A pilgrimage is a journey that pilgrims make to a place that is considered holy. To us Catholics, a pilgrimage is more than just traveling to historic sites and viewing religious relics. It is a journey with a deeper and more spiritual meaning.
What is a Pilgrimage?
The word pilgrim comes from the Latin word “peregrinum” which conveys the idea of wandering over a distance. A pilgrimage is not purposeless wandering. It is a journey with a higher purpose and that purpose is to honor God.
One of the earliest use of the word can be found in works of Saint Augustine of Hippo. In his text, “Peregrinatio,” he described a Christian spiritual journey as a self-imposed exile of the pilgrim in which he searched for God’s truth
Pilgrimages are steeped in religious history. It all started around 957 BC when the temple was built at Jerusalem and because of this all Jewish men were obliged to present themselves there for three major feasts. These feasts include the Feast of the Unleavened Bread (Pesach), the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost (Shavu’ot) and the Feast of Tabernacles or Festival of Ingathering (Sukkot). Today the Jews call these feasts the “Pilgrimage Festivals.”
After the death and resurrection of Jesus and the spread of Christianity, Christians were inspired to follow the footsteps of their Savior, the Holy Mother and the Apostles. Pilgrimages became a significant part of the Catholic tradition in the 4th century when Christians traveled to different places that were part of Jesus’ life or in the tombs of martyrs and saints.
Many devotees would visit these sites and tombs even during a time of religious persecution. This act served as a deep expression of their reverence for God. By honoring the saints, the pilgrims honored God, too.
An Act of Sacrifice and Penitence
Christian pilgrimages became very popular in the Middle Ages. The pilgrims in the Middle Ages carried symbols with them like a scallop shell or a special scarf which marked them as pilgrims. The most sought after pilgrimage were those that took place in the Holy Land. Embarking on a pilgrimage outside familiar areas in Europe was not only financially challenging, it was potentially life threatening. Many robbers waited to ambush travelers in order to steal from them and there were many dangerous deserts to cross. Many pilgrims were injured or killed because of this.
From time to time, pilgrimages were required as an act of penance when someone committed a grave sin. Going on a pilgrimage indeed involved great hardship because the sinners were asked to walk barefoot and in tattered clothing. He also had to beg for his food throughout the journey. This was definitely the stark opposite of what we imagine pilgrimages are in the modern day. There were no luxury hotels and guided tours. In fact, a pilgrimage was every bit an act of great sacrifice.
A Transformative Inner Journey
A pilgrimage has moral and spiritual significance to the pilgrim. Generally, it involves embarking on a journey to a shrine or site that the pilgrim considers important in light of his faith and religious convictions. There is much to see, discover and learn from visits to these religious locations but more than the external experience, there is a rich, inner transformation that can be had from a pilgrimage.
Investing time on our spiritual health and growth is important to our lives as Catholics. A pilgrimage lets us plan and immerse ourselves in the cultural, historical and spiritual aspects of the life of Jesus and the saints.
Since some pilgrimages can be done in groups it is a great opportunity for us to bond with people who share in our beliefs. We can grow stronger together as one spiritual family as we deepen our understanding of the lives of different religious figures.
The Importance of Prayer
A pilgrimage is not a vacation or holiday trip. It is a beautiful opportunity for us Catholics to grow in our faith and see the life of Jesus and the saints in a new light. There are important preparations to be made such as finances and logistics. However, we must not forget that a pilgrimage is a spiritual experience so we must prepare for it spiritually as well.
Prayer is the most basic yet most important act of preparation we can do prior to the pilgrimage. Before you select your destination, pray and ask God to guide you to make the best place and sites for you to go.
After God has revealed a destination, start praying every day. Pour out whatever concerns you have about the journey and ask God to give you a humble and receptive heart and spirit.
When you arrive at the site, be in a prayerful and reflective mindset. This is a rare and important time for you to witness and feel what God has to say to you through the lives and legacies of his followers.
If you have been to a pilgrimage, what spiritual insights transformed you after the trip? If you haven't, are you planning to embark on a pilgrimage any time soon? What places and sites do you dream of visiting? Below are a few ideas to consider.