Friday, June 14, 2024

A Pilgrimage Revived in the Netherlands

Our thanks to Mr Ivan Zelic for sharing with us this account of a newly-revived pilgrimage tradition in the Netherlands, and the accompanying photos. This procession is held in honor of St Cunera, one of the companions of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins; a short account of her legend is given below.  

According to an old tradition, Saint Willibrord, the first bishop of Utrecht, received a request from the people to elevate the virgin and martyr Cunera van Rhenen, one of the companions of St Ursula, that is, to exhume her body from its first burial place and put it in a shrine. This would make her one of the very first Saints to be venerated in the Netherlands. In recent decades, however, she slowly fell into oblivion, except in Rhenen itself, where her name can still be seen everywhere. How fitting it is, then, that the common people have revived veneration for her by resuming the centuries-old tradition of pilgrimages in her honor. This year it was held for the second time on her feast day, June 12th, after being revived last year.

The large church dedicated to her in Rhenen opened its doors at 1 p.m. to let in the crowd who were already waiting, including many new participants who read last year’s report in the newspaper and now wanted to be there themselves. The priests of the Fraternity of St Peter’s apostolate in Amsterdam once again led the procession and celebrated the Holy Mass.

The procession left the church at half past two, a beautiful sight. At the front are the thurifer and crucifer, flanked by torch bearers, followed by four young men carrying the bier with the unique, centuries-old statue of Cunera on it, kindly lent for the occasion by the church in Vorstenbosch. Behind it walked Father Knudsen with the first-class relic of Saint Cunera in a silver reliquary, flanked by two standard bearers, and followed by about sixty people, including many young children.
The procession went through the center of Rhenen to the burial mound where the martyr was first laid to rest, and a short prayer was said. Along the Cuneralaan, part of the centuries-old pilgrimage route that led to the church, the procession followed in the footsteps of countless believers who over the centuries were moved by the life and death of Cunera and wanted to beg her favor. The procession returned to the church by the narrow path along the Lower Rhine.
There those present received the special blessing with the relic. The Holy Mass was celebrated by the fathers according to the Tridentine rite: for some, a first introduction to this ‘Old Mass’, which is growing in popularity. Last year was the first time in four hundred years that the Catholic Holy Mass took place in the Cunera Church. The Cantores Sancti Gregorii provided the music, and ancient Gregorian chant sounded beautiful in the big church.
Yes, of course, tradition will always be for the young!

After the Holy Mass, the pilgrimage ended with fellowship, and everyone agreeing that it must be done again next year. The organizers offer a special word of thanks to the board and the sexton of the Cunera Church, and to the many volunteers who made the work light with many hands. That tradition also remained intact: the special veneration for Saint Cunera still originates from the common people.
This pilgrimage is a private initiative to revive attention for great Dutch saints. It is our intention to hold it annually on June 12.
* * * * *
Rhenen’s Virgin, who won a Martyr’s fame,
Pray for us, Saint Cunera and intercede,
And for our Country’s Good regain
The Sacred Church and its Holy Creed.
A short biography of Saint Cunera
Cunera was one of the virgins who went on pilgrimage to Rome with Saint Ursula. On the way back they were murdered by the Huns near Cologne. Cunera, however, was saved by King Radboud van Rhenen, who hid her under his cloak. She was very popular in Rhenen, both at the royal court and among the poor to whom she brought food every day. She herself voluntarily lived in poverty, praying and fasting.
However, the queen became jealous and plotted with her maid to kill Cunera, so when the king was absent, they strangled her with a veil, then buried her in the stable. According to an ancient description, Cunera “stood like a lamb led to death, and committed her soul into God’s hands.”
When the king returned, the queen told him that Cunera had left, but when his servants wanted to bring the horses into the stable, they refused to enter it. A cross of burning torches appeared in the stable, and when the king came to see this with his own eyes, he had the earth dug up and found Cunera’s body with the veil still around his neck. As punishment, he had his wife flogged so severely that she became insane and threw herself from a mountain, while the maid was burned.
When the holy bishop Saint Willebrord passed through Rhenen on one of his journeys, the inhabitants asked him to place the body of Cunera in a shrine. He found her body, emitting a sweet odor, with the veil still around her neck, elevating her relics and establishing June 12 as her feast day.
Saint Cunera has traditionally been one of the Netherlands’ most popular saints, and the many pilgrimages to Rhenen were accompanied by countless miracles. Her life and death still inspire admiration and devotion among many in our time.

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