Catholic Pilgrimage, a Spiritual Journey

The word “pilgrim,” derived from the Latin peregrinum, conveys the idea of wandering over a distance, but it is not just aimless wandering. It is a journey with a purpose, and that purpose is to honor God.

Pilgrimage has a long history in the true religion. Once the temple was built at Jerusalem (ca. 957 B.C.), all Jewish men were obliged to present themselves at it for the three major feasts: Pesach (the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or Passover), Shavu’ot (the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost), and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles, or Festival of Ingathering), as per God’s ordinance in Deuteronomy 16:16-17. On their way to the Temple, they would sing the “pilgrim songs” (also called “songs of assent” or “gradual canticles”), namely, Psalms 119-133. To this day, these feasts are called, “Pilgrimage Festivals” by the Jews.

Similar practices of pilgrimage can be seen in pagan religion, too. When local gods were worshipped, as we see in ancient Greece and Rome, in pre-Colombian Central and South America, in certain areas of ancient Europe, and in the ancient Middle East (Palestine, Syria, and Israel), devotees of a particular god would travel to his or her shrine to beg for favors, for forgiveness of wrongdoing, or some other religious motive.

But our interest here is in Christian pilgrimage, of course. After the death and resurrection of the Incarnate God and the spread of Christianity, adherents felt a longing to tread in the footsteps of their Savior, His Holy Mother, and His chosen followers, the holy Apostles. Even in the early centuries, when millions of Christians were martyred for their Faith, the faithful flocked to the tombs of favorite saints to venerate their remains, sometimes at the risk of being martyred themselves. What were their motives? Basically, they were the same as that of the pagans, but with a true supernatural bent, knowing that in honoring His saints, they were honoring God Himself. Some pilgrimages were done in penance for sin; some were done in petition for a special blessing or favor; and some were undertaken simply out of devotion.

One of the earliest usages of the word is found in the writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). His work, Peregrinatio, described a Christian spiritual journey as a kind of self-imposed exile of the pilgrim in which he searched for God’s Truth in his wanderings while visiting the holy shrines of the Faith.

Pilgrimages “Take Off”

During the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrimages became a very common thing, especially for those who could afford to leave their daily lives behind for a period of time. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, studied by every high school student of English literature, tells the story of pilgrims on their way to venerate the relics of Saint Thomas a Becket, who was murdered in the act of singing Holy Mass by agents of the English king in 1170. Following the dissolution of the monasteries and the taking over of the Catholic churches and shrines after the Anglican defection in 1535, the practice of pilgrimage was considered “too Catholic” and disappeared from England. This is the case, even though Henry VIII, only a few years before he broke with the Catholic Church, made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in 1511 to give thanks for the birth of a son. Sadly, both for Henry and his wife Catherine, and for English Catholics, that son died shortly after his birth.

As one would expect, the greatest of all pilgrimages a Christian could take part in was to the Holy Land itself. Undertaking a pilgrimage so far away from Christian areas of Europe was a daunting task indeed. First of all, it took several years out of a person’s life. In addition, it cost a great deal of money, and entailed considerable danger. The roads were full of brigands ready to rob and kill easy prey; not only that, there were inhospitable deserts to cross. Many pilgrims were injured or killed making the journey. Still, when that mission was accomplished and the pilgrim was safely home, he knew that he had received many graces.

Occasionally, going on a pilgrimage was given as penance for grave sin. It was definitely a dire hardship because the sinner was bound in conscience to walk barefoot and in tatters, never spending more than one night in a particular place, and he had to beg for his food along the way. This certainly was not your luxurious modern-day flight to Rome or Jerusalem with a stay in air-conditioned hotels and scrumptious local food! It was a tremendous sacrifice and, to our modern sensibilities, seems almost too cruel a punishment.

Written evidence of early pilgrimages to the land of the beginnings of Christianity is found as early as 333 with the Bordeaux Pilgrimage, the first to have left detailed accounts of the route, the peoples who lived along that route, and the sites mentioned in the Gospels. Saint Jerome and Saint John Chrysostom wrote favorably of the faithful making pilgrimage to the holy sites of both the Middle East and of Rome where Saint Peter and Saint Paul were martyred.

