The Hill of Crosses, Kryzių Kalnas, located nine miles north of the small industrial city of Siauliai (pronounced shoo-lay) is the Lithuanian national pilgrimage centre. Standing upon a small hill are many hundreds of thousands of crosses that represent Catholic devotion and a memorial to Lithuanian national identity.
History of the Hill of Crosses
The city of Siauliai was founded in 1236 and occupied by Teutonic Knights during the 14th century. The tradition of placing crosses dates from this period and first arose as a symbol of Lithuanian defiance of foreign invaders. Since the medieval period, the Hill of Crosses has represented the peaceful resistance of Lithuanian Catholicism to oppression. In 1795 Siauliai was incorporated into Russia but was returned to Lithuania in 1918. Many large crosses were erected upon the hill after the peasant uprising of 1831-63, surrounded by thousands of smaller ones.
Captured by Germany in World War II, the city suffered heavy damage when Soviet Russia retook it at the war’s end. From 1944 until Lithuania’s independence in 1991, Siauliai was a part of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR. During the Soviet era, the pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses served as a vital expression of Lithuanian nationalism. The Soviets repeatedly removed Christian crosses placed on the hill by Lithuanians. Three times, during 1961, 1973 and 1975, the hill was levelled, the crosses were burned or turned into scrap metal, and the area was covered with waste and sewage. Following each of these desecrations local inhabitants and pilgrims from all over Lithuania rapidly replaced crosses upon the sacred hill. In 1985, the Hill of Crosses was finally left in peace. The reputation of the sacred hill has since spread all over the world and every year it is visited by many thousands of pilgrims. Saint John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses in September of 1993.
The size and variety of crosses is as amazing as their number. Beautifully carved out of wood or sculpted from metal, the crosses range from three metres tall to the countless tiny examples hanging profusely upon the larger crosses. An hour spent upon the sacred hill will reveal crosses brought by Christian pilgrims from all around the world. Rosaries, pictures of Jesus and the saints, and photographs of Lithuanian patriots also decorate the larger crosses. It is told that on windy days breezes blowing through the forest of crosses and hanging rosaries produces a uniquely beautiful music.
The Symbol of the Cross
The Christian Cross is a representation of the instrument of the crucifixion of Jesus and His glorious victory over sin and death. It is a symbol of the atonement and a vivid reminder of God’s love in sacrificing His own Son to redeem man from his sins.
The cross is a symbol not of grief and death, but of Faith, Love and Sacrifice. “And he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me” – (Matthew 10:38).
Each and every cross (or crucifix) placed on this spot tells a story. Each one is a witness of faithfulness and trust of a soul to Christ and His Cross. We cannot escape the cross: ‘the cross’ of suffering is part of man’s inheritance since the Fall: (Genesis 3:16-19). But when we give our fiat to Our Lord and all that His Church commands us; when we acknowledge our sins and repent with sincere contrition and a firm purpose of amendment; when we patiently and joyfully accept our daily trials and sufferings in this “vale of tears”, we are identifying ourselves with Christ on the Cross.
The cross is the symbol of the path leading us, in the footsteps of Our Blessed Saviour, to the resurrection and life everlasting. It is the humble acceptance of the sufferings that befall us, including ‘the cross’ of our own weak and sinful humanity, but above all it is a symbol of hope as we fix our eyes on Christ alone. “And if I shall go, and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will take you to myself; that where I am, you also may be” – (John 14:3).
“The Crucifix Reminds Us Of Our Sin”:
“The night of the Last Supper our Blessed Lord told of three effects of the Holy Spirit. One of them was: “He will convict you of sin, because you did not believe in me.” How do we know we are sinners? By the Holy Spirit. Not because we break a law. There isn’t a driver who hasn’t broken the law against speeding. Did you ever lean over your steering wheel and say an act of contrition? Nobody is really sorry for breaking a law, unless he gets caught. The law is for the imperfect. Our Blessed Lord relates sin to unbelief – “Because you did not believe in me.” If we did not believe in him, we crucified him. So what is sin? Sin is hurting someone you love. That is sin.That is why the crucifix reminds us of our sin. The life of each and every one of us has been written. The crucifix is my autobiography. The blood is the ink. The nails the pen. The skin the parchment. On every line of that body I can trace my life. In the crown of thorns I can read my pride. In the hands that are dug with nails, I can read avarice and greed. In flesh hanging from him like purple rags, I can read my lust. In feet that fettered, I can find the times that I ran away and would not let him follow. Any sin that you can think of is written there. This is what the Spirit does for us.” – Ven. Fulton J. Sheen
On this Holy Saturday, as we silently await the joyful commemoration of Our Lord’s victory over death on Easter Sunday tomorrow, our gaze on the crucifix should remain with us always – a necessary reminder of our sin and the sacrifice Our Saviour made for love of you and me.
“No-one, however weak, is denied a share in the victory of the Cross. No-one is beyond the help of the prayer of Christ.” – St. Leo the Great