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The word “pilgrim” comes from the Latin “peregrinus,” meaning “foreigner” or “stranger,” and in the deepest sense, that is what all Catholics are: a people whose home is not this world, but the Heavenly Jerusalem, toward which our lives move us. But in that journey to share in St. John’s vision, we often make smaller journeys, or “pilgrimages” — that is, journeys made to sacred places for the purpose of veneration, to ask help from or thank God and His Saints, to fulfill a vow, or to make penance.
Our Hebrew forebears were commanded by God to make a pilgrimage to the Temple:
Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose: in the feast of unleavened bread, in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles. No one shall appear with his hands empty before the Lord: But every one shall offer according to what he hath, according to the blessing of the Lord his God, which he shall give him.
They called these pilgrimages on 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) “re’iyah,” and on their way they would sing their Pilgrim Songs — Psalms 119-133, known also as the “Songs of Degrees” (“canticum graduum” to us Latins). Extra-Scripturally, they made pilgrimages to the tomb of Rachel, and to places like Mt. Carmel, sacred to Israel long before Elias there proved that YHWH is God when the fire from Heaven consumed his offering after the unfaithful made their vain appeals to Baal to consume theirs (III Kings 18). But these pilgrimages that weren’t a matter of divine command were still in the spirit of Scripture, where memory is seen as important. Witness the making of a memorial out of stones in Josue (Joshua):
And when they were passed over, the Lord said to Josue: Choose twelve men, one of every tribe: And command them to take out of the midst of the Jordan, where the feet of the priests stood, twelve very hard stones, which you shall set in the place of the camp, where you shall pitch your tents this night. And Josue called twelve men, whom he had chosen out of the children of Israel, one out of every tribe, And he said to them: Go before the ark of the Lord your God to the midst of the Jordan, and carry from thence every man a stone on your shoulders, according to the number of the children of Israel, That it may be a sign among you and when your children shall ask you tomorrow, saying: What mean these stones? You shall answer them: The waters of the Jordan ran off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, when it passed over the same: therefore were these stones set for a monument of the children of Israel for ever. The children of Israel therefore did as Josue commanded them, carrying out of the channel of the Jordan twelve stones, as the Lord had commanded him, according to the number of the children of Israel, unto the place wherein they camped, and there they set them. And Josue put other twelve stones in the midst of the channel of the Jordan, where the priests stood that carried the ark of the covenant: and they are there until this present day.
We of Israel still mark out sacred spaces and make pilgrimages to them, like our Old Covenant ancestors, but with this difference: we are not bound to journey. The Old Covenant is fulfilled, and we are not Muslims for whom pilgrimage (hajj) is considered a sacred duty. Instead, we go on pilgrimage in the spirit of Josue and of the Gospels — to remember, and for the purposes of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and leaving behind our daily lives to follow Him:
Then Jesus said to His disciples: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for My sake, shall find it.
We might journey in a spirit of penance, fasting and giving alms along the way. We might do so joyously, in thanksgiving for blessings received, or in a spirit of supplication for blessings desired. Or we might do so simply to be blessed by being in the presence of holy relics or by walking on ground hallowed by Our Lord or the Saints. Whatever our more particular purposes, leaving behind what is comfortable to us and visiting a strange place is a way to get out of a “spiritual rut” and step outside our normal routines which can sometimes keep us distracted or focused on the wrong things — or perhaps focused too much on otherwise good things. When made with the right attitude, pilgrimage is a way to “lose” our lives for His sake.
History: Church Era
Christians had always travelled to the Holy Land, but pilgrimages there became much more common after the most famous pilgrim of them all, St. Helena, made her way to the land where Jesus walked. Helena was born in the mid-200s, into a humble state of life. She “married up,” though, and became the wife of Constantius Chlorus, Caesar of Rome. She bore Constantine the Great ca. A.D. 274, and was forsaken by her husband in A.D. 292. After her husband’s death, however, her faithful son took over the throne, restored his mother to courtly life, and gave her the title of “Augusta.” In A.D.312, her son began his conversion to Catholicism 1 after having a vision assuring him that, under the sign of Christ (the Chi-Rho), he would conquer pretenders to the throne, and his mother soon followed, surpassing him in the Faith and becoming such a good Christian that the Historian Eusebius (ca. A.D. 260 – ca. 341) said of her
She became under his (Constantine’s) influence such a devout servant of God, that one might believe her to have been from her very childhood a disciple of the Redeemer of mankind.
