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Hungarians Gather to Honor Mary

A rustic icon draws tens of thousands of pilgrims

As we made the turn for Máriapócs, Father Tamás Horváth pointed out two white-haired women walking along the road.“Pilgrims,” he said.“They’re probably on their way from the train station.” It is less than two miles from the station to Máriapócs, a little Greek Catholic village (population, 2,800) that is Hungary’s most beloved pilgrimage site.

“Walking is a kind of sacrifice offered to Mary,” he added.

It was the second Saturday of September in northeastern Hungary and the weather was perfect. Apples, pears and plums were in season, grapes were on the vine and roses, marigolds and herbs still scented the air. On the following day, Bishop Szilárd Keresztes, Greek Catholic Bishop of Hajdúdorog, would celebrate an open-air liturgy in Máriapiócs to commemorate one of the principal feasts of the Virgin Mary, her Nativity.

For more than three centuries, Máriapócs (formerly the village of Pócs) has been known for its weeping icon of the Virgin Mary (opposite). Commissioned in 1676 by a local man who had escaped imprisonment by the Turks, the icon first wept in 1696. Cures and miracles were soon attributed to it. In 1697, by order of the Hapsburg emperor of Austria, the icon was taken to St. Stephen Cathedral in Vienna and replaced with a copy.

The original icon, which remains in Vienna, never again shed tears, but the copy has purportedly wept twice, in 1715 and 1905. Both moments marked periods of hardship in Hungarian history. The first instance marked the Hapsburg army’s defeat of an independence movement led by the Catholic revolutionary Ferenc Rákóczi. And in 1905, Hungary was impoverished, with an estimated 3 million beggars roaming the countryside.

Since 1696, millions have paid tribute to this simple image of Mary. The wooden church that originally housed the icon was too small to accommodate the many pilgrims who flocked to the village and, in 1756, a Baroque church was built to replace it. In 1946, Pope Pius XII raised this rural church to the status of a minor basilica.

After the Communists came to power in Hungary in 1948, religious processions came under state scrutiny. At times, pilgrimages were forbidden and state agencies kept track of disobeying citizens. More often, pilgrimages were discouraged and subject to state-sanctioned harassment. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, pilgrimages resumed in earnest.

Every Sunday from spring to autumn there is a feast. The shrine’s two main pilgrimage days fall in late summer: 15 August, the feast of the Dormition, or the falling asleep of the Virgin Mary, and 8 September, the Nativity of the Virgin. Both are celebrated on the Sunday closest to the actual feast day.

Going to Máriapócs on foot has long been a way of offering a sacrifice. Ílona Konyári, 81, from the Greek Catholic village of Nyírascád, about 22 miles away, recalled such pilgrimages.

“We went to Máriapócs at least once a year, usually three times, on foot. There were two or three hundred of us, with the church banners and village crest. The baggage was carried in a cart but we walked, singing hymns as we went. While we walked, the priest heard confessions.

“Whenever we came to a cross along the way, we’d stop to pray and sing. When we came to a village, we prayed at the church there, and the church rang its bells. We left around nine in the morning and arrived that night. We looked for a place to stay, then took part in the feast day ceremonies and liturgy. And we kept on going even under Communism.”

About 30 years ago, pilgrims started using buses, however, because Communists along the way had taken to taunting, spitting, throwing stones or otherwise harassing those on foot.

Seven years ago, the bishop built a snug pilgrimage house, open year round, where pilgrims may stay for a nominal charge. Long ago, pilgrims stayed in the stables of local homes. Villagers took their animals out so that pilgrims could stay; they were repaid with gifts of fruit or other foods. Some homes still put pilgrims up, but as paying guests. Most pilgrims now come to Máriapócs on the morning of the feast day itself.

Father Horváth and I reached the pilgrimage house, where I would stay, in time for a late lunch in the cafeteria. The homemade vegetable soup, of carrots, parsnips and little dumplings, made me wonder if it was a fast day. That notion was dispelled by the csikóstokány, pork ragout in a flavored sour cream sauce served over macaroni, which followed. Because the Nativity of the Virgin is a joyous occasion, there is no fast. For the Dormition, fasting begins after 29 June, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, and continues on designated days until 15 August.

“Pilgrims usually bring their own food,” Father Horváth said.“They take some of it back with them, because food that has been to Máriapócs is a treat for the people at home. They call it madárlátta, food seen by the birds.” Other traditional treats are mézeskalács, honey cakes, which were being sold at stands off the main square.

Pilgrims to Máriapócs first greet the icon, which is installed high above a side altar, to the left of the iconostasis.

Afterward, some pilgrims go to confession. Others continue up a short flight of stairs, where they kiss a glassed miniature of the icon, exiting down the opposite side. When I went to the church that afternoon, a wedding was in progress. Both bride and groom were Romany, commonly known as Gypsies. Of Hungary’s total population of some 10 million, about 600,000 are Romany, who usually claim the religion of their resident community. In northeastern Hungary, many are Greek Catholic.

