The History of Csíksomlyó Pentecost Pilgrimage

The history of the Csíksomlyó pilgrimage dates back to 1444. Pope Eugene IV (r. 1431-1447) sent a circular letter to the believers asking them to help the Franciscan Order build the church. He allowed them to hold a fair in return for the work done. The feast was then held on 2 July, the saint’s day of the church, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So Csíksomlyó has been an important Marian shrine since the Middle Ages.

The church of Csíksomlyó

The Transylvanian Catholics associate one of the traditions of the procession with a legendary battle. Legend has it that in 1567, Prince János Zsigmond of Transylvania tried to forcibly convert the Catholic populations of Csík, Gyergyó, and Kászon to the Unitarian faith. On the Saturday of Pentecost, the prince marched with a large army into Csík but he was defeated. According to tradition, the locals owe the victory to the Virgin Mary, to whom women and children prayed for help in the church of Csíksomlyó. There is no authentic historical evidence that this battle actually took place.

János Zsigmond István

The real history of the Pilgrimage

The first problem is that there is no trace of it either in historical sources or other writings about the period dealing with the life of Prince János Zsigmond (elected king of Hungary), or in books about the spread of the Unitarian religion or the survival of the Catholics in Székely Land.

Equally, there is no mention of this battle in the writings on the history of the Franciscan monastery of Csíksomlyó (neither the Franciscan monk Kájoni János nor the head of the order Györffi Pál mentions it). 

Kájoni János aka Ioan Caioni (1629-1687)

Secondly, it is full of historical inaccuracies: in 1567 there was no Unitarian religion, we can speak of Unitarianism after the Diet of Torda in 1568, and it became more widespread after 1571. The prince converted to Unitarianism in 1569, but he could not have converted in 1567, as he himself was not a convert.

The third problem is the theological implausibility of the story. The Unitarians insisted and still insist on the idea of freedom of conscience and tolerance, and that is why they never spread their faith by force. 

A Thaller of King János Zsigmond (before 1571)

This idea was put into practice by the resolution of the Diet of Torda, held on 6-13 January 1568, which, in the spirit of the religious policy of Prince János Zsigmond, accused of violent proselytizing, proclaimed the law of freedom of conscience and religion.

With this law, the Unitarian religion, alongside the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed religions, was also recognized as an established religion under public law. The decision of the Diet of Torda was unique in Europe of its time in terms of the religious freedom that we gave to the world, and 16th-century Transylvania was about 200 years ahead of its time. You can read more about this on my page:

Declaration of Religious and Conscience Freedom by Dávid Ferenc in the Diet of Torda in 1568, painting by Körösfői-Kriesch Aladár

Year after year, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians make the pilgrimage to Csíksomlyó not because of untrue and untruthful stories. The pilgrimage on Pentecost Saturday has become a symbol of Hungarian unity. Somehow, the story (real or fictional) in which Székely people punch each other in this imaginary battle does not fit into the spiritual message of Csíksomlyó. If a legend is absolutely necessary, there is the one from the time when we beat back the Crimean Tatars in 1694.

The ridge before the arrival of the pilgrims

The Crimean Tatar-Turkish attacks of the 17th century dealt a heavy blow to the region. The church and monastery of Csíksomlyó were burnt down, but the statue of Mary could neither be removed nor burnt. According to legend, the statue became so heavy when the Turkish leader tried to remove it that eight pairs of oxen could not drag it away. Seeing this, the Turkish leader wounded the statue’s neck and face with his sword, the marks of which can still be seen today.

One of the “culprits” of the made-up battle against János Zsigmond is Cserey Farkas, the other is the Franciscan religious historian Leonard Losteiner. Cserey Farkas was not only a devout Catholic, but also an advisor to the Viennese court. And it is no secret that the Habsburgs were fond of rewriting Hungarian history.

So far, the origin story of the pilgrimage has been the subject of cautious criticism by three people: in 1939, Rugonfalvi Kiss István, a professor of history in Debrecen, in 1979, Fodor Sándor, a writer of Csíksomlyó origin, and Simén Domokos, a Unitarian pastor in 1999.

Photo: Barcsa István

The church was rebuilt in 1664. In the 19th century, a Baroque church was built on the site of its crumbling predecessor. You can read more about the Hungarian Székelys here:

Hungarian Székelys

Csíksomlyó became a national shrine only after the trauma of Trianon (after 1918). Controversially enough, the Hungarian national pilgrimage site was established in the center of Romania… In this respect, one of the most important aspects of the pilgrimage is the idea of the Regnum Marianum, based on the idea of the Holy Crown of the Hungarians offered to the Virgin Mary by King Saint István. Csíksomlyó is essentially a place of encounter with Mary the Helper, and the pilgrimage is an occasion for this.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people gather here. On the Saturday of Pentecost, a mass is celebrated at 1 pm. The pilgrims arrive with a procession and a hymn in praise of Mary. The Way of the Cross from the village of Gyergyóalfalva goes at the beginning of the procession, joined by other Way of the Crosses from towns and villages. The procession reaches a length of several kilometers. The most precious object in the procession is the labarum, the war banner, which in ancient times was a symbol of victory. The beehive-shaped badge, covered with an ornate cloth, is carried in front of the high priests during the Pentecost procession by the best graduating student of the local Catholic high school. The procession is closed by the Hungarian Csángó people coming from Moldavia, outside Transylvania.

The procession splits up near the church. One branch circles the Mount of Jesus from the north and goes up to the place of the Great Mass, the other branch turns right and goes up the mountain. When the clergy with the labarum reaches the chapel of the Salvator, they sing the hymn “Mary, you are wholly beautiful”. There are about 300,000-500,000 people taking part in the fair each year.

By the time the mass starts, most of the people are already in place under the signs indicating the different regions. Here are the Székelys of Gyergyó, Felcsík, Alcsík, Udvarhelyszék, Kászon, Háromszék, the Maros, and Nyárád regions. Many women wear red and black striped Székely skirts, several men wear white broad-cloth trousers with red or black trim, or “tights”, and some women from Kászoon wear a special bonnet. Below the designated sign of Gyímes, Csángós from Gyímes sit on the lawn, almost all of them in folk costume, the women in their unique skirts, the men in linen trousers, with a linen shirt worn over them with a wide leather belt, and wearing sheepskin waistcoats. For most of them, this is still everyday wear. They walk for 8-10 hours to arrive at mass.

Virgin Mary in Csíksolmlyó
Photo: Derzsi Elekes Andor

The pilgrims return home from the fair with birch branches in their hands or decorated in their vehicles. The most characteristic fair gift is a honeyed gingerbread (“mézeskalács”). Csíksomlyó is located at Csíkszereda, you can read more about it here:

Csíkszereda, Mikó castle (bathing in the lights that show the Székely flag) 14 January 2023

Pope Francis also visited the fair in 2019 and he said that “the pilgrimage to Csíksomlyó is a legacy of Transylvania, a sign of dialogue, unity, and fraternity, which respects Romanian and Hungarian religious traditions,” in his homily on Saturday at the Holy Mass in Csíksomlyó, presented in front of tens of thousands of believers.

Pope Francis in Csíksomlyó (Picture: Hungary today)

The head of the Catholic Church told the believers not to forget and deny the complex and sad events of the past, but reminded them that these should not be barriers to fraternal coexistence, nor should they feed the separation.

According to the Pope, pilgrims go to Csíksomlyó to find true brotherhood in one another. Pilgrimage is to feel the invitation and an urge to “walk together along the way and ask the Lord’s mercy to change our old and present grievances and distrust into new opportunities for the community.”

Sources: and

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