Constantine published his Edict of Milan (A.D. 313) which ensured the tolerance of Christianity, 2 and his mother travelled to the Holy Land to seek out relics and the places important in Our Lord’s earthly life, things and places pointed out to her by local Christians. She and her son built churches at the places of His Nativity, Entombment, and Ascension, and brought the True Cross and other relics to a church built in Rome just to house them, the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (we memorialize St. Helena’s finding of the True Cross every 14 September in a Feast that began in Jerusalem, and then later spread out to Constantinople and Rome — the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross).
People thereafter flocked to the Holy Land in even greater numbers, including many Church Fathers and individuals who left accounts of their travels. 3 But like many good things, abuses arose, and some Christians apparently began to see pilgrimage to the Holy Land as of much more value than it truly was. Though after his conversion, St. Jerome went there, and to the desert of Chalcis where he studied Hebrew and Sacred Scripture, and to Antioch where he was ordained, he was quick to teach that pilgrimages aren’t necessary for the Christian life or for salvation, and that God can be reached from anywhere. He was concerned, too, about exposure of the Christian, especially monks, to the bad influence of big cities, and explained himself in a letter to a monk who asked him if he should make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem:
What is praiseworthy is not to have been at Jerusalem but to have lived a good life while there. The city which we are to praise and to seek is not that which has slain the prophets and shed the blood of Christ, but that which is made glad by the streams of the river, which is set upon a mountain and so cannot be hid, which the apostle declares to be a mother of the saints, and in which he rejoices to have his citizenship with the righteous.
In speaking thus I am not laying myself open to a charge of inconsistency or condemning the course which I have myself taken. It is not, I believe, for nothing that I, like Abraham, have left my home and people. But I do not presume to limit God’s omnipotence or to restrict to a narrow strip of earth Him whom the heaven cannot contain. Each believer is judged not by his residence in this place or in that but according to the deserts of his faith. The true worshippers worship the Father neither at Jerusalem nor on mount Gerizim; for “God is a spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” “Now the spirit bloweth where it listeth,” and “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.” When the fleece of Judaea was made dry although the whole world was wet with the dew of heaven, and when many came from the East and from the West and sat in Abraham’s bosom: then God ceased to be known in Judah only and His name to be great in Israel alone; the sound of the apostles went out into all the earth and their words into the ends of the world. The Saviour Himself speaking to His disciples in the temple said: “arise, let us go hence,” and to the Jews: “your house is left unto you desolate.” If heaven and earth must pass away, obviously all things that are earthly must pass away also. Therefore the spots which witnessed the crucifixion and the resurrection profit those only who bear their several crosses, who day by day rise again with Christ, and who thus shew themselves worthy of an abode so holy. Those who say “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,” should give ear to the words. of the apostle: “ye are the temple of the Lord,” and the Holy Ghost “dwelleth in you.” Access to the courts of heaven is as easy from Britain as it is from Jerusalem; for “the kingdom of God is within you.” Antony and the hosts of monks who are in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Pontus, Cappadocia, and Armenia, have never seen Jerusalem: and the door of Paradise is opened for them at a distance from it. The blessed Hilarion, though a native of and a dweller in Palestine, only set eyes on Jerusalem for a single day, not wishing on the one hand when he was so near to neglect the holy places, nor yet on the other to appear to confine God within local limits. From the time of Hadrian to the reign of Constantine — a period of about one hundred and eighty years — the spot which had witnessed the resurrection was occupied by a figure of Jupiter; while on the rock where the cross had stood, a marble statue of Venus was set up by the heathen and became an object of worship. The original persecutors, indeed, supposed that by polluting our holy places they would deprive us of our faith in the passion and in the resurrection. Even my own Bethlehem, as it now is, that most venerable spot in the whole world of which the psalmist sings: “the truth hath sprung out of the earth,” was overshadowed by a grove of Tammuz, that is of Adonis; and in the very cave where the infant Christ had uttered His earliest cry lamentation was made for the paramour of Venus.
Why, you will say, do I make these remote allusions? To assure you that nothing is lacking to your faith although you have not seen Jerusalem and that I am none the better for living where I do. Be assured that, whether you dwell here or elsewhere, a like recompense is in store for your good works with our Lord.
Abuses aside, good and faithful Christians made pilgrimages, not just to the Holy Land — the prime destination — but to Rome. St. John Chrysostom was especially desirous of making a pilgrimage to the city where SS. Peter and Paul worked and were martyred. He wrote:
For if when here he [St. Paul] loved men so, that when he had the choice of departing and being with Christ, he chose to be here [Rome], much more will he there display a warmer affection. I love Rome even for this, although indeed one has other grounds for praising it, both for its greatness, and its antiquity, and its beauty, and its populousness, and for its power, and its wealth, and for its successes in war.