Throughout the liturgy, pilgrims shuffled up and down the stairs behind the altar. Once the newlyweds departed, believers surged to the altar to pray, sing and light votive candles. Some offered flowers, others sought blessings. A Romany woman, four children in tow, kissed the altar from end to end. A young man prayed, then took a photo of the icon with his cell phone. In a book set out for that purpose, a middle-aged man laboriously wrote a message of thanksgiving for being able to greet the icon with his family.

Several years ago Bishop Szilárd built about 30 confessionals in the back of the church. On feast days, priests hear confessions for hours at a time, but the confessionals are still too few and pilgrims line up on the grass behind the church.

“Pilgrimage means getting greater grace,” said Father Horváth,“and being able to live with this grace for another year. People come here asking for grace and receiving grace, asking God and the Mother of God to help them prepare for the next year.”

For Demeter Kosztin, a 75-year-old widower who also lives in Nyírascád, Máriapócs is a place to think of his family.“I offer prayers to Mary and to Christ for my children and grandchildren and for peace and tranquillity in the family.

“I also ask the Mother of God that I may live to come again next year.”

Eva Kocsis, in her 20’s, was at the church with one of her six sisters.“Máriapócs is the center of Greek Catholic life,” said Ms. Kocsis, editor of a Greek Catholic magazine.“When I have problems, I come and tell Mary. Like small children love their mother, we love the Mother of God.”

To Greek Catholics, explained Father Horváth,“Mary is a real, not mystical, figure. She was the Mother of God and, like us, a human being. In a family, when people want something, they go first to the mother and ask her. For us, the head of the family is God, who we know loves us, but it is easier to ask things of his mother.”

By seven o’clock, the evening had turned dark and distinctly cool. A hundred or so pilgrims walked to the cemetery, about 10 minutes away, for a traditional ceremony for the dead. Priests and seminarians led the service, by flashlight, at the main cross of the cemetery. The illuminated towers of the church shone behind us; the Big Dipper hung over the horizon. A huge old tree loomed out of the darkness down the path where we stood, and somewhere in the night dogs were barking.

There suddenly came the insistent beat of a rock band, music from an amusement park on the other side of town. Once a market that catered to pilgrims, it had morphed into an amusement park. Under the Communist regime, the park was set up across from the cemetery to disrupt ceremonies there, but in the 1990’s it was finally moved to an open field across town.

“When I came to Máriapócs as a child it was scary,” said Father Horváth on the way back.“There were so many people here, and they jammed together. You never knew what the Communists would do, so people stuck together, to be as close as possible.”

Back again at the church, the murmuring ebb and flow of worshipers continued into the night. Priests led the pilgrims in singing services from nine to almost midnight. Between services, a man dressed in grubby vestment-like garb stepped forward from the congregation and started singing, perhaps with more fervor than skill. He was joined by a raucous middle-aged Romany man, one of many pilgrims I recognized as having been there since afternoon.

At midnight, Father Horváth led everyone outside and in a procession around the church. Father Horváth, who had been ordained a priest barely a month earlier, read aloud the story of the Resurrection from the Gospels and blessed each of the four sides of the church. He later explained that in the past the procession went around Máriapócs,“bringing grace throughout the village.”

High above the ochre and white church towers, stars glittered in the blue-black sky. The crowd, which in the church had taken on a slightly giddy air, became quiet and intent as the procession made its way around the shrine.

When I woke just past five on Sunday morning and looked out the window, I was astounded to see waves of people streaming along the paths to the church. By seven, the waves had become a flood. Priests led their parishioners, some bearing flowers, banners, crosses, small statues, paintings or signs, into the church. Other pilgrims, in coiled lines two or three deep, waited alongside the church to kiss the icon. Around eight, as if on cue, those who had worshiped took out bread or sandwiches from home – breakfast. At a holy water font near the rear gate, Romany women rinsed their faces and then scrubbed their children’s faces. The lines for confession grew longer.

Thousands of believers of all ages thronged the grassy square in front of the church walls to hear the bishop celebrate the Divine Liturgy at 10. During the liturgy, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its last weeping, he announced the icon would travel around the country. This was a first in its long history.“We love this icon, not the material icon but what it represents,” said Father Horváth.“We are happy and proud to have such a protector, and now each village and town in Hungary will be able to feel that it is a guest.”

In recent years, I was told, the number of pilgrims had fallen off, but the official police estimate of the day’s crowd was 60,000. By 10 that morning there were so many people inside that the gates to the church had to be closed and the patient pilgrims made to wait outside for their turn to enter. During Communion, Bishop Szilárd sent many concelebrating priests into the churchyard to give the Eucharist to the pilgrims. It went on long after the liturgy had ended. And at three that afternoon, pilgrims were still milling about the church, asking Mary for her intercession on the day of her birth.

Jacqueline Ruyak frequently travels to central Europe on assignment for ONE.

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