Given the weaknesses and foibles of human nature, there arose abuses in the “pilgrimage business.” Unscrupulous planners of group journeys often cheated their clients; many of them pushed the idea of completing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a necessity to save one’s soul. Later, during the Renaissance, Erasmus sarcastically pointed out that some pilgrims neglected their duties at home to complete a long trek to the Holy Land. Undoubtedly, such a practice was more detrimental to one’s salvation than staying home and attending to his obligations.

Some have referred to the Crusades as the epitome of all pilgrimages, although their purpose was certainly more than simply the veneration of the holy places. It is a fact, though, that when the Seljuk Turks overran the Holy Land, they closed the Christian places to veneration by pilgrims, thus precipitating the call to arms to re-conquer the land where the feet of Our Lord trod and open it once again for Christian pilgrimage.

Australian Pilgrim in Compostella

Australian Pilgrim in Compostela (source)

Europe Becomes the Place of Pilgrimage

After the Middle East became Muslim and the Mediterranean a virtual Islamic Sea, Christians directed their footsteps closer to home. As Belloc insisted, Europe was Christendom, after all. Millions of martyrs had shed their blood there for the Faith during the Roman persecutions before the emperor Constantine granted freedom of worship to Christians in the early fourth century. Churches and shrines, many magnificent and richly adorned, most, however, plain and simple, were afterwards constructed all over Catholic Europe. Some of those churches became burial places for saints and they also became famous for miraculous cures. It was only natural that the devout Catholic wishing to go on pilgrimage would seek out such holy places. We have already mentioned two sites in England that attracted pilgrims: the tomb of Saint Thomas a Becket at Canterbury and the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

There are literally hundreds of sites available to those wishing to venerate the relics of a particular saint, visit the streets where the Apostles and early popes walked, were martyred, and are buried. The entire city of Rome is worthy of the pilgrim’s attention with its hundreds of ancient churches, wherein countless relics of great saints are enshrined. Saint Peter’s Basilica and Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls are home to the relics of the two great Apostles who were martyred on the same day in the year 67.

Camino de Santiago

One of the oldest and most popular pilgrimage sites over the centuries has been the Camino de Santiago (Highway of Saint James) in northern Spain and southern France. The great cathedral of Compostela in Galicia — the northwestern-most province of Spain — contains the relics of Saint James the Greater, who traveled there after Pentecost to evangelize the pagans of that land. Earliest records of pilgrims coming to the tomb of the Apostle from the Spanish side of the Pyrenees date from the eighth century, with records from the tenth century of other pilgrims crossing those daunting mountains from France. It became the habit of pilgrims walking the route and finally arriving at their destination months later to take home with them the scallop shell, taken from the waters off the coast of Finisterre (the end of the world) as proof that they had in fact completed the journey. By the twelfth century, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage had become so popular that hostelries were built within a day’s walk of each other, towns sprang up around these stops on the road, and enormous Romanesque style churches were built to accommodate the huge crowds of worshipers who passed by on their way to Compostela. During the times when pilgrimages were assigned as penance for grave sin, the site of the tomb of Santiago was one of the four major pilgrimage destinations. (The other three sites were the churches of the Apostles Peter and Paul in Rome, the shrine of Saint Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, and the cathedral of Cologne, Germany, wherein are enshrined the relics of the Three Kings.)

Today the Camino is as popular as ever. Sadly, though, there are more “pilgrims” making the walk for the sake of simply “making the walk” (sort of like hiking the Appalachian Trail). One can do it the original way — on foot — or by automobile, bus, or train. Today there is actually a luxurious train excursion to Compostela costing about six thousand dollars — nice for the modern traveler who can afford such a treat, but not something our medieval forebears would recognize as a pilgrimage. This year is a Compostelan Holy Year, just as is every year that has the feast of St. James (July 25) occurring on a Sunday. In his message marking the beginning of this Holy Year, Pope Benedict XVI wrote to Archbishop Julián Barrio Barrio that the “essential goal of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela” is “of a spiritual character” — adding that “although in some cases there is a tendency to ignore or distort it.”

Pilgrimage to South America

Europe has not been the only place of pilgrimage activity in the West. Catholicism was established in South America from the early days of the Spanish colonial period. Unlike the English who colonized the northeast of what is now the United States, when the Spanish established their colonies in the Americas — including much of North America — their purpose from the beginning was to convert the natives to the Catholic religion so that their souls could attain heaven. While there were certainly abuses perpetrated by the colonizers, for the most part, every expedition of Spanish explorers included missionary priests and brothers who would establish churches and schools for the education and civilization of the Indians.

