This year, tens of thousands of Polish pilgrims are believed to have made the trek during the 305th anniversary of the annual pilgrimage. Its roots date to 1711, when the bubonic plague wiped out a large portion of Warsaw's population. After the epidemic abruptly ended, a brotherhood of knights trekked from the capital to the shrine to offer thanks to the Virgin Mary, and the tradition has continued ever since.
According to tradition, the icon of Our Lady of Czestachowa was painted by St. Luke or St. John on a table made by Christ. The icon shows two slashes on the face of Mary, left from when the image was seized and attacked by a soldier of the Hussites. Repeated attempts to repair the scars have failed, as they continue to reappear on the image. The dark skin of the icon is attributed mostly to age, and to exposure to smoke from candles.
Bishop Spencer concelebrated an outdoor Mass for about 2,500 pilgrims Aug. 14 with Bishop Józef Guzdek, the Military Ordinary of Poland, and more than 60 priests. Bishop Spencer and the military representatives then drove back to Warsaw for an Aug. 15 Mass celebrating the Assumption. Polish President Andrzej Duda and his wife, along with other Polish government representatives, attended the Mass in Warsaw. Afterwards, the various dignitaries attended a wreath-laying ceremony at Poland's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
"The universality of the Catholic Church is well represented in the partnership of these two military dioceses by participating together in this pilgrimage for peace. I stand in admiration of the Polish soldiers who practice very openly and with great pride their Catholic faith and heritage. We all can also be proud of our U.S. soldiers who completed the ten-day walking pilgrimage," Bishop Spencer said following the event.
The pilgrimage came just a couple weeks after Poland finished hosting Pope Francis and as many as 2 million international pilgrims for the 31st World Youth Day. Pope Francis prayed before the icon at the shrine of Czestochowa July 28. Three days prior, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Military Archdiocese celebrated Mass under the icon while leading a pilgrimage of U.S. military Catholics to the World Youth Day.
The icon also was a significant place of pilgrimage for the St. John Paul II, who prayed before the icon during his historic 1979 visit to his homeland, which at the time was under the reign of communism.