Pilgrimage tour to Csíksomlyó – May 11-19, 2016

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Here’s my synopsis from our recent trip… I left out so many details but this sums up my general feelings:

Those who were sitting, scrambled to their feet. Everyone stood up straight, hands crossed or at their side. Flags and banners waved in the breeze and the murmur of the crowd hushed as the music began.

I turned around slowly, trying to take in the moment. A sea of people extending over the hill in every direction – from parents with infants to the very old; from various countries, backgrounds and life events – all so different, yet all united here. Here, in this moment, as we began to sing “Isten aldd meg a Magyart,” our Hungarian national anthem, we were one.

The shared pride was almost tangible, the words floated with the breeze, connecting those on the altar with those on the hillside and reaching those up between the trees far atop the hill.

My voice quivered while tears ran down my cheek, as I realized “I am here.” Here, where so many Hungarians have come to express their faith in God, their trust in the Virgin Mary and the pride in their Hungarian heritage. Just as a picture cannot take in the full experience, neither can the words I use. All I can say is – if you have the chance to go – Go!

Fr. Andras did an amazing job of organizing our trip and filling it with so many historical sites, experiences, delicious foods, and great hospitality that it would take a book to tell you everything we experienced.

We all met up on the Wednesday before the pilgrimage day in Budapest and got aboard our bus and headed east to see the Balaton lake, making a stop at the picturesque Tihany, then Keszthely and the Festetics palace with a final destination of Veszprem. Although I can’t describe each destination in detail, let me just say that warm hospitality awaited us everywhere – palinka and homemade baked goods to nibble on were offered at every spot along the trip.

The next day we headed across Hungary into Romania, and over two days we saw the former Hungarian cities of Nagyvarad, Kolozsvar, Marosvasarhely, Gyergyoszentmiklos and Ditro all before the Csiksomlyoi Bucsu. There is so much history in each of these cities. Also, Fr. Andras was able to celebrate mass almost daily in the historic churches of the cities in which we stayed. We saw many beautiful churches and met many welcoming priests who educated us on their churches and towns and we had the opportunity to meet multiple bishops along the way. We wrapped up the second leg of the trip with visits to the cities of Korond, Szekelyudvarhely, Segesvar, Brasso, Nagyszeben, Gyulafehervar, Vajdahunyad Castle, Temesvar, Arad and ended up in Szeged for a final delicious meal together – halászlé and túrós csúsza – before heading back to Budapest and ready for a nap!

So what is this “Csiksomlyoi Bucsu?” It’s a pilgrimage that has been important especially to Hungarian Catholics but has recently expanded to all Hungarians who use this as an opportunity to show their solidarity, especially with those Hungarians living outside of the formal Hungarian border. Csiksomlyo has been a Catholic pilgrimage site since the 1500s dedicated to the Virgin Mary. With the fall of communism in the 90s, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians make their way to the site every year. It is held on the weekend of Pentecost, with the main pilgrimage day being Saturday.

On the day of the pilgrimage, we boarded the bus and hit the road early in the morning knowing that foot traffic would be plentiful. As we neared the town, we noticed more and more pedestrians walking alongside the road, horse drawn wagons filled with people often dressed in traditional Szekely clothing, groups walking with banners and signs detailing the city of their origin and how far they walked – all with smiles on their faces, singing songs and waving as we drove past. There were Hungarian flags on the gates of homes in the villages and a general feeling of openness and welcoming from the town’s people who stood at their doors or waved from their windows.

We had to park the bus at a distance and everyone walked a few miles to get to the church. The church bells rang, welcoming all and calling us in, as long lines of people continued to pour into the town. Making our way through the town we then followed the streams of people up over the steep hill taking a break to catch our breath and look at the crowds in front of us and those who kept coming from behind. We made our way to the top of the hill and positioned ourselves within site of the altar and here we stayed for mass. To be surrounded by so many others who were all happy and smiling was a beautiful feeling. I was proud to carry our banner “St. Emeric Catholic Church, Cleveland USA” and in a way, say “yes, I know I’m not from here but I still feel like I belong.” And this was especially true when we sang the national anthems and a few other traditional songs before dispersing.

Once we were back out of town, we waited for the bus along the roadside and other groups continued to stroll by on their way home. A middle-age man stopped, peered up at the sign I was holding and asked “America? “I replied, “Yes.” In Hungarian he said, “I’m glad you came to be with us.” I replied in Hungarian, “We are together, we are one.” Looking back it may sound cheesy but I can’t explain the feeling I have in my heart now for my Hungarian brothers and sisters. There’s something about that place and that event – I don’t want it to sound superficial but the experience does change you if you let it.

The Hungarians living in Romania/ Transylvania call themselves “Szekelyek” or Szeklers and a significant portion of them live in the area we visited. It was strange, but as we ventured deeper into Romania going east (further from Hungary) – instead of diminishing, the Hungarian community and pride grew. One would think the opposite would happen, yet these people have held tight to their Hungarian history and culture. When we arrived in Ditro it was the most evident. I can’t even describe it – although I had never been there before, it felt like we were home. After the Csiksomlyoi Bucsu, we came back to Ditro for a community meal – we were greeted with children singing, lively young folk dancers, a delicious meal with live music and we danced the evening away. Though we were exhausted from walking all day, it was hard to leave the festivities that night.

Pentecost Sunday gave us another great opportunity to feel the outpouring of friendship from the Ditro community. Ditro is Fr. Andras’ home town and it was beautiful to watch him celebrate mass at home in a church filled with his family, friends and neighbors. Many ladies dressed in traditional folk costumes as well. After mass we were surprised and treated to a group of men and women in traditional costumes who danced and sang for us before our delicious lunch. We then went over to Fr. Andras’ childhood home – and again were treated to a band playing in the street and more traditional dancing which stopped the traffic while we watched in amazement at the quick footwork. His wonderful, sweet mom and siblings were waiting with dessert and beverages and again, welcomed us with open arms!

It was hard to leave so soon but the afternoon was filled with sights to see. We went to the Gyilkos lake – another place filled with history and myth, and we had the chance to walk through the Bekas Szoros – a beautiful narrow gorge excised by the Bekas river. Again, too beautiful for a picture or to put in words.

Going on this pilgrimage is something I have wanted to do since 2009 when I first learned of it. I am so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to go – and as they say – once you’ve been there, you long to return. And I plan on it! I hope you’ll consider going as well.

Franciska Kiraly

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