From the late Middle Ages until the early 17th century, the realm of Poland-Lithuania sprawed across Northeastern Europe. Wedged between Orthodox Russia to the East and what would become Protestant Prussia and Scandinavia, this vast kingdom and its survivor states was, and remains, a bastion of Catholicism. Its rulers became staunch defenders of Christianisty and the Church, none moreso than Prince Casimir, the only member of the Polish royal family to be honored with sainthood. During his brief life, he won a reputation both for his piety and his outspoken defiance against the Turkish hordes then encroaching in Eastern Europe. His tomb in the Cathedral of Vilnius is now one of the most popular Catholic pilgrimage sites in the Baltic States.
The short-lived Casimir Jagiellon was one of the most famous and popular members of Polish royalty in history. A crown prince and heir to the thrones of Poland and Lithuania, Casimir never succeeded his father as king due to his early death. A devout Christian, he had a reputation for piety and extreme fasting. He may also have lived a voluntary life of chastity, and it is known that he turned down the opportunity to marry the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Casimir grew up in the tumultuous decades which followed the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. During his youth, Turkish armies had conquered much of what is now Romania and the Balkans, and were working their way northwards into Hungary. When his uncle the king of Hungary was killed in battle against the Turks, Casimir was offered the throne of Hungary. Despite being only thirteen, Casimir jumped at the chance to fight against the Ottomans. Although he did not successfully take his uncle’s crown, he was staunch opponent against the Turkish incursions for the remainder of his life.
Casimir’s brief life ended in 1484 at the age of 25. He died of tuberculosis, possibly brought on by one of his extreme episodes of fasting. Although he had served as regent of Poland, he was buried in Vilnius Cathedral, which was at the time the royal seat of the joint kingdom. By local popular demand Casimir was eventually canonized, and his tomb became the most important site of Catholic pilgrimage in the Baltics.
Vilnius Cathedral itself has a fascinating history. Founded in the mid-13th century, it was constructed on the site of an earlier pagan temple. However, a few years later, the local residents reverted to paganism, and the church was put to use for the worship of the pagan god Perkunas. However, in 1387 Lithuania officially became Christian, and a new cathedral was constructed. This burned down a few years later, and was finally replaced by the present structure in the 15th century.
Vilnius Cathedral served for many years as a royal church, and to this day remains the heart of Catholicism in the Baltics. It was mostly reconstructed in the late 18th century, and much of the structure dates from this time. Architecturally it is a cross between a Gothic cathedral and an ancient Roman Basilica. The magnificent façade is designed in the manner of an ancient Greek temple, and is adorned by both statues and engraved figures. Six massive columns support the roof. The building is crowned with statues of Sts. Casimir, Stanislaus and Helena. Directly in front of the cathedral, and independent of it, is aslightly leaning, minaret-like belltower crowned by a dome, steeple and cross.
The cathedral interior is laid out in traditional cross-fashion, and is elegant but somewhat plain. The major exception id the Chapel of St. Casimir, which showcases the Prince’s reliquary amidst magnificent marble work and statuary. In addition to Casimir, a number of other Polish and Lithuanian royals and luminaries are interred here as well. Also of note is a fresco depicting the Jesus, which may date as far back as the the 13th century, preserved in the church.
Vilnius Cathedral is located on the north side of the city center, just west of the old royal palace (where a complete reconstruction is currently underway). As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.katedra.lt (official website)
Although Lithuania is a relatively young Catholic country as Europe goes, its capital at Vilnius does boast its share of beautiful and historic churches. Perhaps the most stunning, and visited, is St. Anne’s Church, which was admired by Napolean himself.