As a consequence, long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, many beautiful churches and shrines were built in America. One of these shrines is that of Our Lady of Good Success in Quito, Ecuador. Five Conceptionist sisters traveled from Spain to Quito in the early years of the seventeenth century to establish a convent there to assist in the conversion of souls. Their superior was Mother Mariana de Jesus Torres. In 1610, Mother Mariana was praying to Our Lady in the convent chapel, when the Queen of Heaven appeared to her, calling herself the Lady of Good Success. Commending the sister for her love and charity, Our Lady commanded that a statue of her be sculpted under that title. She even allowed Mother Mariana to measure her height. Of course, Mother Mariana had to take this petition to the local bishop, who readily agreed to the undertaking. The work of sculpting the statue was commissioned to Francisco del Castillo. One day, when Francisco was away from his work and seeking proper paints in order to complete the faces of Our Lady and the Divine Infant she held in her arms, some of the Conceptionist sisters happened to visit the chapel. To their astonishment they found that both figures had been miraculously completed. Naturally, word spread, and devotion to the miraculous statue grew immediately and spread far beyond the city of Quito.

Our Lady sent Mother Mariana many crosses, including five years of suffering the pains of hell for the salvation of one of her sisters. She also allowed the holy nun to hear dire predictions of the state of the world to come in the twentieth century, and she asked the sisters to pray that she would be able to stay her Son’s hand in punishment for those terrible sins that would be committed in those days. Imagine that: Mother Mariana and her sisters lived a life of prayer and penance to atone for the sins which would be committed three hundred years in the future! The incorrupt bodies of Mother Mariana and several of her nuns are today buried in the church crypt.

This writer had the privilege several years ago to go on pilgrimage to Quito to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Success. We walked, prayed, and sang in procession before dawn on the feast of Our Lady’s Presentation, February 2, through the streets of old Quito, holding lighted tapers, along with hundreds of the occupants of the city. It was a moving and sweet experience. Afterward, our chaplain celebrated Holy Mass in the tiny burial crypt, the altar of which is placed over the glass coffin of Mother Mariana herself.

The Conceptionist Church is the first on a street where one can visit half a dozen gorgeous Spanish colonial churches within about half a mile radius. Such was the activity of the Spanish missionaries and the devotion of the native population in the days of Spanish colonial South America.

North America

Even in North America there are many pilgrimage sites. The best known, and by far the most visited, is Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Going north of our own country, there is the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal where our dear Blessed Brother André Bessette (soon to be Saint) lived, worked and is buried. Outside of Quebec City, there is the magnificent basilica of Sainte Anne de Beaupre, which contains the forearm bone of the mother of the Mother of God. Miraculous cures are attested by the hundreds at this exquisite place of pilgrimage. Then there is the little known but beautiful shrine built by Blessed Père Frédéric Janssoone at Trois Rivieres. A fine pilgrimage would be to visit all three of these holy places in tandem.

Closer to home, there is the annual Auriesville Shrine Pilgrimage held each year at the end of September. Here one can walk the seventy miles of the Chartres Pilgrimage in France without crossing the ocean! Pilgrims come from all over the United States and Canada to walk, sing, and pray for the restoration of Tradition in the Catholic Church, from Lake George, New York (christened initially the Lake of the Blessed Sacrament by French Catholics) to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs at Auriesville, New York. The pilgrims camp out each night and attend the Traditional Latin Mass each morning. Along the way there are priests available to hear Confession and there is lots of camaraderie, good conversation, and sore feet. Every pilgrim that I have met who has made this walk has gained many graces as a result.

Although other religions conduct their own pilgrimages — Muslims are expected to complete the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lives, and Hindus bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges on certain holy days — it seems that the pilgrimage is mostly a “Catholic thing.” One of the most interesting pilgrimage sites is in Ceylon, which, curiously, is revered by Muslims, Brahmins, Buddhists, and Chinese Confucianists, as well as Christian Indians. There, on the summit of Adam Peak, is found a footprint. Each religion reveres that footprint as that of a saint. For the Muslims it is Adam; for the Brahmins, Rama; for the Buddhists, Buddha; for the Chinese, Fu; and for the Christians, Saint Thomas the Apostle.

If one checks the online Catholic Encyclopedia, he can find listed one hundred or so Catholic pilgrimage sites around the world. Fisheaters has a much smaller list of popular pilgrimage sites in their excellent article on the subject (under “pilgrimage today”).