opposed an initiative to crown the image with the title “Queen of Poland”. Interestingly, however, the oldest known hymn from the Gate of Dawn, published in the mid 18th century, appeals to the Mother of Mercy as “Defender and Consoler of Vilnius, Queen of Poland and Ruler of Lithuania.”

Vast multitudes of exiles and emigrants, both Poles and Lithuanians, came to regard the Dawn Gate shrine as a symbol of their lost homeland. Devotion to the Mother of God was a sign of their national identity and a source of hope. Scattered around the world by wars, political oppression and poverty, Lithuanians and former Polish residents of Vilnius chose her as their Patroness, prayed for her protection in refugee camps and Siberian exile, and established churches in honour of the Mother of Mercy wherever they could. Lithuanian parishes dedicated to the Gate of Dawn arose in New York in the United States, and in Montreal, Canada. Poles built such churches, too, and not only in foreign lands. Having been forced to leave the region of Vilnius after World War II, they dedicated churches to the Gate of Dawn in Warsaw and other parts of Poland, and sometimes even built replicas of the gateway edifice. In 1970 a Lithuanian chapel was consecrated in the crypt of the St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Above its altar is a mosaic of the Dawn Gate Mother of Mercy blessed by Pope Paul VI.

The persecutions which began when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania did not end devotion to Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn. Lithuanian Catholics in 1948 formed a secret society with educational aims that was known as the College of Our Lady of the Dawn Gate. Soviet security forces crushed the group in 1950. Beginning in 1973, members of an illegal Catholic youth organization known as the Friends of the Eucharist started organizing pilgrimages to the annual indulgenced feast at the Dawn Gate shrine. Young people from the parishes of Vilnius would take turns praying the Rosary before the image. And on November 16, 1979, the Catholic Committee for the Defence of Believers’ Rights celebrated its first anniversary here in the presence of youth gathered from all parts of the country.

After Lithuania regained not only political but also full religious freedom in 1990, the Gate of Dawn became more a hub for personal piety than a place of resistance. Still, the shrine retains a role in the struggle against moral confusion and the ideology of consumerism in today’s society. The Gate of Dawn is open to everyone who seeks the help of the Mother of God, as pilgrims from neighbouring countries discover. Many tourists, even those of other faiths or no faith at all, follow the example of local believers and raise their hat or bow their head on the small street that leads to the gate. And because of the shared devotion to the image of the Mother of Mercy among Vilnius’s Christians of various confessions and rites, the Gate of Dawn is an important place for ecumenical encounters and for the promotion of Christian unity. In 1997, for example, Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia visited the shrine and prayed there together with Vilnius Archbishop A.J. Bačkis.

The choir of St Joseph’s Seminary in Vilnius revived a tradition at the Dawn Gate, which has since been continued by choral groups from a variety of parishes, of singing the Akathist, a hymn to the Mother of God taken from the ancient liturgy of Eastern Christians. It has also become traditional for Vilnius youth to begin pilgrimages to Trakai from the Gate of Dawn. And on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, a candle-lit ecumenical procession starting from the Dawn Gate connects the shrine of the Mother of Mercy with the shine of the Merciful Jesus.

In 2003, the Holy See approved the establishment of the European Network of Marian Shrines, which joins outstanding sites of devotion to the Mother of God in a number of countries. The network includes 20 shrines, the same as the number of mysteries in the Rosary, as renewed by Pope John Paul II. The Gate of Dawn represents Lithuania in the network, which exists to encourage pilgrimages and promote better pastoral and practical care for pilgrim travellers. Fatima, Lourdes, Częstochowa and Loreto are among other shrines in the network. Vilnius in 2007 hosted an annual meeting of promoters of the member shrines.