When Pope Francis visits Romania May 31-June 1, he will helicopter to
Sumuleu Ciuc, site of the country’s only major Marian shrine and an
important place of pilgrimage for Hungarian Catholics.
Zoltan Olah, press officer for the pope’s visit, has made the pilgrimage
eight times, traveling more than 140 miles each time with students by
bicycle to get there.
“People come by train, bus, bike,
motorcycle,” he told Catholic News Service, explaining how thousands of
people process with banners showing images of local patron saints and
The pilgrimage is “mostly a Hungarian event,” which serves
as “a symbol for the Hungarian presence in Transylvania and, somehow, a
Catholic and Hungarian symbol of resistance,” Father Olah said.
the Sumuleu Ciuc pilgrimage was banned under Communism, it dates to
1567, when a Hungarian ruler tried to force Catholics to convert to
Protestantism. They resisted, holding to the belief that they were
protected by Mary in defeating the prince’s troops.
A statue of
Our Lady of Csiksomlyo, the Hungarian name for Sumuleu Ciuc, stands in a
nearby Franciscan Catholic Church. It shows Mary standing on the moon,
holding an infant Jesus and a scepter. In 1798, a local bishop declared
the statue “miraculous” and crowned it. The Vatican has not recognized
any miracle related to it, however.
Devotion to Mary has surged
since Communism fell in 1989, with an annual Pentecost Saturday
pilgrimage attracting hundreds of thousands from Transylvania and
beyond, including Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine. Since the 15th century,
the Franciscan order has served as the site’s guardian.
village groups pass the church on their way to the pilgrimage site,
located in the saddle between two mountains, they tip banners three
times toward Mary to honor her.
Over the past 30 years, the
Pentecost pilgrimage has evolved into an event with religious and
Hungarian national significance. Hungarian President Janos Ader, a
Catholic, is expected to attend the liturgy Pope Francis will celebrate.
became an iconic place and a symbol of Hungarian national unity,”
explained Zslot Szilagyi of Oradea, Romania, 50, the father of three
children who is Catholic and a politician who belongs to the Hungarian
People’s Party of Transylvania.
Szilagyi, who has previously
attended the pilgrimage, said the relationship between Hungarian and
Romanian Catholics is good, but “the state is not impartial when it
comes to religious communities,” and favors the Orthodox Church.
Olah said the main outstanding issue with the Romanian state is
expropriated properties still not returned to the Romanian Catholic
Asked if organizers worry that the strong Hungarian flavor
might undermine its spiritual impact, Father Olah said: “The archbishop
and Franciscan fathers underscore here we are pilgrims. We are not
doing political demonstrations and we are not here to attend political