CZESTOCHOWA, Poland (OSV News) — “Can we give you a hug?” the leaders of the Lodz pilgrimage asked Cardinal-designate Grzegorz Rys while he was stretching his arms wide right at the Jasna Gora Summit, the peak of a hill where the famous Black Madonna shrine is located in Czestochowa, Poland, on Aug. 24.
It was a particularly joyful “entrance” for the walking pilgrimages of the Archdiocese of Lodz. Their archbishop will become a cardinal Sept. 30. And the soon-to-be-cardinal was joined by the cardinal who is the papal almoner in greeting them after they completed a 86-mile, four-day march Aug. 24.
Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, a Lodz native, welcomed them, although he didn’t march with the pilgrimage.
“Cardinal Rys was calling me every day, while he was walking with the group, asking — come, come greet the pilgrims with me, say Mass at Jasna Gora, so I figured he is not asking for himself, but for the people, therefore I had to come,” Cardinal Krajewski told OSV News.
A spontaneous pilgrimage
The morning of Aug. 24, he was still in the mountains in southern Poland, where he usually rests in the summer, “but the night before, I felt I just had to be there, at 5 a.m. I asked the bread delivery man to take me to the nearest town, where I took a bus to Krakow and then another one to Czestochowa. And I’m really happy I made this decision,” he said.
Jasna Gora is the Marian shrine of the “Black Madonna,” Our Lady of Czestochowa, and is the central destination of Polish national pilgrimages. There are several routes leading to the shrine from the Archdiocese of Lodz. Archdiocesan pilgrims were divided into 10 groups, according to their cities and towns, and they all met on the final day at the image of Our Lady in the miraculous chapel of Jasna Gora.
“Can you imagine, (the) Archdiocese of Lodz, a factory workers city that was designed by communists to be detached from religion, now has 5,000 people marching,” Cardinal Krajewski said.
Lodz is the cardinal’s hometown, although he told OSV News he was “born at the pilgrimage.”
‘Raised by pilgrimages’
“I was raised by the pilgrimages. In fact, the Holy Father reminds me every year, in July, to go on a pilgrimage — ‘You go, it’s time, if you were formed by it, you need to come back to the roots,’ he said — and I’m always telling him that August is the time of marching to Czestochowa for Poles!” Cardinal Krajewski said.
It’s often a tradition for the bishop to greet the pilgrims of their diocesan groups at the Jasna Gora summit. Cardinal-designate Rys, like many other bishops in Poland, not only greets, but marches with his group every year. For the 59-year-old prelate, it was his 32nd pilgrimage to Czestochowa.
“A pilgrimage is a way of being with people. For a bishop, a pilgrimage is great because I can listen all day, not talk!” Cardinal-designate Rys said.
“I have been walking at the back of the group I go with (every) summer — confessing, chatting and listening. For a bishop, for any shepherd, it is priceless to listen to people, how they live, what problems they have,” he stressed.
Thousands walk on foot
In 2022, between June 4 and Aug. 14, more than 50,000 pilgrims marched throughout the country in 139 traditional marching pilgrimages with the longest route leading to Czestochowa from northern Poland, almost 380 miles.
Between Aug. 16 and 25, 2022, another 20,000 marched to Our Lady of Czestochowa in 91 organized groups. From June 4 — the beginning of the pilgrimage season — to Aug. 25, a total of nearly 80.500 people participated in all types of pilgrimages (walking, biking, running, rollerblading, motorcycling, horseback riding) to Jasna Gora. Overall, in 2022, 2.5 million pilgrims visited Jasna Gora. This year, the number may be even higher, according to the Pauline friars of Jasna Gora.
Aug. 26 is the second “peak” for the shrine, as the feast of Our Lady of Czestochowa is celebrated that day. That’s when the Archdiocese of Lodz groups reach the shrine every year.
The archdiocesan pilgrims — including the archbishop and 70 priests — woke up at 5 a.m., and started with 6 a.m. Mass, then walked 18 miles a day, with three stops, for four days. Families, youth and the elderly joined the walk with multiple strollers being pushed by mothers and fathers, often with all children in the family packed in one seat, enjoying a break from walking.
“It is some kind of unheard-of phenomenon on the scale of the universal church that we have hundreds, even thousands of people who choose to go on a pilgrimage every year during the summer, sacrificing their vacation,” Cardinal-designate Rys said.
“They choose such a time, which … is not easy, because there are no comforts. Conditions for sleeping are rather poor, conditions for an evening shower are difficult. This is not an obvious choice at all. People today go because they want to experience something amazing in faith; they want to spend this time in prayer, in conversation with God, in confession,” he said.
Offering a visible testimony
Cardinal Krajewski added that pilgrims walking on regular roads give “a silent testimony” to the drivers.
“People in the cars, in a hurry to reach their destination, are often annoyed that the group walks and stops them. But the group is a witness — whether there is sun or rain, they walk, because they know they’re walking in the right direction,” he told OSV News.
“One person helps the other. Some people don’t have as much vacation, so they go on bikes, some come to Jasna Gora roller skating, but in any case — it’s exhausting. And this exhaustion makes us better people, they walk to be better people,” he said.
Dressed in a polo shirt under his cassock, Cardinal-designate Rys was teasing pilgrims when they approached the Jasna Gora summit: “You could say hello at least!” he was heard on a video posted on X saying to one pilgrim he knew in person.
“It was a novelty that two cardinals greeted the groups at Jasna Gora, quite a special experience,” Cardinal Krajewski said.
“People were very happy. They said they didn’t expect us there, and we were standing there for five hours while the archdiocesan groups were coming one by one,” he added.
“We were like those teddy bears in the mountains — you want to take a picture — we’re here for you!” he joked.
“But seriously speaking, it is unbelievable that people are so joyful after walking so many days. They reached their destination knowing who their compass was,” Cardinal Krajewski said.