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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.

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

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Tags: Pilgrimage/pilgrims Icons Hungary