On his 12th day of walking through aggressive sunshine and dramatic rain, Marcin Karolczuk stares at the road ahead. The 17-year-old high school student from Bialystok is dressed like a typical teenager in oversize shorts and a red bandanna.

He says he is thinking of the Virgin Mother.

"There is something that attracts me to her," he says wistfully, still staring at the horizon. "Something I cannot describe. All I can say is my heart beats faster when I am near her."

Marcin is an August pilgrim, one of perhaps 250,000 people, about half of them youths, who are walking from all over the country and who will converge on an ancient monastery in Czestochowa this weekend. There they will drop to their knees before the Black Madonna, a Byzantine painting of Mary and the Christ child, a work of art so sacred to many Poles that they speak of it as an incarnation of Mary.

The pilgrimage to Czestochowa is the height of the formal pilgrimage season, which runs from April to October here, and an event that has become increasing youthful. This country is 90 percent Catholic and interest is particularly high this year because of Pope John Paul II's visit to his homeland last April.

If the old stereotype of the Polish pilgrim is a world-weary prayerful grandmother, with her boiled eggs, stale bread, rosary beads and clucky demeanor, the new one might be a ponytailed university student with a buoyant step and a lollipop in her mouth. Young people began participating in the pilgrimage in large numbers during the early 1980s, when the march became a form of resistance against the Communist government (which collapsed in 1989). More recently, teens have joined for personal reasons. Several teens interviewed this week said they enjoyed the encouraging, warm atmosphere, which differs markedly, they say, from the rest of their life.

"There was a time when the pilgrimage was a contrast to the controlling atmosphere of communism," says Tomasz Wiscicki, a Catholic journalist with the monthly Wiez based in Warsaw. "Today, the contrast is the competitive rat race. Everything has changed here, nothing is stable. We are all learning and parents are lost, too. Kids don't always feel that feeling of safety that the pilgrimage provides."

"This is my second march," says Kasia Albowicz, a confident 17-year-old whose tie-dyed T-shirt states "Coolest in the World" in English. She speaks above the singing, which translates, "It's so strange in the world/ Sometimes I don't know where I am."

"So many young people come here and I heard from friends that it is a terrific time," she says. "We come because we want an adventure and an answer to religious questions."

Even in newly capitalist Poland, the pilgrimage is a powerfully simple, penitential and intimate happening. It begins for many at 4 a.m., and the day is grueling with infrequent, short breaks.

But as the country has been transformed over the centuries, from independent country to occupied territory and back again, the symbolism and nature of the tradition have also changed. The largest of the pilgrimages to the Jasna Gora monastery, where the Black Madonna resides, commences in Warsaw's Old Town. The first Warsaw pilgrimage was in 1711 when a group of 20 men walked to thank the Madonna for the end of the plague. (Her stock had already risen when she was credited with the defeat of the Swedish Army at Jasna Gora in the mid-1600s.) Poles walked to her when there was no Poland. They walked to her when Germans turned their soil into the killing stations of the Holocaust and when all other public expressions of demonstration and hope were banned by the Soviet system.

During communist times, the pilgrimage was a showcase of religious devotion that was outside the party's purview. The easy intimacy of the pilgrims provided a stark contrast to the fear and suspicion people lived with every day.

"In 1963, the Communists warned about a contagious disease being spread by the pilgrims but people went anyway," recalls Henryk Skibinski, 60, who is on his 38th pilgrimage. "Villages were banned from giving us water, bread or tea." Retired now, the Warsaw resident looks forward all year to the event, when he locks arms with old friends and sings resistance songs from the days of the Solidarity union.

As more and more people join along the way, there are competing rumors as to who is youngest or oldest, and who has walked the most. Reliable numbers are also hard to come by as people drop out and join the pilgrimage along the way. Four-month-old Sebastian Giera was carried or pushed in a stroller the 243 kilometers from Warsaw to Czestochowa, but some said he was not the youngest. One of the eldest marchers, 85-year-old Monika Karbowska, is on her 54th trek from Warsaw. "I had a heart attack one year ago," she says, almost running at the head of the Warsaw pack. "But the Holy Mother has given me the strength to walk."

When the pilgrims reach Czestochowa, they will walk down the center of the main street that empties in front of Jasna Gora. Many will get down on their knees inside the chapel and slide awkwardly toward the painting. The work itself, which is thought to date from 14th-century Italy, is approximately 48 by 32 inches. They leave presents for the Madonna--silver amulets, amber necklaces, wooden crutches, rosary beads, so many that the walls of the chapel are covered with the gifts.

On some days, the standard 30 kilometers can prove too much for some pilgrims. Tuesday, one group of marchers, overcome by heat exhaustion and pummeling rain, sat dejected in tarp-covered trucks by the side of the road. All planned to return to the march.

Others, like Anna Przewlodowa, a 19-year-old University of Warsaw student, her thick hair pinned up against the humidity, kept on. Trekking with the 12,000 or more Warsaw pilgrims headed toward the small village of Kolonia Stara earlier this week, she spoke passionately of this, her second pilgrimage: "It [can be] horrible, you're so tired you can't feel the next step, maybe you can't go on. Your ambition is to move beyond these feelings. . . . And when you get to Czestochowa and stand in front of this special painting of Mother you know she's not only a painting but much more. Later, when they cover her [the painting is veiled each evening], you feel something has been covered for you as well. . . . But you take something of her with you."