Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs – Pilgrimages

detail of a stained glass window of Saint James the Greater; 19th century by F X Zettler, Munich, Germany; parish church of Saint Alban, Gutenzell-Hürbel, Biberach, Germany; photographed in January 2015 by Andreas Praefcke; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

By the first centuries it was already a general custom to visit the graves of martyrs, especially on the days of their anniversaries, and to spend the whole night in prayerful vigil at their tombs.20 Whole populations of regions and cities would thus honor the martyrs in the Christian empire of Rome, in both the East and West. Since the graves of those saints were usually located out of town, this act of veneration constituted a true pilgrimage. In addition, there are hundreds of testimonies and examples in the writings of the early centuries describing private pilgrimages of individual Christians to the tombs of saints in far-distant countries.

This trend of “pilgrimage” to the martyrs’ shrines persisted beyond death in ancient Rome. People wanted to be buried as close as possible to the grave of a hero of God. In the catacombs of Rome, in Italy, France, Spain, Africa, and the Near East, wherever modern archaeologists discover or investigate the tombs of martyrs, they find the ground all around honeycombed with hundreds of Christian graves. In 1955, when Franciscan archaeologists in Nazareth excavated the surroundings of the old church of the Annunciation, they found a very large number of Loculi (burial niches), many of them still containing parts of skeletons of Christians who had been buried there from the fourth to the seventh centuries.

In medieval times the practice of pilgrimages to the saints’ tombs, or to famous shrines possessing a relic of some saint, became one of the favorite spiritual exercises of pious Christians everywhere. Dressed in pilgrims’ garb, men and women would traverse half a continent to pray at the shrine of a favorite saint. Sometimes they combined a number of such pilgrimages in one journey.

The most famous pilgrims’ goal (besides the Holy Land) has, of course, always remained the tomb of Saint Peter in Rome, together with all the other sacred places of the holy city. Next to it rank the sanctuaries of the Blessed Virgin, especially her famous national shrines in various countries. In recent times there have been added the two international centers of pilgrimages in honor of Mary: Lourdes and Fatima.

Great places of international pilgrimage in medieval times were the shrines of Saint James the Apostle (Santiago de Compostela) in Spain, the tomb of Saint Nicholas in Bari, Italy, the shrine of the “Three Holy Kings” in Cologne, and the sanctuary of Saint Mary Magdalene in Marseille.

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weiser, SJ. “Pilgrimages”. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1952. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 February 2017. Web. 24 April 2019. <>