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Lithuania Table of Contents



Traditionally, Lithuania has been a Roman Catholic country. Although severely affected by Soviet repression, the Roman Catholic Church remains the dominant and the most influential denomination. However, Lithuania in the past has had two small but active Protestant denominations, the Evangelical Reformed (Calvinist) and the Evangelical Lutheran. In addition, Orthodox Christianity as well as Judaism have roots at least as old as those of Roman Catholicism. In 1991 a Western poll found that 69 percent of respondents in Lithuania identified themselves as Roman Catholics (in 1939 the percentage was 85), 4 percent identified themselves as Orthodox, and 1 percent professed Evangelical Christian beliefs. New in this self-identification was a large category--25 percent--who did not profess any religion. Lithuanian journalists have also noted that twenty-one out of the 141 new members of parliament elected in 1992 left out "so help me God" from the oath when sworn in as deputies.

In 1992 Lithuania's Roman Catholic Church consisted of two archdioceses (Vilnius and Kaunas) and four dioceses (Kaisiadorys, Panevezys, Vilkaviskis, and Telsiai). The church is presided over by Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevicius in Kaunas. For thirty years, Sladkevicius, then a bishop, was held by Soviet authorities in internal exile. The church has 688 parishes, two theological seminaries (one reestablished in 1990), and several con-vents and monasteries. There is also one Uniate, or Eastern-Rite Catholic, congregation.

The archeparchy (archdiocese) of the Russian Orthodox Church has forty-five parishes and two monasteries. Archbishop Chrisostom and his archeparchy are under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow. The Old Believers (see Glossary) have fifty-one congregations. The Lithuanian Evangelical Lutheran Church under Bishop Jonas Kalvanas has thirty-three congregations, and the Evangelical Reformed Church (Calvinist) has eight. Other Christian denominations include Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Pentecostals. The non-Christian religious groups include Jews (two communities), Muslims (four communities), Krishna followers (two communities), and one Karaite (see Glossary) group.

Traditionally, most Roman Catholics in Lithuania were either Lithuanians or Poles, and the Orthodox and Old Believer adherents were predominantly Russians. This division has not changed, although currently it is no longer possible to assume religious affiliation on the basis of ethnic identity. The Calvinist and Evangelical Lutheran groups are very small--an estimated 15,000 Calvinists and 35,000 Lutherans. The younger Protestant denominations are even smaller but are intensely active. Generally, Lithuanian society in the 1990s is secularized, although, as in many postcommunist countries, younger people are searching for some sort of spiritual fulfillment.

The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest continuously surviving Lithuanian institution. As such, it has played a dominant role in the development of Lithuanian society, especially crucial during those long stretches of time when Lithuanians had no state of their own. At first highly influenced by the Polish community, the church under Bishop Motiejus Valancius in the nineteenth century promoted Lithuanian language and publications, which prepared the country for the national awakening of the 1880s. Because Russian imperial authorities had forbidden the publication of Lithuanian books in the Latin alphabet, Valancius had them printed in German-ruled, Protestant East Prussia and then smuggled into Lithuania. The bishop also organized a network of secret Lithuanian schools. In 1918 the church supported the establishment of Lithuania as an independent and democratic republic. Years later, it endorsed land reform, and in the 1930s the bishops opposed and restrained Smetona's authoritarian rule. Under Soviet rule, the church served as a focal point of resistance and dissident activities. Its theological outlook, however, has been conservative.

Protestants also have contributed significantly to Lithuania's cultural development. The first book printed in Lithuanian was a Lutheran catechism, published by Martynas Mazvydas in East Prussia in 1547. Protestant Lithuanians from this region published the literature of national awakening. Later, Protestants--both Lutheran and Calvinist--supplied political leadership out of proportion to their numbers in the population.

In Lithuania between the two world wars, the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations had a constitutionally guaranteed monopoly over registration of marriages, births, and deaths. Religious education in public schools was compulsory. Although there was no established religion, all denominations received some state support in rough proportion to their size. The Soviet authorities totally separated churches not only from the state but also from individual support. On June 12, 1990, Lithuania's newly elected independent parliament adopted an act of restitution of the Roman Catholic Church's condition status quo ante but promised compensation for the losses suffered under Soviet rule and pledged cooperation on a parity basis. The constitution of 1992 guarantees "freedom of thought, religion, and conscience" to all and "recognizes traditional churches and religious organizations of Lithuania." Other religious organizations have to pass a test to ensure that their teachings do not "contradict the law and morality." All recognized churches are guaranteed the rights of legal persons and can govern themselves without state interference. Religious teaching in public schools is allowed if parents desire it. Religious marriage registration also is legally valid, as in the United States. The government maintains an office of counselor on religious affairs.

