On March 4 we congratulate all our friends and relatives who are named after Lithuania’s favourite (and only) saint – Casimir. So if you know a Kazimieras or Kazimiera (Kazys or Kazė is their short form), this is their “name day”, or their saint’s feast day – a commemoration that is not a widely-practiced in North America, but very popular in Lithuania.
St. Casimir, who lived from 1458 to 1484, was known above all for being just and kind, and for his charitable work with the poor, the widowed and the lame during a period of the Renaissance when the very idea of a member of the aristocracy having any kind of contact with the less fortunate was unimaginable, according to art historian Dr. Sigita Maslauskaitė-Mažylienė, author of a book on the history of the image of St. Casimir in the 16th-17th century (Šv. Kazimiero atvaizdo istorija XVI–XVIII a.). Some researchers believed that the tuberculosis that he died from was due to that type of contact, as there was no indication of this illness in him or his family in the literature about his early life. Veneration of St. Casimir began with the appearance of “votai” (votive offerings, in the form of small wax or metal replicas of body parts or hearts placed beside a saint’s picture or gravesite to thank the saint or request healing) at his grave.
His canonization process began as early as 1520, only a few decades after his death. His first biography was published in 1521, with many facts about his life and even his appearance. However he was not actually declared a saint until 1602, by Pope Clement VIII. Especially in Vilnius, where the first church in his name was built, veneration of St. Casimir increased rapidly and continued through the 17th and 18th centuries. His body was exhumed and there were many reports of various miracles related to him.
He was worshipped in Lithuania and Poland, and the Jesuits brought the cult of St. Casimir to the Netherlands as well. St. Casimir’s brotherhood was established in Antwerp, and the National Museum in Brussels has a collection of books containing valuable etchings about the brotherhood’s activities.
St. Casimir has also had many devotees in Italy, especially in the south – Naples, Calabria and Sicily. Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany was also dedicated to this saint and for two years sent requests to Vilnius Cathedral for a relic of St. Casimir, which he finally received and had encased in a beautiful reliquary. There are photos showing this reliquary being carried in processions through the streets of Florence on March 4, even after World War II.
Although St. Casimir is often called the patron saint of youth and chastity (especially in Italy), he was first and foremost the guardian of the nation, protecting it from war, internal and foreign enemies, and plague during the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 17th century.
When Lithuania and Poland began a century of suffering under czarist oppression n 1795, the cult of St. Casimir was deliberately eradicated specifically because he was the guardian of the nation. Churches built in his name were destroyed by czarists or turned into Russian houses of worship. During the first independence period, the cult was renewed, but was more connected to the search for national identity. His iconography had shed the Baroque influence and became simple and modest.
During the half-century of Soviet rule, as March 4th approached each year, the press would publish negative propaganda about St. Casimir as a sick and lame weakling, and described his sainthood as a fantasy created by superstitious minds.
As the guardian of the Lithuanian nation, St. Casimir is still a relevant religious figure, and efforts are being made to reactivate the cult that was repressed for all those ears. It may never attain the fervour of olden times, and many people forget that the history of the annual St. Casimir’s Fair is based on the tradition of pilgrimages made to Vilnius to worship him. Yet he is an abiding national and religious figure.
With information from bernardinai.lt