Walking the 452-year-old path to Csíksomlyó

For more than 450 years, the Csíksomlyó/Șumuleu Ciuc shrine has been populated by pilgrims arriving for the Pentecost Mass from across Székelyföld (and even Csángó-Hungarians from Gyimes/Ghimeș and Moldva/Moldova) and the rest of the world. This year is no exception: just one week after the papal visit to Csíksomlyó, on June 8 the saddle warmly welcomes tens of thousands of pilgrims. Among them we also find the group whose ancestors started this tradition that has populated the shrine on this day each year since 1567. Transylvania NOW has witnessed the departure of two such pedestrian village-based groups called keresztalja and talked with the leader of the oldest group.

Pilgrims leave Szárhegy (Photo: Vajk István Szigeti)

At 6:30 a.m. the Mass starts at Gyergyószárhegy/Lazarea in honor of their pilgrims. By 7:00 a.m. roughly 60–70 people are ready for their two-day long journey. In the pouring rain pedestrian pilgrims are followed by horse-drawn carriages – transporting their luggage – and also some other pilgrims from Gyergyóremete/Remetea who joined them on horses.

Pilgrims leave from Gyergyóalfalu (Photo: Vajk István Szigeti)

Just a few kilometers away in Gyergyóalfalu/Joseni about a hundred people are forming the oldest keresztalja. This is the place where the tradition of the Pentecost Pilgrimage of Csíksomlyó started in 1567 (see the end of the article for details). We asked the leader of the group, a well-known painter and art teacher in the local school, József Balázs, about this year’s pilgrimage.

József Balázs, leader of the Gyergyóalfalu “Keresztalja” said, that despite of he cannot walk the whole distance this year, he will be in the paddle during the Mass with his people on Saturday for sure. (Photo: Vajk István Szigeti)

József Balázs: I have led the Gyergyóalfalu keresztalja for twenty-six years; however, this year, I can’t walk with the others the whole distance due to health issues. But I still came here, of course, to say goodbye, and I will be waiting for them this evening in Csíkkarcfalva/Cârța, where they are going to spend the night. They asked me to be there and share a few thanksgiving thoughts, just like I do each year. And I’ll be also waiting for them in Csíksomlyó, of course, on Friday evening, where we will go inside the church, as well pray at the statue of the Virgin Mary. Because our “Keresztalja” is the oldest, we are the only ones allowed to enter the church the day before Pentecost Saturday).

Pilgrims leave Gyergyóalfalu (Photo: Vajk István Szigeti)

TransylvaniaNOW: Before the departure and after the local priest blessed the pilgrims you also gave a short speech in Gyergyóalfalu. What was your main message?

J.B.: I said to the people, that:

The one who starts off on this pilgrimage must know that he or she is in some way an invitee of the Virgin Mary.

I emphasized that everybody should walk this pilgrimage in such a frame of mind that they are walking to their biggest love. It doesn’t matter if the weather is be nice or bad. In case of bad weather, for example, the Holy Virgin will ask, “Are you determined enough coming to visit me at any cost or not?” And in the end, the Virgin Mary will provide the necessary support to all pilgrims. I also told them that the invitation is not enough; you also have to act in this spirit. I addressed especially the youngsters by saying that it is up to them to bring glory or shame on our pilgrim group. They will not only get a picture of themselves but also of our community.

József Balázs talks to the pilgrims before their departure in Gyergyóalfalu (Photo: Vajk István Szigeti)

T.N.: How many people are in your keresztalja?

J.B.: About 100 started from Gyergyóalfalu, a further 60 people joined them in Gyergyócsomafalva/Ciumani, and 10 pilgrims with three horse-drawn carriages in Gyergyóújfalu/Suseni. So altogether about 170–180 people. What is interesting in our case is that each year we also have pilgrims joining us from Hungary and other parts of the Carpathian Basin. This year, for example, we have people from Sopron, and three soldiers from Szolnok, as well.

Pilgrims leave Gyergyóalfalu (Photo: Vajk István Szigeti)

Mr. Balázs also told us, that he will be in the paddle with his pilgrim group on Saturday. Right after the Pentecost Mass, the keresztalja will start their journey back home, and pilgrims of both Gyergyószárhegy and Gyergyóalfalu will arrive home on Monday afternoon, where they will close their pilgrimage with a Mass in their local church.

Pilgrims leave Gyergyóalfalu (Photo: Vajk István Szigeti)

About the Csíksomlyó Pilgrimage

According to the legend, the pilgrimage to Csíksomlyó in honor of the Holy Virgin started in 1567 when – at the age of the Reformation – prince of Transylvania, Zsigmond János wanted to convert by force the Catholic Székelys to Unitarians. The people of these regions, led by István, priest of Gyergyóalfalu, took arms in defense of their faith. The gathering was in Csíksomlyó, on Pentecost Saturday, where the people asked for the help of the Holy Virgin then went to the Hargita to fight with the soldiers of the prince. During the fight, the elderly, women and children remained in Csíksomlyó and prayed for victory. Since their battle ended with victory, the Székelys put birch branches next to their flags and returned to Csíksomlyó. The people came out of the church to welcome them. They all went back together to pray and thank God and the Holy Virgin for the victory. To commemorate this historical event they took a vow to go on a pilgrimage to Csíksomlyó on Pentecost Saturday every year. And they have kept their promise for more than 450 years.

Title image: Pilgrims leave to Csíksomlyó from Szárhegy on the morning of June 6, 2019. (Photo: Vajk István Szigeti)

Author: Attila Szoó