But let all this pass, and esteem it blessed on this account, that both in his lifetime he wrote to them, and loved them so, and talked with them whiles he was with us, and brought his life to a close there. Wherefore the city is more notable upon this ground, than upon all others together. And as a body great and strong, it hath as two glistening eyes the bodies of these Saints. Not so bright is the heaven, when the sun sends forth his rays, as is the city of Rome, sending out these two lights into all parts of the world. From thence will Paul be caught up, from thence Peter. Just bethink you, and shudder at the thought of what a sight Rome will see, when Paul ariseth suddenly from that deposit, together with Peter, and is lifted up to meet the Lord. What a rose will Rome send up to Christ! What two crowns will the city have about it! What golden chains will she be girded with! What fountains possess!
Therefore I admire the city, not for the much gold, not for the columns, not for the other display there, but for these pillars of the Church. Would that it were now given me to throw myself round the body of Paul, and be riveted to the tomb, and to see the dust of that body that “filled up that which was lacking” after “Christ”, that bore “the marks” that sowed the Gospel everywhere yea, the dust of that body through which he ran to and fro everywhere! the dust of that body through which Christ spoke, and the Light shone forth more brilliant than any lightning… [see the rest of this homily off the relics page]
Pilgrim routes also arose toward Compostela, Spain where the relics of St. James the Greater are preserved. So popular was this pilgrimage — known as “El Camino de Santiago” — that Compostela became the third largest pilgrim destination, just after Jerusalem and Rome. Over a half a million pilgrims a year visited during the 11th and 12th centuries, the great St. Francis of Assisi among them. The cathedral in Canterbury where St. Thomas Becket was slain for putting his faith before politics was another large center of worship (Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” reveals just how the warnings of St. Jerome weren’t always heeded!). Shrines sprang up all over England and Europe until pilgrimage took on a life of its own.
The medieval pilgrim even had his own “habit” which consisted of a long smock, over which was worn a hooded cape. On his head, he would wear a broad-brimmed hat that tied under his chin, and across his chest he wore a strap from which hung a scrip to carry his money, food, and souvenirs. In his hands he carried a walking staff or, sometimes, banners, crosses, bells, or musical instruments.
‘Many of these items — the scrip, staff, and cross — were blessed, becoming sacramentals. The blessing of the scrip and staff, as given in the Catholic Encyclopedia, is as follows:
Blessing of Scrip and Staff
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.
Let us pray. O Lord Jesus Christ who of Thy unspeakable mercy at the bidding of the Father and by the Co-operation of the Holy Ghost wast willing to come down from Heaven and to seek the sheep that was lost by the deceit of the devil, and to carry him back on Thy shoulders to the flock of the Heavenly Country; and didst commend the sons of Holy Mother Church by prayer to ask, by holy living to seek, by persevering to knock that so they may the more speedily find the reward of saving life; we humbly call upon Thee that Thou wouldst be pleased to bless these scrips (or this scrip) and these staves (or this staff) that whosoever for the love of Thy name shall desire to wear the same at his side or hang it at his neck or to bear it in his hands and so on his pilgrimage to seek the aid of the Saints with the accompaniment of humble prayer, being protected by the guardianship of Thy Right Hand may be found meet to attain unto the joys of the everlasting vision through Thee, O Saviour of the World, Who livest and reignest in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Here let the scrip be sprinkled with Holy Water
and let the Priest put it round each pilgrim’s neck, saying:
In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ receive this scrip, the habit of thy pilgrimage, that after due chastisement thou mayest be found worthy to reach in safety the Shrine of the Saints to which thou desirest to go; and after the accomplishment of thy journey thou mayest return to us in health. Through, etc.
Here let him give the Staff to the Pilgrim, saying:
Receive this staff for thy support in the travail and toil of thy pilgrimage, that thou mayest be able to overcome all the hosts of the enemy and reach in safety the Shrine of the Saints whither thou desirest to go; and having obediently fulfilled thy course mayest return again to us with joy. Through, etc.
Once at their destinations, pilgrims did as pilgrims do now in leaving votive offerings, such as coins, jewels, and tokens shaped like parts of the body that had been healed or that were in need of healing. In the same way we collect Saints’ medals and Holy Cards from shrines, they collected pilgrim “signs” or “badges” which were pinned or sewed on to pilgrim hats. These badges were usually made of pewter, and their design differed according to the place or Saint venerated. The most famous pilgrim badge was (and still is) that worn by travellers to Compostela, Spain (known as “jacquaires”). There, pilgrims would collect scallop-shaped signs in honor of St. James, whose symbol is the cockleshell. In Jerusalem, the badges were shaped like two crossed palm leaves, whence comes the word “palmer” as another word for “pilgrim.” Pilgrims to Rome (known as “romeos”) would wear signs shaped like keys or the heads of SS. Peter and Paul, or a badge bearing the image found on St. Veronica’s veil. Canterbury’s pilgrims would wear a bell-shaped badge, or one bearing the likeness of St. Thomas Beckett. Those whose pilgrimages included fighting in the Crusades wore crosses with colors that indicated their place of origin: “English white, the French red, the Flemish green” [Catholic Encyclopedia].
