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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Shrine draws thousands to Slovenia's Julian Alps

Voices Nov 15, 2016

Many faithful are rediscovering the traditional walking pilgrimage on some truly outstanding routes. Many were almost forgotten.

One outstanding shrine is in the Julian Alps—mountains named after Julius Caesar, who founded the city at the foot of the mountains.

There, in the southern limestone mountains near the Austrian border, along the Slava River, a tributary of the Danube, is the National Marian Shrine of Brezje, in the beautiful and friendly land of Slovenia. It's an easy train ride from Venice, Italy.

The story of the Slovene national shrine begins in 1800, when a parish priest gave orders to enlarge the Church of St. Vitus with a small chapel in honour of Mary, Help of Christians. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there was great devotion to Our Lady under this title.

In 1814, Leopold Layer, a Slovenian artist from nearby Kranj, painted the image of Our Lady enshrined there today, based upon a popular motif from Innsbruck, Austria. In 1863, after several miraculous healings, word spread and pilgrimages began to be organized.

Brezje became a popular place of prayer, and the church was too small for all the pilgrims, so a new and truly majestic basilica was built in 1900.

Today the shrine, staffed by Franciscans, draws many pilgrims. Some choose to walk from nearby Ljubljana, a former Roman city and today the capital of Slovenia and the largest city in the country.

St. John Paul II made a pilgrimage to Brezje in May 1996. He said, "A pilgrimage is an image of our life, and pilgrimage shrines are images of the heavenly Jerusalem."

Pilgrims who set off on foot to Brezje find many others on their path. This journey requires a firm will and some sacrifice to reach the destination to meet Mary, mother of hope and consolation.

The miraculous image of Our Lady is enshrined in a massive golden frame held in place by an exquisite golden-leaf reredos, a work of art itself, visible to all pilgrims in an intimate side chapel where arriving groups gather for prayer.

Each day grace can be seen at work in the presence of the image: arriving pilgrims make their peace with God, seeking holy things and receiving reconciliation with the God of peace and mercy through the sacrament of mercy, confession.

The Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians, at Brezje is a national shrine not only for Slovenians, but also for their diaspora throughout the world. Since Slovenia opened up from Soviet oppression in 1991, the site has drawn thousands of Slovenian nationals and a growing number of others.

The shrine is amid majestic Alps, with the highest peak in Slovenia, Triglav, towering above. The Creator's magnificent works are visible for all to contemplate.

The pilgrimage to Brezje, an important undertaking historically for the Slovenian people, is today being rediscovered and growing in popularity. Making a vow to reach Brezje on foot is a longstanding custom. The walk 40 kilometres can be done in one long day.

An important decision in any pilgrim's life is where to travel and visit. Brezje is highly recommended for those who have the time or wish to enjoy untouched countryside. Travel back in time to a country described by many as one of Europe's best-kept secrets.

As a sign of gratitude and devotion to Mary, Help of Christians, locals take part in a candle-lit procession after Mass on Saturdays from Pentecost to All Saints Day. The candles are handmade by Carthugian monks, and the devotion includes praying the rosary and singing folk songs. Entire Slovenian parishes participate.

A pilgrims' office, gift shop, and museum are open year round. Picnics in the lovely park in front of the church are welcome. The church is open at 7 a.m. each day of the year. It closes at 8 p.m. in the summer and 7 p.m. in the winter.

Many groups conclude their pilgrimage with a prayer to Our Lady, Help of Christians, strengthening their devotion to Our Lady.

Devotion to Our Lady under this title has long had a special place in the hearts of many Europeans: Austrians, Croats, Italians, and Hungarians. May this custom continue to develop among the new generation.

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.