It’s really weird when the small town you live in suddenly becomes the venue for a huge event. I should have known when I was told there would be 400,000 here. I’ve been to football games with crowds of 100,000 ish. I once lived in a country which had 100,000 total population. In 1987 I was in Coventry town centre for the parading of the FA Cup which attracted 250,000. They were all big crowds. This, the numerically gifted will have already noted, was bigger. It is, I have to admit, a lot of people. A lot of Catholics to be more specific. What is the collective noun for Catholics? A Communion? A Confession? A Host, I suppose. So anyway, there was a whole host of Catholics at this thing. Mostly Szekelys and Csangos, but also people from all over Transylvania and Hungary.
We, too, made the long and arduous pilgrimage the three or so kilometres from our house. I trust Our Lady of Csiksomlyo appreciated it. We flowed along, with a river of people, through the village of Somlyo, along the main street with its embankments of stalls selling wooden handicrafts from Transylvania and plastic handicrafts from China. We stopped occasionally to greet people we knew and eventually, it being a hot sunny spring day (finally), we sat down to have a well deserved beer. Or at least I did, my female companions were all after turd-like barbecued things and soft drinks. But this was where I had my first shock. No beer. Now, let’s recap: This is a warm (by English terms, positively hot) day. It’s about 2pm, and there are huge crowds of people, all of whom are out in the same warm weather. A nice refreshing glass of Csiki Sör is quite obviously the order of the day. But no. This apparently is a dry (in the alcohol-free sense) festival. This is not, as you may now be suspecting, the Hajj. It is not a pilgrimage by some other well known teetotal religion, the 7th Day Adventists, or the Southern Baptists or someone (are the Southern Baptists teetotal? And where do they pilgrim to? The White House?). This is a Catholic pilgrimage. Y’know, the Roman Catholics. The religion that is so sozzled in booze that they even incorporate wine in their holiest ritual. Not this lot. We’d obviously happened upon the Islamic wing of the Catholic Church. I was shocked (and not a little parched). I bet others had come prepared. Nuns with bottles concealed under their capacious habits, monks with tequila in their cassocks, and all those large crucifixes have room, hollowed out, for a few decilitres of palinka I’ll bet. There must have been ways around it.
So, we went without. After the turds had been consumed, we carried on our way, and realised now that we were swimming against the current. Somehow during our stop the river had changed direction. It seemed that the mass, which was the high point of the day, was over, and now, heading up the hill towards the open air valley in which the religious part of the day took place, was the wrong way to be going. But struggle on we did, and fortunately (I was later to realise) we did so against the earlier leavers. The people who leave five minutes before the final whistle/hymn so as to avoid the traffic. They didn’t avoid it, because they were among 50,000 or so who had had the same thought, but they tried.
It was when we got half way or so up the hill that I started to appreciate this event. I mean the place was packed (have I mentioned how many people there were at this thing?). The mass had taken place on a saddle (I think that’s the word, kind of a valleyette between two hills), and as we got half way up the smaller of the two hills, the sheer scale of the event became apparent. There were bloody millions of them. Well, now, perhaps, I’m exaggerating, but y’know, lots. Many of the people were in traditional costume (in Romania it seems to me that many people wear their traditional costume to church on Sundays rather than merely for tourist videos). Groups of them were carrying large banners and flags. As we stopped at a conveniently shady vantage point on the walk down the hill to take photos, we got to see many of them as they walked past. They did so for the most part in village groups, each village carrying a banner announcing their origin. Most were in costume, and many were singing. Not for the first time I got it. What it is that people get out of religion. It’s this sense of community, this sense of togetherness. Now, frankly I have no wish to be part of a community whose leaders are a bunch of misanthropic homophobes who think it’s better that people die of AIDS than use condoms, but I do get why people want and need to be a part of something. And I was moved by it all. Yes, even cynical old me. A little while later as we slowly walked across the hilltop on a different route home we saw in the far distance one of these village groups walking still in formation along a road back home. It was difficult not to get a shiver of humanity from it all.
While we sat and watched the crowds descend from their annual mind-melding with the Madonna (or whatever it is that the true believer gets from the whole shebang aside from the togetherness bit), an older man next to me asked me in English where I was from. As we talked I found out that he was a Hungarian from Budapest who had fled the Soviet tanks in 1956 and spent 48 years living in Los Angeles. He had returned to Budapest last year, and when I asked him about how that was he looked a little pained and eventually said “mixed feelings”. He went on to say how he felt people (in Budapest) were too aggressive and impolite and insincere and unfriendly. It occurred to me as it had never occurred to me before how difficult and painful this transition must be. To flee your home as a refugee as a young person and spend so long away, dreaming of when your people will be free, when your homeland will be open, when you will be able to return to your old haunts and the place you remember so vividly. To spend years reminiscing of your home, slowly but surely building it into an impossible utopia is one thing. But then to go back, late in life to rediscover that dream, and find that it doesn’t (indeed can’t) live up to that fantasy. It must be crushing. I really didn’t know what to say to him, and could only be glad that he was clearly enjoying this day and this feeling of community he was getting on this hillside.
So, all in all, a good experience. It had an unfortunate whiff of nationalism about it – I’ve never seen that many Hungarian flags, and they were doing a roaring trade selling t-shirts with the word IGEN (yes) written in huge letters, a reference to the failed referendum in Hungary last December (see here). which smacked not so much of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted but in doing so after it was made into glue months previously – but I guess that’s understandable, since it must be the biggest annual gathering of Transylvanian Hungarians. (Although I have to say that the linking of religion and nationalism is one of those things that most bother me about most religions and their hierarchy.) And the nationalism of the minority is a nationalism that I can to some degree understand, at least, if not condone. But aside from that and the plastic tat and yu-gi-oh cards on sale in the main street leading up to it, I thought the whole thing was great. And of course, as I was aware all day long, I had beer in the fridge for when I got home
The mass from a distance
These are the people who aren't even at the mass
Some of the massers coming down
someone leaving in style