A Pilgrimage differs from a tour in several important ways. It is a personal invitation from God, comprised of His offer and dependent upon the pilgrim’s acceptance. God’s call may vary but the purpose remains consistent: It is an individual summons to know God more fully. A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to which the pilgrim joyfully responds “yes” to God’s invitation. Although in previous centuries many trials were intrinsic to a pilgrimage, the modern pilgrim has an abundance of affordable travel options, yet the purpose remains unchanged. It is a journey to a holy, sacred place to usher the pilgrim into the presence of God.
The pilgrim must embark on this journey with joyful anticipation, willingness to temporarily separate him or herself from the world and to offer him or herself in humble service to one another. A successful pilgrimage involves a commitment to leave behind one’s problems and to focus instead on seeking to learn more about our heavenly Father. Also, a pilgrimage involves making one’s heart full of desire for special graces, praises, petitions, thanksgiving, returning home transformed, renewed and restored by the abundant blessings received. A pilgrimage is a time of prayer and to witness the miraculous signposts God has left for our return to Him.
Ask God to bless you with a heart that will be receptive to the treasure chest of graces He desires to shower upon your pilgrimage. The success of your spiritual journey will depend upon your openness, faith, flexibility, and love. Pilgrimages – journeys to sacred places – are as old as civilization. Since the earliest times, such journeys have been made as acts of devotion, penance, or thanksgiving or in search of blessings or miracles.
The concept crosses all ideological boundaries. In the ancient Near East, a portion of the harvest was carried to shrines to be offered to the gods in gratitude and homage. Muslim law prescribes a pilgrimage to Mecca, the birth place of Muhammad, for all who are able to undertake the journey.
For Hindus, a pilgrimage to Varansi (Banares), to bathe in the sacred waters of Ganges, is considered an obligation. Christian pilgrims, from early in the second century, traveled great distances to venerate places in the Holy Land sanctified by the presence of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the Apostles. The number of pilgrimages increased greatly in the fourth century, after Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity and legalized the faith throughout the Roman Empire. He and his mother, Helena, were themselves the most influential of pilgrims. The historian Eusebius of Caesarea attributed to Constantine the discovery of Christ’s tomb, the Holy Sepulcher; other accounts credit his mother with finding the True Cross.
Word of the discoveries spread, spurring the pilgrimage movement. Although travel was always difficult and often perilous, by the end of the fourth century pilgrimages to the Holy Land were relatively common. Rome, as it became the center of the Christian faith, became a frequent pilgrimage destination, as did Greece and Egypt, where the faithful could follow the footsteps of the Apostles.
By the Middle Ages, pilgrimages had become a significant part of Christian devotional life, whether they involved a journey between neighboring cities or across half the civilized world. Churches and cathedrals throughout Europe holding relics of the Holy Family, the Apostles, and other early saints drew throngs of faithful, from common people and parish priests to emperors and popes. The role of such relics – particularly those that were instruments of Christ’s Passion – is strong in pilgrimage, and many have survived to our time.
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, for example, enshrines part of the Crown of Thorns, wood from the Cross, and a nail from the Crucifixion. Kept in individual reliquaries encased in a gilded ark, they are on view Only * during Lent. The Sanctum Sanctorum Chapel in Rome has relics of the Cross, Christ’s sandals, and a portrait of Christ “not painted by mortal hands”. At Aachen, Germany, relics include the infant Jesus’ swaddling clothes and the Virgin’s veil. The Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be Christ’s burial cloth, is world famous despite continuing nit pickings about its origin. Many highly respected scientists vouch for the Shroud. Corporeal relics – the bodies of saints, or parts of them – have also formed the basis of many famous shrines.
Prominent among such places in Santiago de Compastela in northern Spain, revered since the early ninth century as the burial place of the remains of Saint James the Apostle, who was beheaded by King Herod in Judea in A.D. 44 and whose body was thrown to dogs. The heads, hearts, and various limits other saints were sometimes removed – not by their enemies, but after death by their adherents – and enshrined separately. In Paris, the heart of Saint Vincent de Paul is kept in a reliquary on the alter of his shrine in the mother house of the Sisters of Charity; his bones are incased in a wax figure in the chapel of the Vincentian Fathers. In Goa, India millions were drawn a few years ago to a week-long exposition of one Saint Francis Xavier’s arms.
Counted among shrines marking the tombs of saints are those of Saint Martin in Tours, France (once most frequented shrine in Europe), and that of his mentor, Saint Hilary, in nearby Poiltiers, both dating from the fourth century. There are scores of others, on every continent. Holy objects other then relics have given rise to many other popular shrines. At Czestochowa, Poland, the icon Our Lady of Czestochowa, also known as the Black Madonna, is believed to possess miraculous powers and has been venerated since fourteenth century.
At the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, millions come to see the peasant’s cape on which the Blessed Virgin’s image miraculously appeared following an apparition in 1531. In Brazil, an image of the Virgin was discovered on a rock by a small child and has led to wide cult following. In Ancona, Italy, a weeping statue of the Virgin has drawn pilgrims since the early nineteenth century. Numerous places have become the destinations of pilgrims because of apparitions of the Blessed Virgin, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Framed among them are Lourdes and La Salette in France and Fatima in Portugal; at all three, the Virgin appeared to young children and urged mankind’s repentance and prayer.
Pilgrims now number in the millions, and devotion has resulted in numberless reported favors and cures. Church authorities are cautious about giving credence to accounts of apparitions of Mary and approving of devotion at the places where they occur. Since the early nineteenth century, about 200 reports of such apparitions have been investigated, and Only * about 1 in 40 has received canonical sanction. In addition to Lourdes, La Salette, and Fatima, sanctioned apparitions since 1842 have occurred at the church of Saint Andrea della Frate in Rome and at Illaca in Croatia, Philippsedorf in Germany, Pontmain in France, Knock in Ireland, and Beauraing and Banneux in Belgium.
No country in Europe is without its Christian shrines. In England, a number of shrines that were widely known long before the Reformation of the early sixteenth century are the object of growing devotion today. Cheif among them Waisingham, Glastonbury, and Canterbury (Chaucer’s pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales were on their way to the shrine there of the martyred Saint Thomas Becket). Other shrines honor the founders of religious orders. Three of these, are in Italy, are the shrines of Saint Benedict at Monte Cassino, Saint Dominic in Bologna, and Saint Francis at Assisi.