On the Máriapócs icon, only the poorly preserved faces of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus remain on view.
The 18th-century Baroque Byazantine Catholic church of Máriapócs.
Bishop Szilárd Keresztes(left), Byzantine Catholic Bishop of Hajdúdorog, concelebrated the Divine Liturgy with Pope John Paul II during the Pontiff’s visit to Máriapócs on 18 August 1991.
Pilgrims, clergy and hierarchy fill the shrine at a recent celebration.
Máriapócs, one of the smallest towns in Hungary (about 2,800 inhabitants), lies in the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Hajdúdorog, near the Ukrainian border. Despite its size, however, Máriapócs draws over half a million pilgrims annually to its Byzantine Catholic shrine, in which rests an icon of the Mother of God that has shed many tears in the last 300 years.
On 4 November 1696, the icon, commissioned by a man freed from Turkish captivity, began to weep for the first time. There was much cause for weeping.
Hungary was a divided nation. To the west and northeast, where Máriapócs was located, Royal Hungary, as it was known, was ruled by the Austrian Hapsburgs. They ruled their dominions with an iron hand, placing onerous burdens on the long-suffering Hungarians. To the south-east, the Hungarian province of Transylvania was autonomous, although under Turkish suzerainty. Muslim Turks also occupied the central plain.
The icon wept for two weeks. Many prayers were answered and many cures recorded. One of the most spectacular occurred when the Latin (Roman) Catholic priest of a neighboring village lifted a dying child to the weeping icon. The child touched the tears streaming from the Virgin’s eyes and recovered. The child’s grateful mother brought a necklace of precious stones to place on the icon. In time, such offerings covered the entire image.
On 8 December 1696, a day so cold the wine froze in the priest’s chalice during the Divine Liturgy, the icon began to weep again. Despite the bitter weather, the Virgin’s tears continued to stream for 11 days.
Church and secular officials examined the icon, questioning witnesses and experts. They determined the authenticity of the tears.
Meanwhile war ravaged the country. With the aid of Venice, Poland and other Western powers, Austria drove the Turks from all but one small corner of Hungary. But the victorious Hapsburg emperor of Austria, Leopold I, the de facto ruler of Hungary, was also determined to crush Hungarian dreams of independence. In February 1697, despite the objections of the faithful of Hungary, he ordered the removal of the icon to Vienna.
The journey there took several months, as people all along the icon’s route paid homage. Arriving in Vienna, the icon was received with great pomp and devotion and placed over the high altar of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Today it is enshrined at a side altar to the right of the cathedral’s main entrance. Curiously, the icon has not shed a tear since it arrived in Austria.
Nevertheless, in the course of the next 40 years, close to 300 cures and other miracles were attributed to the weeping icon the Austrians call Maria Pötsch. Outstanding among these was the defeat of overwhelming Turkish forces at Zenta in 1697, a triumph for which the entire Austrian populace had sent up prayers to the icon of Máriapócs.
In August 1715, a copy of the icon, sent to Máriapócs by the Austrian emperor, began to weep. It was another time of sadness in Hungary. Ferenc Rákóczi II, (1676 1735), a Catholic revolutionary who briefly led the Hungarians’ ongoing struggle for independence, was defeated by the armies of the Hapsburg emperor and sent into exile in Turkey. Rákóczi had fought under flags adorned with images of the Virgin. Some of his supporters were from the village of the weeping icon.
Again, the tears were examined by a church tribunal and declared authentic. A wealthy nobleman donated two crowns to adorn Mary and the infant Jesus. A protective covering fashioned of silver was placed over the painting, leaving only the faces open to view.
Miracles obtained through devotion to the second icon of Máriapócs were not confined to cures. On one occasion an innocent man who had been charged with murder and sentenced to death was granted one last wish: to visit the shrine at Máriapócs. There, his locked chains clattered to the floor the Virgin Mary’s testimony to his innocence.
The Byzantine Catholic church of Máriapócs proved too small to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims wishing to visit the shrine. In time, a large stone church, in the fashionable Baroque style, was erected on the site. This church was ready for use by 1756, although it was, another century before its towers could be completed.
In December 1905, the icon at Máriapócs wept again, shedding tears from the third to the 19th of the month. Again, there was much cause for weeping. Poverty was rampant in Hungary; there were an estimated 3,000,000 beggars roaming the countryside. Thousands of Hungarians were leaving their homeland to seek a better life in the New World.
Members of the committee investigating this new manifestation of the Virgin’s sorrow included doctors and scientists, Catholic theologians, as well as Protestants and Jews. Once again, the miraculous tears were declared authentic.
Pope Pius XII raised the church of Máriapócs to the status of basilica in 1946. József Cardinal Mindszenty, Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary, was the principal celebrant of a liturgy to mark the occasion. The celebration also commemorated the 250th anniversary of the original icon’s first weeping and the 300th anniversary of the Union of Uzhorod, which united the region’s Orthodox Christians with the Church of Rome.
Soon thereafter, the Communist regime came into power in Hungary. Religious processions were forbidden and the roads leading to Máriapócs were blocked. The vehicle licenses of pilgrims wishing to drive to Máriapócs were officially recorded and bus drivers were heavily fined for having come to Pócs. Even in later years, the State Office of Church Affairs had to give an annual account of each pilgrimage, covering every detail from the number of participants to the text of the priest’s sermon. As late as 1989, a report had to be submitted about Communist Party members who took part in such pilgrimages.
The disintegration of the Iron Curtain in 1989, which subsequently brought a nonCommunist government to power for the first time in 41 years, opened the way to new pilgrimages. Votive offerings were once again found at the altar of the icon and 30 to 40 tablets of thanksgiving, testifying to prayers answered, were added by the faithful every year. Communist leadership was restored following the election of 1994, but religious freedom has endured.
Unlike other famous icons, the weeping icon of Máriapócs does not have its own feast; instead, the icon is venerated on every Marian feast and each Sunday of May. Of the 16 major annual pilgrimages, however, those on 15 August, the feast of the Assumption, and 8 September, the Nativity of the Virgin, are the largest.
Our Lady of Máriapócs is venerated in Austria, Germany and Switzerland as well as Hungary. In the United States, the Basilian Fathers, a Byzantine Catholic community, maintain shrines in her honor in Matawan, N.J., and Burton, Ohio.
According to the current pastor of the little church at Máriapócs, Father Marcell Mosolygó, the weeping icon reveals Our Lady’s loving compassion for the suffering of the people living here.
Over the years, he pointed out, the icon has wept, not in a royal palace, but in the country’s most backward region.