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Hungarians Gather to Honor Mary

A rustic icon draws tens of thousands of pilgrims

by Jacqueline Ruyak

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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.

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Tags: Pilgrimage/pilgrims Icons Hungary