Language and Culture

Like Latvian and Old Prussian, the Lithuanian language belongs to the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. The size of the territory in which Lithuanian was spoken shrank considerably through the ages. Today it is roughly coterminous with the boundaries of Lithuania except for some areas of Lithuanian speakers in Poland and Belarus, and except for the diaspora living in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Latin America, Australia, and even Siberia.

The medieval Lithuanian rulers did not develop a written form of the Lithuanian language. The literary Lithuanian language, based on a southwestern Lithuanian dialect, came into use during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, replacing the use of the Samogitian, or western Lithuanian, dialect. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the use of Lithuanian was confined mainly to the peasantry, but the language was revived subsequently. In 1988 it was declared the official language of Lithuania, as it had been during 1918-40 and the early years of Soviet rule.

Unlike Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania's cultural development was affected by Poland rather than Germany. The imperial Russian regime had an enormous impact on Lithuania from 1795 to 1915, and the Soviet Union had similar influence from 1940 to 1991. Direct contacts with western Europe also made significant contributions beginning in the sixteenth century. Lithuanian nobility in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and Lithuanian intellectuals since the turn of the twentieth century brought back ideas and experiences from Italy, Germany, and France. Also, between the two world wars independent Lithuania's direct communication with western Europe affected the development of educational and religious institutions, the arts and literature, architecture, and social thought. Lithuania's historical heritage and the imprint of the Western outlook acquired in the twentieth century were strong enough to make Soviet citizens feel that by going to Lithuania they were going abroad, to the West.

Lithuanian folk art, especially woodcarving and weaving, contributed to the growth of Lithuanian artistic development. Traditionally, Lithuanian folk artists carved mostly crosses, wayside chapels, and figures of a sorrowful Christ--very symbolic and characteristic of Lithuanian crossroads. Under Soviet rule, which outlawed religious subjects, woodcarvings became sec-ular. Today, Lithuania's roads and gardens are dotted with wooden crosses, poles, and other carvings.

Among Lithuanian artists, probably the best known is Mikalojus Ciurlionis (1875-1911), an originator of abstract painting and a composer whose music became the main subject of study by Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania's de facto president 1990-92 and a leader of the independence movement. During the Soviet period, Lithuanian art was best known for graphic arts and for stained glass windows, but the most prominent art forms included abstract painting, sculpture, commercial art, and amber jewelry.

Lithuanian music is as ancient as its art. Folk music has had great influence on its development, and choral singing--periodically demonstrated in huge singing festivals--remains extremely popular. Lithuanian composers write not only choral but also symphonic, ballet, chamber, and opera music. A conservatory, established in 1933, has contributed much to the development of musical culture. In addition to the conservatory, Lithuania supports four higher music schools, three art schools, two pedagogical music schools, eighty music schools for children, five symphony orchestras, ensembles for medieval and contemporary music, and an internationally known string quartet. Many instrumentalists and soloists are winners of international prizes. Folk music ensembles also abound.

Opera and ballet are important elements of Lithuania's national culture. Dancers are trained at the Vilnius School of Choreography and the Kaunas School of Music, as well as in Russia.

All of these activities were state supported under the Soviet system. Membership in artistic associations usually assured work in the profession. All of this now has to be reorganized on a private basis, and both the state and the artists are struggling to find satisfactory working arrangements. Many supporters of the arts believe that art should be state-supported but not state controlled.

The movie industry was established in the late 1940s. Lithuanian filmmakers released four full-length films in 1989 and five in 1990; they also released twenty-eight short films, twenty-four newsreels, and four documentaries. Artistic photography has roots that are older than the Soviet regime in Lithuania.

Sports are also a prevalent national pastime. Lithuania's most popular game is basketball, and a few Lithuanians play professionally in the United States and in European countries. Lithuania's individual athletes have won Olympic medals and routinely compete in European events.

Data as of January 1995

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Lithuania Table of Contents