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“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.

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Tags: Pilgrimage/pilgrims Icons Hungary