Military delegation participates in annual pilgrimage to Black Madonna on the Feast of the Assumption and Poland’s Armed Forces Day
CZESTOCHOWA, POLAND – His Excellency, the Most Reverend F. Richard Spencer, Episcopal Vicar for Europe and Asia of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS), joined soldiers and military officers from the United States and five other nations this month in a “Walk for Peace” as part of Poland’s traditional August pilgrimage to the famous Black Madonna, a sacred icon preserved at the historic shrine to Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Queen of Peace.
Last week, an estimated 135,000 pilgrims of all ages—many of them carrying rosaries, crosses and hiking sticks—made the trek from hundreds of towns and cities all over Poland, walking for as long as ten days across the country’s largely flat terrain through thunderstorms, rain showers and intense summer heat, with villagers and church-keepers providing shelter, food and water along the way. Others came in cars and on trains and buses.
The six-nation military delegation making the “Walk for Peace” consisted of troops and clergy from the U.S., Poland, Germany, the Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia. Besides Bishop Spencer, the U.S. contingent included Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, Commander of the U.S. Army, Europe; Major General Dennis Celletti, Adjutant General, State of Illinois; and Colonel Alan Hester, U.S. Army Attaché to Poland.
They converged on the sacred shrine, located on the grounds of the Pauline Jasna Góra monastery about 125 miles southwest of Warsaw, Wednesday, August 15—a day of significance for both Catholics the world over and the Polish people in particular. Not only is it the Solemnity of the Assumption, when Catholics celebrate the entrance of the Virgin Mary’s body into heaven at the end of her earthly pilgrimage, but it is also Poland’s Armed Forces Day, a national holiday created to commemorate Poland’s victory over the Soviets at the 1920 Battle of Warsaw.
Upon their arrival at Czestochowa on August 14, Bishop Spencer concelebrated a field Mass with Bishop Józef Guzdek, the Military Ordinary of Poland, and more than 60 priests. About 2,500 pilgrims attended the Mass. Later, Bishop Spencer attended a lunch hosted by Archbishop Waclaw Depo of Czestochowa before speaking to a crowd of some 37,000 pilgrims gathered at the shrine.
That evening, Bishops Spencer and Guzdek flew by helicopter, along with the visiting generals, back to Warsaw for Mass the following morning at Poland’s military Cathedral. The Assumption Feast Day Mass was attended by Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and his wife, Anna Dembowska, along with cabinet ministers, members of parliament and other VIPs. At noon, the dignitaries took part in a wreath-laying at Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The ceremony, attended by 22,000 spectators, featured marching bands and a 21-gun salute.
Bishop Spencer and his fellow pilgrims then traveled three hours by road back to Czestochowa, where the celebration concluded with vespers inside the holy shrine, with Archbishop Depo and Bishops Spencer and Guzdek presiding. During a procession from the inner shrine to the grounds of the monastery, Bishop Spencer carried the torch. Once outside, he lighted the fuse for the first of a seven-gun canon salute before signing the formal register on behalf of the AMS.
Bishop Spencer said:
“When the announcer noted the presence of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, United States of America, the crowds roared their approval. It was an awesome experience and extremely gratifying to represent the AMS and her military chaplains at this extraordinary pilgrimage celebrating the Assumption of Our Lady, Queen of Peace, as we invoked heavenly blessings for peace and expressed gratitude for God’s many spiritual gifts to those who serve and defend the cause of freedom, in Poland, throughout Europe and around the World.”
According to tradition, St. Luke painted the Black Madonna on a table made by Jesus Himself. Blessed Pope John Paul II prayed before the icon during his historic 1979 visit to his homeland, several months after his election to the Chair of Peter.
In a country whose population of 39 million is 96% Catholic, this year marked the 301st anniversary of the annual pilgrimage, which dates back to 1711 when the bubonic plague decimated Warsaw’s population. After the epidemic abruptly ended, a brotherhood of knights trekked from the capital to offer thanks to the Virgin Mary, and the tradition has continued ever since.
The AMS was created as an independent archdiocese by Pope John Paul II in 1985 as the only Catholic jurisdiction responsible for endorsing and granting faculties for priests to serve as chaplains in the U.S. military and VA Medical Centers.
AMS-endorsed chaplains serve at more than 220 U.S. military installations in 29 countries, making the AMS the nation’s only global archdiocese. AMS-endorsed chaplains also serve at 153 VA Medical Centers throughout the U.S.
The AMS service population also includes American Catholic civilians working for the federal government in 134 countries, but currently, due to limited resources, the AMS cannot adequately serve this population.
Worldwide, an estimated 1.8 million Catholics depend on the AMS to meet their spiritual and sacramental needs.
For more information on the Archdiocese for the Military Services, visit www.milarch.org, the only official Web site for Catholics in the military and for the Cause of Father Vincent Capodanno, M.M.