Today the universal Church marks the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, daughter of Sts. Anne and Joachim and mother of Jesus Christ. Of course, we do not know the exact date of her birth, any more than we do the exact date of Christ’s birth, but being the most highly revered of all of the saints, it was only fitting that her birthday be celebrated by the Church. While here in the U.S. there is little in the way of tradition or ceremony to mark this day, in other countries various traditions endure.
Among Catholics in Catalonia today is a pilgrimage date known as the “Dia de les Verges Trobades” or literally the “Day of the Meeting Virgins”. While admittedly something of an odd term, it might be better-translated as the “Day of the Discovered Virgins”. It refers collectively to the images of the Blessed Virgin located throughout Catalonia that were discovered under miraculous circumstances. Probably the most famous of these is that of Our Lady of Montserrat, although she gets her own feast day as the patroness of Catalonia, on April 27th. Other examples include Our Lady of Núria, Our Lady of Olot, and Our Lady of Bonanova, whose shrine in Barcelona I have written about recently.
One thing typically held in common by these images is that they were discovered in caves, or buried, or found in otherwise inaccessible places. How they arrived at these spots is often the subject of legend, but it seems more likely that they came to be hidden as a result of the passage of history and the inevitable march of warfare. Between 711 A.D. and 1492, when the Moors ruled parts of what are today Spain and Portugal, relations between the northern Christian kingdoms and the southern Moslem caliphates were not always pleasant. In 985 A.D., for example, Al-Mansur launched an enormous attack on Catalonia and burned many churches, monasteries, and shrines.
Over the centuries, whenever war or invasion threatened, it would have been prudent on the part of the local people to hide their community’s statue of the Blessed Virgin from being damaged, destroyed, or captured by invading Moors, raiding Christians from other kingdoms, and civil infighting. Sometimes the locations for these artworks were forgotten, but when times became safer, these re-discovered images were brought back into veneration, the local people honoring God for their miraculous preservation. Over time, many of the churches, chapels and shrines which housed these images grew into great pilgrimage centers. Throughout Catalonia then, the Virgin Mary’s birthday is a feast day celebrated communally at these ancient Marian shrines by faithful pilgrims.