Pilgrimage also gave birth to many of our devotions. When Islam reared its ugly head and cut off access to the Holy Land, the Franciscans responded by popularizing the Stations of the Cross, a way of “walking the steps” Our Lord took during His Passion without having to travel to Jerusalem. It is the same with the medieval use of the labyrinth as “Chemins de Jerusalem.”
According to a Zenit News Release dated 13 June 1999, the most popular places of Catholic pilgrimage today are, in order of descending popularity:
- The shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Patroness of all America, in Mexico City
- San Giovanni Rotondo in the south of Italy, where lies the body of St. Pio of Pietrelcina (“Padre Pio”)
- The Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil, where a black image of the Virgin, found on the shores of the Sao Paulo river in 1717, is venerated
- Sacré Coeur Basilica (Sacred Heart Basilica), built on a hill in Montmartre, Paris, between 1876 and 1919
- Czestochowa in Poland
- Lourdes in France
- Luján in Argentina
- Fatima in Portugal
- The Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy
- Santiago de Compostela in Spain
The release also listed these, in no certain order, as being particularly popular:
- Assisi, Italy
- Pompeii, Italy
- Loreto, Italy
- Mariatzell in Austria
- Knock in Ireland
- Saint John of the Valley in Texas
- The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington
- Yamaoussoukro in the Ivory Coast
Wherever there is a relic, wherever memory is strongly evoked, there is opportunity for pilgrimage. Consider making one — alone, with your family, with friends, through publicly-offered arrangements — whether it’s a month long pilgrimage on foot from Paris to Compostela or a day trip to a nearby shrine. For ideas as to where to go, see this page for a huge list of shrines and basilicas, and for specific information on the ever-popular pilgrimage to Compostela, see the Confraternity of St. James website (both links are offsite, will open in new browser window).
Please be aware, too, of the pilgrimages arranged by traditional Catholic groups. The annual 3-day, 72 mile walking pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres and the annual 3-day, 65 mile Pilgrimage For Restoration made from Lake George, New York to Auriesville, New York’s Shrine of Our Lady of the North American Martyrs are especially noteworthy.
…And in all your travels, may St. James the Greater (patron of pilgrims), St. Christopher (patron of travellers), and St. Frances of Rome (patroness of drivers of automobiles), keep you!
Prayer for the Road
Large public pilgrimages often begin formally, with the Mass For Pilgrims and Travellers. Some of the readings and prayers from this Mass, changed to the first person, would be perfect for individual or small group private pilgrimages, too. I offer these for you or your family:
|Hear, O Lord, my (our) humble prayers, and set Thy servant(s) in the path of Thy salvation; that amid all the changes and chances of this life, I (we) may be ever sheltered by Thy help.|
|Epistle: Genesis 28:10-12, 13-15, 18, 20-22|
|But Jacob being departed from Bersabee, went on to Haran. And when he was come to a certain place, and would rest in it after sunset, he took of the stones that lay there, and putting under his head, slept in the same place. And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and descending by it; And the Lord leaning upon the ladder, saying to him: I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land, wherein thou sleepest, I will give to thee and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth: thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and thy seed all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed. And I will be thy keeper whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land: neither will I leave thee, till I shall have accomplished all that I have said. And Jacob, arising in the morning, took the stone, which he had laid under his head, and set it up for a title, pouring oil upon the top of it. And he made a vow, saying: If God shall be with me, and shall keep me in the way by which I walk, and shall give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, And I shall return prosperously to my father’s house: the Lord shall be my God: And this stone, which I have set up for a title, shall be called the house of God: and of all things that thou shalt give to me, I will offer tithes to thee.|
Gradual or Tract, and Alleluia
|Gospel: Matthew 10:7-14|
|And going, preach, saying: The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils: freely have you received, freely give. Do not possess gold, nor silver, nor money in your purses: Nor scrip for your journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff; for the workman is worthy of his meat. And into whatsoever city or town you shall enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and there abide till you go thence. And when you come into the house, salute it, saying: Peace be to this house. And if that house be worthy, your peace shall come upon it; but if it be not worthy, your peace shall return to you. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words: going forth out of that house or city shake off the dust from your feet.|
|Perfect Thou my (our) goings in Thy paths, that my (our) footsteps be not moved: incline Thy ear unto me (us), and hear my (our) words: show forth Thy wonderful mercies, Thou Who savest them that trust in Thee, O Lord.|
One Final Note on Prayer for the Road: “Plastic Jesus”
You may recall a popluar song called “Plastic Jesus” which starts with the lyrics
I don’t care if it rains of freezes
‘Long as I got my Plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car.
