July Pilgrimages

Once Independence Day comes and goes, July stretches forward into seeming infinity. If you have the time and the money, it is a perfect month to take a road trip and see something of the United States, Canada, or whatever country you may live. Given that July 25 is the feast of St. James the Great, and that his shrine at Compostela is the object of a huge network of pilgrim paths, you might as well take the pilgrim’s path this month – either by foot or car. This is truly the Grandaddy of all pilgrimages, and you can begin almost anywhere from Poland to Portugal. To-day, pilgrims, Catholic and otherwise, may be found making the trek throughout the Summer; its revival has become a major concern for the Council of Europe and innumerable local, provincial, and national governments because of the numbers of tourists it brings. But in truth, pilgrims are far from tourists – for all that they enjoy many of the experiences as tourists do.

Santiago was the third greatest locus of pilgrims in the Middle Ages – the second was Rome. The Via Francigena brought them from northern Europe, over the Alps, through the Lombard country, and so on down to the shrines and churches of the Eternal City. To-day, of course, these remain, alongside the Vatican City State, seat of the Holy See and the Diocese of Rome, with St. Peter’s Basilica. One could easily spend all of July there.

A sculpture showing a resting pilgrim on the side of the cathedral in Burgos, Spain. Photo by  Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

But greatest of all pilgrimage sites was the Holy Land, with its glorious sites of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the other places Our Lord walked. For centuries, pilgrims and crusaders alike took the road from their various European countries to Palestine; the latter visitors founded the Religious Orders of Knights – Holy Sepulchre, Malta, Templars, Teutonic Order, and others – that continue to support in various ways the Church’s mission to-day. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land looks after many of the shrines of the Holy Land, as do the Latin, Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopian, and Coptic Orthodox authorities. Various churches, shrines, and monasteries are or have been owned or protected by the French, Spanish, Russian (later Communist or anti-Communist, now reunited), Austrian, German (both Protestant and Catholic), Romanian, Italian, Belgian, and British governments – all reflecting their respective jockeyings for position during the 19th century.

But if venturing outside Europe is too exotic, fear not! There are other Saints besides St. James whose careers have left devotes across the continent. One of these is St. Martin of Tours. The various roads leading to his basilica at Tours encompass a number of European countries – and underline the fact that he was considered a patron of hospitality.

Another great wandering Saint who left not one but two major shrines – at Luxeuil in France and Bobbio in Italy, is St. Columban. Nicknamed the “first European” (and this writer’s family patron), his voyages took him from his native Ireland through Britain, France, Switzerland, and finally Italy. The trail one may follow in his honour to-day leads the pilgrim all over Western Europe.

Catholic pilgrimages are even reviving in the lands torn from the Church by the Protestant revolt. Nidaros Cathedral, in Trondheim, Norway, is the resting place of St. Olav, the King who converted the country to Catholicism in the Middle Ages. His relics were taken from his shrine and hidden somewhere in the cathedral by the country’s first Lutherans. But in recent years, the network of Medieval pilgrimage paths in the various Scandinavian countries to the resting place of the Saint has revived, and will reward the pilgrim who wishes to see for himself the modest Catholic revival in those countries in recent years – often spurred by the Latin Mass.

Also transcending the boundaries of the Church to-day, Eastern Europe, Catholic and Orthodox alike as the area now may be, was first evangelised by Ss. Cyril and Methodius, whose greatest relics are at San Clemente, in Rome. But the routes to reach them are scattered throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

But Bl. Charlemagne (this writer’s name Saint), the “Pater Europeae,” certainly has his share of pilgrim’s passages. Across his former Empire the trails bring pilgrims. There is a small local complex of sites linked by roads in his former capital of Aachen. Although the existence of his liturgical cult surprises many, it is kept at Aachen and Frankfurt cathedrals, as well as other places.

Both Britain and Ireland are filled with old and revived shrines and sanctuaries. France, Spain, and all Europe are filled with them. But let us say that neither time nor budget allow a European trip this year. Not to worry! Canada has a large number – particularly in the once Catholic province of Quebec. St. Anne de Beaupre outside Quebec is the Mother shrine of the Blessed Virgin’s grandmother in North America. Dating to the 17th century, it originally received funding from Anne of Austria, King Louis XIII’s Habsburg Queen. Notre Dame de Quebec, the city’s cathedral, was originally built in 1647, and boasts the continent’s only Holy Door. Notre Dame des Victoires is the second oldest parish in the city – begun twenty years after the Cathedral. There are many other churches and shrines located within and without the city walls, but we’ll move up the St. Lawrence River to Trois Rivieres. There we shall find the National Shrine of the Virgin Mary in Canada, Notre Dame du Cap. Originally founded in 1720, it has become a centre of Marian devotion throughout the Continent. Upriver further is the great city of Montreal, with St. Joseph’s Oratory, sacred both to the Foster Father of Our Lord and St. Andre Bessette. Nearby is the Shrine of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. If we go to Ontario, in Midland, we find the Shrine to the martyred Jesuits of four centuries ago.

If we cannot go to Canada, those last two have American equivalents: St. Kateri in Fonda, and the Jesuit Martyrs in Auriesville – both in New York State. In truth, our own country has a great number of noteworthy shrines. Our Marian devotion extends from the grandeur of Washington’s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville, Missouri, to Connecticut’s Lourdes in Litchfield to the Shrine of Our Lady of Champion in Wisconsin – site of the only approved Marian apparition in our country. The famous National Divine Mercy Shrine is in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In addition to many such places devoted to The Sacred Heart and various Saints dear to all Catholics, our native Saints are not without homes either: Mother Cabrini in New York and Chicago; St. John Neumann and St. Katherine Drexel in Philadelphia; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Maryland and her native New York City; St. Junipero Serra in Carmel, California; St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in St. Charles Missouri; Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos in New Orleans; Bl. Michael McGivney in New Haven; Ven. Fulton Sheen in Peoria; Servant of God Cora Evans in Santa Clara, California; and many more. For us Franco-Americans, our own stigmatic, Little Rose Ferron, has a place of prayer in Woonsocket, Rhodes Island.

There are very many more scattered around the country, to be sure. But what if we want to take a shrine trail, as we could in Europe? Well, there are a few. Perhaps the most famous is El Camino Real in California – the range of 21 missions stretching from San Diego on the Mexican border all the way to Sonoma, north of San Francisco – the jewel in the crown of which is surely the aforementioned shrine of St. Junipero Serra in Carmel. There is a much shorter (on the American side) Mission trail, pioneered by the Jesuit Missionary Padre Eusebio Kino; although extending deep into Sonora (and including his grave there), on our side of the border we have only the missions of San Xavier del Bac and Tumacacori. In Northern New Mexico, you can enjoy the Spanish colonial churches of the High Road to Taos – including the Sanctuary of Chimayo. Texas boasts two short mission trails around El Paso and San Antonio.

But what if I have neither the time nor money to leave the State? There is surely some shrine near to me. And what if any sort of travel out of town is too much? There are very many churches featuring Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration scattered around, wherein I can pray to Our Lord directly – as well as to my favourite Saints, and practise my favourite devotions. If I am homebound, then I can make a home altar, and turn a nook of my own residence into a shrine of our sorts. Even if I am homeless, I can strive via Sacraments, devotions, and works of mercy to turn my own heart into a shrine to Our Lord, Our Lady, and all the Angels and Saints. Because, in the end, visits to all of the many shrines here noted and the many more not mentioned, where Heaven touches Earth, are not simple exercises in Tourism. They are meant for that very end – to bring me to Heaven one day.