A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place for a religious motive: to ask for a favor, discharge, an obligation, or give thanks. Why do people make pilgrimages? The theologian Lagrange suggests it is an instinctive movement of the human heart. Man-made for God seeks something of the spiritual. True of all ages. Look at Delphi, Thebes, Titicac, Mecca, Benares, Guadalupe, Montserrat. For the Jews, Jerusalem was the place for their annual pilgrimage. When Jesus was 12, He accompanied His parents in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For Christians, the Holy Land, where Jesus was born, lived, and died was a natural attraction. Then came Rome where Peter and Paul were martyred, then the monasteries of Egypt. Places of Martyrdom where people shed their blood for the faith became places of pilgrimages. We all know of LaSalette, Lourdes, Fatima, and Medjugorje. St. Jerome wrote, “Just as one understands Greek history better when one has seen Athens, so we understand Scripture better when we have seen Judea with our own eyes.” St. John Chrysostom wrote, ” If we were freed from my Episcopal labors and my body was sound of health, I would eagerly make a pilgrimage to see the chains that held Paul captive, the prison where he lay, to gaze on the dust of the great apostle, the dust of the lips that thundered, of the hand that fettered, of the eyes that had seen the Master. This idea isn’t anything new. How many people hurried across the seas to Arabia to see and venerate the dunghill of Job.”
There were people who felt families of pilgrims were neglected, that there was exaggerated credulity given to relics and legend, and sometimes there was sinful conduct. The Imitation said, “Who wanders much are but little hallowed.” St. Jerome who lived in Jerusalem for thirty years warned “It is not the fact of living there well, that is worthy of praise.” St. Augustine said, “Honor the Saints not with your feet but with your heart. You can reach the court of heaven just as well from Britain as from Jerusalem.” St. Thomas Moore wrote a treatise in defense of pilgrimages. There is never a pilgrim who returns home without one less prejudice and one new idea.”
Pilgrimages are a part of our history – Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, hospices for shelter, Knights Hospitaller for protection, all-night vigils, Scala Sancta, memorial churches, e.g. of Constantine, the life of St. Helena, Jubilee Year, votives… In the last century and a half, devotion to Mary has played a very significant role in pilgrimages. There are many places of pilgrimage across Canada in every province. There are four National Shrines: Ste. Anne de Beaupre, Cap d’Madeline, St Joseph’s Oratory, Martyrs’ Shrine Midland.
Pilgrimages draw people to God. Pilgrims are supported by numbers. Through their prayers sacrifices and the sacraments, they become better living Christians. For many, a shrine is a place of healing where one finds peace of soul. A shrine has a way of responding to the deepest need of the human heart, its search for God.
Pope John Paul II, himself a pilgrim to many shrines, has written, “Pilgrimages are a basic phase of evangelization. You have in pilgrimages a key to the religious future of our times.”.
~From the Martyrs’ Shrine
The pilgrimage to the Holy Places thus becomes a highly meaningful experience and in a sense is evoked by every other Jubilee pilgrimage. The Church cannot forget her roots.
As St. John Paul II explained,
“Pilgrimages, a sign of the condition of the disciples of Christ in this world, have always held an important place in the life of Christians. In the course of history, Christians have always walked to celebrate their faith in places that indicate a memory of the Lord or in sites representing important moments in the history of the Church. They have come to shrines honoring the Mother of God and those who keep the example of the saints alive. Their pilgrimage was a process of conversion, a yearning for intimacy with God, and a trusting plea for their material needs. For the Church, pilgrimages, in all their multiple aspects, have always been a gift of grace”
(The Pilgrimage in the Great Jubilee from the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerants, April 25, 1998, 2).
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