Pilgrimages have been a staple of Christian life since the earliest centuries of the Church. In a world so connected by air travel, when we are able to be on the other side of the world in less than a day, it’s easy to forget the meaning of a real pilgrimage and its spiritual nature—and how difficult it once was for people to make one.
In a 2010 speech at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the termination point of one the world’s most famous pilgrimage routes, the Camino de Santiago, Pope Benedict XVI said, ‘To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendour and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.’
In other words, pilgrimage is an inherently spiritual journey. To go on pilgrimage is to go somewhere with the intent of encountering God in some way, especially at those places most associated with God’s presence and activity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it this way:
Pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer. For pilgrims seeking living water, shrines are special places for living the forms of Christian prayer ‘in Church’ (CCC, §2691).
This is why, quite early on, the most popular pilgrimage sites were to the Holy Land and to the shrines of Christian martyrs.
During the first few centuries of the Church’s life, Christians suffered intense persecution at the hands of governing authorities, so pilgrimage was not as common as it would become. By the fourth century, though, with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and his mother, St Helena, opportunities were created for Christians to journey freely to these sites, and a vibrant culture of pilgrimage was nurtured.
In fact, St Helena is often credited with enabling this popular Christian practice, since she oversaw the recovery of several sacred sites. The chance for pilgrims to visit and experience those places where Jesus and his apostles lived and walked added a physical and interactive dimension to faith.
Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, would allude to this in one of his catechetical lectures in the fourth century, saying, ‘For others only hear, but we both see and touch’ (Lecture 13, §22).
As well as inspiring the faithful to visit the Holy Land and the shrines of saints in search of healing, the concept of pilgrimage animated the early ‘Desert Fathers’, who would form monastic communities away from the rest of society. They called this a peregrinatio pro amore Dei, which means ‘pilgrimage for the love of God’. They wanted to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and the people of Israel before him, seeking out the desert in order to overcome evil and live more in union with God.
People also went on pilgrimage as a form of penance, especially when a person committed a particularly grave sin. Sometimes this was voluntary, and other times it was asked of them by their confessor or the court. This practice acknowledged that we injure ourselves when we turn our back on God and wander away, and that we are called to ‘recover [our] full spiritual health’ by resuming our journey back to God (CCC, §1459).
The practice of going on pilgrimage was not always recommended, and some bishops and spiritual writers warned people not to forget about the heart.
St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, wrote a letter called ‘On Pilgrimages’, which contains some of the strongest words of caution about pilgrimages in the early Christian world. He wrote:
Change of place does not effect any drawing nearer to God, but wherever you may be, God will come to you, if the chambers of your soul be found of such a sort that he can dwell in you and walk in you.
While the Church would not ultimately adopt his scepticism of pilgrimage, Catholicism did embrace this insight about the importance of the heart, resulting in a ‘both–and’ approach. This is why we are able to recognise the sainthood of somebody like St Thérèse of Lisieux, who spent most of her short life in the same location, because the life of faith is primarily about how the heart of the person receives Christ’s grace.
But we also recognise how ‘change of place’ (as Gregory put it) actually can help reconfigure our hearts and minds, providing opportunities for greater openness to what God wants to do in our lives.
Somebody who perhaps took a more balanced approach to pilgrimage was St Augustine of Hippo. His famous book City of God is rich with the idea that the Church on earth is a pilgrim Church, journeying towards our heavenly homeland. For Augustine, the miracles associated with particular shrines provided an opportunity for people to experience something tangible that witnessed to the reality of the faith.
What do these miracles attest but the faith which proclaims that Christ rose in the flesh and ascended into heaven with the flesh? For the martyrs were all martyrs, that is witnesses, to this faith (The City of God, XXII, ch. 9).
Although the practice of pilgrimage might have taken a few centuries to get going, the concept didn’t come from nowhere. It is embedded in the Scriptures.
The idea of being a pilgrim or sojourner is found throughout the Old Testament, and the Exodus story provides a key motif. Following their escape from Egyptian captivity, the Israelites spent forty years wandering the desert before finally crossing the River Jordan and entering the Promised Land (Joshua 1:1–5). This story was often adopted as the template for Christian life, with Christians seeing themselves as journeying through this fallen world towards the Promised Land of heaven.
Also deeply woven into the Old Testament is the notion that sacred objects can be used to communicate God’s power.
When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, for example, he takes the bones of Joseph with him, so reverenced were they by the people (Exodus 13:19).
In 2 Kings 13:20–21, a group of Israelites were burying a man when they noticed that Moabite raiders were approaching. Instead of burying him properly, they threw him into the tomb of the prophet Elisha. ‘The man had no sooner touched the bones of Elisha,’ the text tells us, ’than he came to life and stood up on his own feet’ (v. 21).
Even in the New Testament, we read in the Acts of the Apostles that ‘God did not inconsiderable works of power at Paul’s hands so that handkerchiefs or aprons which had touched his skin were taken to the sick, and they were cured of their illnesses, and the evil spirits came out of them’ (Acts 19:11–12, emphasis added).
Today, Catholics call objects such as these ’relics’, and people go on pilgrimage all over the world seeking healing because of this belief that God can use even ordinary objects to display his power.
The idea that Christians are on a pilgrimage through life has also inspired some of the world’s best literature.
In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales became wildly popular. This poem follows the journey of a group of pilgrims from Tabard Inn in Southward to St Thomas à Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral in England (an extremely popular site to visit after the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket). The pilgrims in Chaucer’s story challenge each other to tell stories while on the road, and this is the premise for Chaucer’s lively selection of tales, which range from the serious to the satirical.
John Bunyan’s 17th-century allegorical work Pilgrim’s Progress—or, in its longer form, The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come—went on to inspire countless other writers, including CS Lewis, who wrote a book called Pilgrim’s Regress after his conversion.
And in the 19th century, one of the most widely circulated prayer books in the world was The Way of a Pilgrim by an anonymous Russian author. The story follows a pilgrim on a journey through Ukraine, Russia and Siberia as he tries to live by the words of St Paul to ‘pray constantly’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This book helped to popularise the ‘Jesus prayer’: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Beginning in July, more than 500 pilgrims, from more than 50 parishes and 40 schools across the Archdiocese, will be joining 1.5 million other pilgrims for World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. You are invited to accompany our pilgrims by praying that World Youth Day might be a time where they encounter the Lord in a new way and return ready to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
VMCH11 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023