CZĘSTOCHOWA, POLAND – Auxiliary Bishop F. Richard Spencer joined soldiers and military officers from the United States and five other nations in a “Walk for Peace” across parts of Poland. They walked as participants in Poland’s traditional August pilgrimage to the revered Black Madonna, a sacred icon preserved at the historic shrine to Our Lady of Częstochowa, the Queen of Peace. Bishop Spencer serves His Excellency, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., Archbishop for the Military Services, USA, as his Episcopal Vicar for military installations in Europe and Asia.
Over the past week or so, tens of thousands of pilgrims of all ages—many of them carrying rosaries, crosses and hiking sticks—made the trek from hundreds of villages, 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 sacristans providing shelter, food and water along the way. Others came in cars and on trains and buses. The six-nation military delegation comprised hundreds of troops and clergy from the U.S., Poland, Germany, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia.
The pilgrims converged on the sacred shrine, Poland’s holiest site, located on the grounds of the Pauline Jasna Góra monastery about 125 miles southwest of Warsaw, Tuesday, Aug. 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 Częstochowa, Bishop Spencer concelebrated a field Mass on Aug. 14 with Bishop Józef Guzdek, the Military Ordinary of Poland, and more than 60 priests. About 2,500 pilgrims attended the Mass. That evening, Bishops Spencer and Guzdek drove by car, along with visiting U.S. Army and Air Force Generals, back to Warsaw for Mass the following morning at the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army. The Mass for the Solemnity of the Assumption included the participation of the Polish President Andrzej Duda and his wife, 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, complete with marching bands and a 21-gun salute, was attended by a crowd of more than 20,000 people.
Bishop Spencer said: “I am inspired and very encouraged as a Catholic to witness the earnest desire for peace in the world and in particular here in Europe where peace is often threatened. The professionalism and discipline of the Armed Forces of the participating Countries give us hope for a better tomorrow and a secure future. May their fervent prayers for peace gain the ears of our gracious Lord.”
According to tradition, St. Luke painted the Black Madonna on a table made by Jesus Himself. Saint 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. Pope Francis also prayed before the icon during a visit to Częstochowa on July 28, 2016, while in Poland for World Youth Day. Archbishop Broglio celebrated Mass under the icon on July 25, 2016, while leading a pilgrimage of U.S. Military Catholics to the World Youth Day spiritual celebration in Kraków.
In a country whose population of 39 million is 96% Catholic, this year marked the 306th 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.