Externals of the Catholic Church – Pilgrimages

The old Tabard Inn and Chaucer’s motley band of travelers – old-world shrines with glowing lamps and throngs of pious worshippers – plodding wayfarers on lonely roads, “with scrip and staff and sandal shoon” – princes and “knights of high degree” journeying in beggar guise to Eastern lands to kneel at the Saviour’s sepulchre – such are the visions that rise before us when we speak of pilgrims and pilgrimages.

The pious practice of making journeys to distant shrines, of arousing or increasing devotion by visiting a holy place, is by no means exclusively Catholic. It has its origin in the fact that religious impressions naturally become stronger in the places that have been hallowed by religious events. We know that mere change of scene has a stimulating effect on the mind of man; and that when the place visited is one of historic interest, it brings before the mind, more vividly than would a printed page, the events that have made it famous. What is true of merely natural impressions is even more true of those that are religious and devotional. To .behold with our own eyes the very places that were once sanctified by the living presence of our Blessed Saviour; to kneel at the shrines that were the scenes of apparitions of the Blessed Mother of God; to join in the prayers of assembled thousands, of every rank and condition, from the remotest parts of the earth – all this is full of inspiration for the pious mind; all this fills the soul with a religious fervor and exaltation that could hardly be attained elsewhere.

The Shrines of Other Creeds

In nearly every form of religion it has been found that journeys to supposedly holy places are a very potent help to devotion. The place where the god or the hero had lived or had wrought some mighty deed, or where wonders were supposed to be vouchsafed in answer to prayer, became the goal of pious worshippers.

The Jewish law imposed upon the heads of families as an obligation a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the celebration of certain great festivals. The Romans had their shrines of Jupiter Capitolinus at Rome, of Apollo at Delphi, of Diana at Ephesus. To visit Mecca at least once in his lifetime is the ambition of the pious Mussulman. The great temples of India have their countless throngs of worshippers who have come to offer their homage to the Hindoo gods and to pray at the shrines of Buddha.

In encouraging the making of pilgrimages, then, our Church has made use of a practice which has produced good results in other creeds. In all her history pious pilgrims have journeyed to distant shrines. The early Christians longed to see the cave of Bethlehem and the grotto of the Sepulchre; and almost from the time of our Lord’s ascension they came in endless procession to Palestine, even from the outposts of Christendom. A pilgrimage to the Holy Places was often the fulfilment of a vow, and sometimes the performing of an imposed penance. And as the centuries rolled on, places of devotion were multiplied in every Christian country. Scenes of apparitions, hermitages of saints, churches which possessed the treasured relics of apostles and martyrs – everywhere these became the centres of pilgrimages. And, in answer to the fervor and faith of those who prayed at these shrines, God’s mercy and power were undoubtedly manifested in many miracles.

The Results of Pilgrimages

Important natural benefits have also resulted from the wanderings of the pious pilgrims of the Middle Ages. A knowledge of geography and languages, an increase of commerce, the spreading of religion and science, and the founding of certain religious orders were the results of this intercommunication of men from all parts of Europe; and the desire of being able to visit Palestine unmolested by Moslem hordes was one of the principal motives for the Crusades. The humble pilgrim who vowed a journey to the Holy Sepulchre was the forerunner of the lordly knight who set lance in rest that the sacred places of Christendom might be freed from Paynim rule.

In the Middle Ages the practice of going on pilgrimages became so common that it grew at times into an abuse. Thousands of pilgrims hastened from country to country, neglecting their duties to home and family – duties which, if fulfilled, would be, doubtless, far more profitable to their souls than prayers offered at this shrine or that. The author of the “Imitation of Christ” declares: “Who wanders much is little hallowed.” Long before, the great Saint John Chrysostom had not hesitated to say that “there is need for none to cross the sea or fare upon a long journey; let each of us at home invoke God earnestly, and He will hear our prayers”; and Saint Jerome, speaking of the pilgrimages to the Holy Places, gave utterance to a phrase that has become a proverb: “From Jerusalem and from Britain heaven is equally open.”

Recommended by the Church

But this does not mean that pilgrimages are in themselves useless. If abuses be guarded against, our holy Church favors and recommends them. She looks upon them as an excellent means of devotion and penance, and of consequent purification and spiritual benefit; and even in this material age the pilgrimage, as an expression of faith and religious zeal, has by no means fallen into disuse.

Does the Church ever require us to make pilgrimages? Not at the present day; for she looks upon them as being in no way necessary, though sometimes advisable. God is everywhere, and He is not to be sought exclusively in one place; His mercy and love, in answer to our prayers, may be manifested in our own homes and churches as benignly as at Lourdes or Saint Anne de Beaupre. But nevertheless, our Church approves and recommends pilgrimages as a useful means of devotion, because she recognizes the fact that God has often granted and still grants favors in the form of graces, miracles and worldly blessings at particular places, as a reward for the perseverance and fervor of those who have journeyed thither, and as an aid in increasing the devotion of the faithful to our Blessed Lord, to His Virgin Mother, and to His servants who are specially honored at certain shrines.

Some Shrines of Pilgrimage

While it will not be possible here to make any extended reference to the various pilgrim-shrines of the world, we can at least mention a few of the most famous. The land hallowed by the life and death of our Blessed Lord has always been pre-eminently the “Holy Land” for all Christians. And, next to the sacred places of Palestine, the Vatican hill where “the vast and wondrous dome” marks the spot where rests the body of the Prince of the Apostles, has long been the goal of pilgrim devotion. In many parts of the earth, in the New World as well as the Old, are churches erected in honor of the Blessed Mother of God, which have become centres of devotion; for example, La Salette in France, Guadalupe in Spain, the Mexican shrine of the same name, and, greatest of all, Lourdes – where a million visitors journey every year to pay their homage to Mary Immaculate and to profit by her intercession. And other saints have been honored as well by the zeal of devout pilgrims. England cherishes the memory of the martyred Becket at Canterbury; Spain has its shrine of Saint James the Apostle at Compostella; Ireland has its “Saint Patrick’s Purgatory” in bleak Donegal. In our own country a pilgrim-shrine has been established at Auriesville, New York, where three heroic Jesuits were tortured and slain by the savage Mohawks. Canada has its famous Beaupre, where the intercession of “la bonne Sainte Anne” is sought by thousands; and in several places that are nearer to us the votaries of the gracious mother of the Virgin seek alleviation of suffering by offering prayers before her altar.

We see, then, that the old simple Catholic faith is as strong now as it was in those dim days of long ago when in their thousands, along the roads of Europe or over the stormy seas to Palestine, the pious pilgrims journeyed, filled with an ardent desire to see the places hallowed by the Saviour, to kneel at sacred shrines, to offer their fatigue and sufferings as an expiation for their sins, and to secure the mercy of God and the intercession of the saints by fervent prayer.