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Tricentenary of the Warsaw Pedestrian Pilgrimage to Jasna Góra

The Warsaw Pedestrian Pilgrimage is an exceptional religious phenomenon on the spiritual map of not only Poland, but that of Europe. Since 1711 without interruption, it has congregated pilgrims who follow the path from the country’s administrative capital to the spiritual capital of the nation – Jasna Góra in Częstochowa. No historical circumstance has been able to stand in the way of the tradition of making the annual pilgrimage - neither the repressions of the partitioning powers, nor the military operations of the two wars, nor the bans imposed by Nazis and communists. In 2011, the best known of the Polish pilgrimages is celebrating three hundred years of its history.

The tradition was born when a plague epidemic decimated the population of the capital. The people of Warsaw then decided to set out on foot to the Marian shrine in Częstochowa and implore Our Lady to save the city. It was a propitiatory and penitential pilgrimage: the pilgrims repented their sins while begging Mary to help them out of the epidemic. The plague soon retreated and the inhabitants of Warsaw made solemn vows that they would make pilgrimages to Jasna Góra every year. They have kept their word.

The route between Warsaw and Częstochowa has been, in the course of those three centuries, a scene of many dramatic events. The most violent of them took place in 1792, when all the pilgrims were murdered outside the village of Wola Mokrzeska. Even today, we are not quite certain whether the massacre was committed by Prussian soldiers or a Cossack unit. Whichever the case, the event shows that even before the ultimate partition of Poland, its citizens could not feel quite safe in their own homeland.

During the partition, Częstochowa and Warsaw fell under Prussian administration first, and in 1815 they came under the Russian rule. The authorities in both Berlin and St. Petersburg did their best to restrict the processions to Jasna Góra. Under such circumstances, the pilgrimage to Our Lady of Częstochowa was treated not only as an act of faith, but a manifestation of Polish national identity and a patriotic attitude.

The essence of the phenomenon was best rendered by novelist Władysław Stanisław Reymont in his literary reportage “The Pilgrimage to Jasna Góra”. The future Nobel Prize winner described how a group of strangers setting off from Warsaw had been moulded into a community by the time they arrived in Częstochowa. He watched a passive crowd turn, as they walked, into a cohesive group aware of the common goal. The writer saw the pilgrimage as a metaphor of the history of Poland, in which separate tribes evolve into a nation – and this transformation takes place along the path of faith.

It was thanks to this faith that Poles emerged from the partitions as Poles. Visits to Jasna Góra would continue to inspire them with hope, which became evidently clear during the Polish-Bolshevik war in 1920. While the Red Army was marching on Warsaw, the pilgrims from the capital walked towards Częstochowa. The end of both marches was to take place on 15 August. However, only the latter group – those who prayed for the salvation of their country – reached the destination.

During the Nazi occupation, pilgrimages to Jasna Góra were forbidden. However, Varsovians often managed to make it to the monastery in Częstochowa by observing rules of secrecy. The tradition of annual pilgrimages to Jasna Góra was not even interrupted in 1944, when the Warsaw Uprising was under way.

After World War II the pilgrimage, which had come under the auspices of the Pauline Order, gained momentum and acquired an all-Polish, and subsequently international character. Increasingly more of the faithful came to participate from both Western and Central and Eastern Europe. Throughout years, the pilgrimage was a thorn in the side of the communist authorities, who took numerous steps to do away with it. The persecutions, however, brought effects contrary to those intended. The repressions culminated in 1963, when the government of communist Poland officially prohibited the organization of the pilgrimage. The Pauline brothers simply ignored the order. The approx. 4000 pilgrims who arrived in Częstochowa that summer had had to withstand continual harassment by the secret police on the way. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński later maintained that it was the pilgrims’ determination at that moment that saved the pilgrimage movement in Poland.

The Primate of the Millennium - as Wyszyński was dubbed – was the first hierarch to appreciate the potential of the pilgrimage and to turn it into an instrument of evangelization. This character of the pilgrimage was also preserved after the fall of communism: even today, for many people it is the path to God.

Grzegorz Górny