Through my trials and tribulations
And my travels through the nations
With my Plastic Jesus I’ll go far.
Plastic Jesus! Plastic Jesus,
Riding on the dashboard of my car.
— and ends up with with words that are too cynical and sacrilegious-sounding for Catholic sensibilities. The song, written by Ed Rush and George Cromarty and heard in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), is based on an African-American spiritual (“I don’t care if it rains or freezes, leaning on the arms of my Jesus”), but the “plastic Jesus” twist on the lyrics comes from a Catholic practice.
In 1955, Father Gregory Bezy, a member of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, founded the Sacred Heart Auto League after he lost his niece and nephew in a car accident. His intention was to encourage Catholics to drive mindfully and prayerfully, asking the Sacred Heart to protect them. Members of the Sacred Heart Auto League have their cars blessed and make the following pledge:
I pledge to drive prayerfully and carefully in an effort to insure my own safety as well as the safety of others; I further pledge to offer my travel time in a spirit of reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; In so pledging I confidently beseech the special blessing of the Sacred Heart as a promise of divine graces and favors.
As a sign of their membership in the League, members were, at one time, given small plastic figures of the Sacred Heart to place on their dashboards to remind them of their pledge while travelling. The Sacred Heart Auto League has since replaced the “plastic Jesus” with key rings, stickers, and visor clips.
People often mock such things and chalk it all up under the label “Catholic kitsch,” used as a perjorative, as though the things that regular people can afford and get some benefit from is just something to ridicule. But it’s all in the attitude (and it’s one thing to be a rich manufacturer non-chalantly making poorly-made items with no care at all to beauty or the lack thereof, or to the possibility of cheapening the image of Our Lord, just to make a quick buck; and it’s another to be a poor person whose poverty precludes buying more artistic items and who cherishes what he can afford to buy to help reminded him of Jesus). While certainly images for devotional use should be as lovely, nice, and tasteful as possible (and we should be mindful of our image as witnesses for Christ), and while implements for liturgical use must be precious and artful, if a “plastic Jesus” reminds you to pray to the Sacred Heart while driving in your car, then power to you.
Sacred Heart League’s Driver’s Prayer
God our Father, you led Abraham from his home and guarded him in all his wanderings. You guided him safely to the destination You had chosen for him. Be with us now as we travel. Be our safety every mile of the way. Make us attentive, cautious and concerned about our fellow travelers. Make our highways safe and keep us from all danger. Guide us to our destination for today, and may it bring us one day closer to our final destination with You. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Contact Information for the Sacred Heart League:
Sacred Heart Auto League
Walls, MS 38686 U.S.A.
1Though Constantine came to gratitude to Christ after his vision, he was still influenced by paganism, even as he outlawed divination and magic. He grew into the faith over time and was not baptized until just before his death in May of A.D. 337.
2 One constantly hears that Constantine established Christianity as a “state religion” with this Edict, but that is entirely untrue. The Edict merely granted tolerance of Christianity (and of paganism), ended the persecutions of Christians, and restored property stolen from Christians.
3 Among the most famous pilgrims who weren’t Church Fathers was Egeria, the 4th c. nun who left her convent near the Rhone River to make a four-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She wrote back to her Sisters about what she saw in letters that became the book known as “Itinerarium Egeriae.” In the late 14th – early 15th century, there was Margery Kempe, the rather odd, hyper-emotional, mystically-oriented, and, perhaps, heresy-prone mother of fourteen who went on pilgrimage after her father died and she and her husband entered into a sexually-continent marriage arrangement. Her account of her travels — “The Book of Margery Kempe” — is often hailed as the first autobiography in the English language.
5 Funds sent to the Sacred Heart Auto League funds go to support the ministries and missions of the Priests of the Sacred Heart (one of their works is to fund movies they consider worth producing, one such movie being — maybe the only such movie being — “Spitfire Grill” (1996), starring Amy Elliot, Ellen Burstyn, Marcia Gay Harden, and Will Patton). If you write to them, or to almost any Catholic mission or charity, you’ll definitely end up on a mailing list.