The year was 1567, and János Zsigmond, Prince of Transylvania who had accepted the Unitarian belief, sent a military expedition to impose his faith on the Catholic population of Csík, Gyergyó and Kászon by force. Organized by ”István pap”, Pastor of Gyergyóalfalu, the men went out to fight his forces at Tolvajostető, while the women stayed home and prayed to the Madonna of Csíksomlyó, to ”preserve us in the holy faith of our ancestors” – Tarts meg minket őseink szent hitében. Even though outnumbered 7 to 1, the men were victorious on the Saturday before Pentecost, and vowed to return to Csíksomlyó in an annual pilgrimage of thanksgiving on every anniversary of their victory. Because of their role as ”first defenders”, the people of Gyergyóalfalu consequently always lead the procession and occupy the place of honor in front of the open-air altar during the festive Mass.
The people kept their promise, and pilgrimages continued over the centuries, with people making the journey in groups, on foot, singing and praying as they went, and being welcomed and hosted by villagers along the way. Though reduced in number, people nevertheless came even under the most rigid Communist regimes.
But the Csíksomlyó pilgrimage really grew into a mass gathering in the 1990’s. Since then, several hundreds of thousands of Hungarians from around the world converge on Csíksomlyó every year, so that an outdoor open chapel had to be erected in the saddle between the Kissomlyó and Nagysomlyó mountains outside the town to make the Mass accessible to all. By now, the event is more than just a religious observance; it is also a manifestation of Hungarian national consciousness and connectedness.
This year was the 450th such pilgrimage, and the motto was the same as in 1567: ”Preserve us in the holy faith of our ancestors.” The homily was delivered by Bishop Veres András of Győr, head of the Hungarian Bishops’ Conference, who called for mutual forgiveness, cooperation and partnership among all Hungarians for the sake of peace in families as well as among countries. He urged his audience to turn with confidence to Mary who always hears our requests.
The main celebrant of the Mass was Miguel Maury Buendia, the Apostolic Nuncio to Rumania, who greeted those assembled ”on the land of the noble warriors defending European Christianity ... on the land that for centuries had signified the border.” He declared that it was necessary to remember the past, but that it was also necessary to recognize the ways of hope springing from the great European values. Transmitting the thoughts of Pope Francis, he enumerated among these values a focus on people, active solidarity, openness to the world and to the future, following peace and development.
Also present was Michael Anthony Perry, OFM, the American-born Franciscan who is the current Minister General of the Franciscan Order which administers the shrine of Csíksomlyó.
Part of the annual observance is the vigil of Csángós from Moldova, both in the shrine church and outside. Before dawn, they gather on the eastern hillside of Kissomlyó Mountain to watch the sun come up, and claim to see in it the dove of the Holy Spirit or even the Virgin Mary.