What Is the Point of a Pilgrimage?

What is the point of a pilgrimage? Where did this idea come from for Catholics? There is considerable evidence throughout Scripture, which supplies theological significance to the concept. Even today we see many embracing this activity with passion and the commitment of time and resources. 

While many would regard a basic definition of pilgrimage as a “journey made on foot or by other means to a site of particular religious significance,” this might be insufficient for two basic reasons that ignore the universal appeal of a pilgrimage or the pilgrim’s motivation.

Humanity inherently has a curiosity and desire to dive into certain questions. The Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) acknowledges this natural, basic curiosity of human beings to ask: “What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death?” (No. 1).

Pilgrimage is a part of many of the great religions of the world, for in religion humanity seeks the answers to the questions above. So, pilgrimage is a common human experience in which one seeks to fulfill a ritual obligation, perform an act of devotion to atone their own sins, live an experience of spirituality, or implore a grace, a miracle, a cure, etc. As profound as the reasons for pilgrimages may be, so are the destinations for them: Jerusalem (Jews and Christians), Mecca (Muslims), Sarnath (Buddhist), Banares (Hindu), Amritsar (Sikh), to name a few, plus innumerable lesser sites of historical-spiritual importance to these religions and others.

In Christianity, there are few acts of devotion as rich in history, traditions or spirituality. This is true to such a degree that the image of the pilgrimage has become a metaphorical image of life itself. We are all on a journey heavenward. Chapter VII of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) speaks of the pilgrim Church that journeys onward toward the heavenly Jerusalem. The council’s Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) says in its preface that the Church is a community of disciples “led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the kingdom of the Father.”

Pilgrimage in Scripture

The idea of a pilgrimage has an incredibly strong foundation in both the Old and New Testaments. The spiritual importance of pilgrimage is manifested often in physical journeys and trials — from Abraham’s journey of faith all the way to the missionary journeys of St. Paul.

In Genesis, we observe how God specifically summons Abram to trust Him — to leave his country, to come into God’s land, where he will inherit God’s promises that will make his innumerable descendants into a great nation.

Later, in the Letter to the Hebrews, more is said about Abraham’s pilgrimage: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God” (11:8-10).

The Bible tells of many physical journeys, especially to Jerusalem, or “Zion.” Fifteen of the Psalms were written specifically for pilgrimage to Jerusalem (see Ps 120-134). They are called the Psalms of Ascent, as the Jews would climb the steep grade up to Jerusalem, the city on the hill. The prophet Micah says, “Many nations shall come, and say, / ‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, / to the house of the God of Jacob, / That he may instruct us in his ways, / that we may walk in his paths” (Mi 4:2).

But the pivotal pilgrimage in Scripture is the Exodus — the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt — through the desert, trials, temptations and sin, ever journeying toward the Promised Land. This episode has become one of the primary models of the relationship between journeying and the life of conversion and faith.

In the New Testament, we likewise see a pilgrimage’s importance, not so much in the sense of a physical journey, but in the idea of living our current, earthly lives in a way that brings us closer to the eternal.

Even mysterious and enigmatic figures like the Three Kings are pilgrims who appear in the Gospel of Matthew after the birth of Jesus: “Behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage’” (2:1-2).

Apart from the legends, little is known about these men of great culture who came from a distant land, but they beautifully embody the idea of pilgrimage. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in the third volume of his “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy: “The Wise Men of the East … represent the setting out of humanity towards Christ, they inaugurate a procession through the whole history. They are not only the people who have found the way to Christ. They represent the interior desire of the human spirit, the encountering of religions and human reason with Christ.” With this perspective, one can see that any religious pilgrimage takes on a Christian meaning, as humanity searches for God, knowingly or unknowingly.

The Infancy Narratives include an account of a pilgrimage taken by the Holy Family: “Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom” (Lk 2:41-42). The 12-year-old Jesus stays behind in the Temple, unbeknownst to His parents, and speaks of His Father with the scholars.

After the inauguration of Jesus’ public life — following His baptism in the Jordan — His entire ministry unfolds as a pilgrimage back to Jerusalem, day after day, along the roads of Palestine.

Christ’s death on the cross has a massive effect on the evolving definition of pilgrimage. His sacrifice introduces the idea of redemption, and the temporary nature of what we experience, as we journey toward heaven.

We see this in the Gospels, or in the accounts of the apostles. They recount to us how Jesus’ death has opened the door to heaven. With this understanding we realize that the struggles we face now — trials, sufferings, temporary worries and problems — can be our sacrifices of praise as we journey toward salvation.

After His passover from death to life at the Resurrection, the community of Jesus’ first disciples, animated by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, travel throughout the world to spread the Gospel. After their martyrdoms, their tombs immediately become places venerated by the ancient Christians — most notably those of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome. “In fact, if you want to go to the Vatican or along the way to Ostia, you will find the trophies of those who have founded this Church,” the famous Church historian Eusebius writes about A.D. 200.

The official pilgrimages of the Twelve Apostles (who all died as martyrs, save St. John) branches from Spain to India to Ethiopia. Tradition relates stories, however, that associate each apostle (and also other figures of the New Testament) to a place where he died and often to where his relics are preserved.

St. John, in his Book of Revelation, reminds the faithful that our life on the earthly terrain is just a temporary state, until we get closer to that end God has envisioned.

Pilgrimage in History

The scriptural motivations for pilgrimage compel people today to experience this for themselves. But also in the Christian tradition the practice of pilgrimage has always been linked to the saints. They are especially honored in churches and shrines, especially those that preserve their bodies and tombs.

Once Christianity was legalized in A.D. 313, the paths most frequented by pilgrims draw a dense network on the European map. “Egeria’s Travels” was a primitive kind of travel diary by a devout pilgrim, written around the early part of the fifth century, which documents the practice of pilgrimage to the sites associated with Christ’s life. But later, when the Holy Land was conquered by Arabs, other routes were opened in the West.

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Rome became an important destination for medieval pilgrims and remains so today. There also is Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, where pilgrims walk along the famous Camino. It also is still a popular destination, where the relics of St. James the Great are venerated. There are many official routes from all over Europe, with specific hostels along the way for pilgrims to rest and meet one another.

From the 11th century or so, indulgences became intertwined with pilgrimages. There was an indulgence reserved for the Crusaders departing to the Holy Land with arms to protect pilgrims.

With the passing of the centuries, other places of pilgrimage become important. Around the world, especially in countries of ancient Christian tradition, sanctuaries were built in memory of a supernatural apparition, miraculous event or other spiritual or historical relevance to the lives of saints. People have traveled to them for a variety of reasons.

The list of all world destinations of pilgrimage is many thousands in number, but here are some which are visited by more than a million pilgrims every year. In addition to Rome, the Holy Land and Santiago de Compostela, it is important to highlight significant Marian shrines: Loreto in Italy, where the Holy House of Nazareth is kept; Lourdes in France, where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous and many experience physical healing; Fátima in Portugal, where this year the centenary of the apparitions to three shepherd children will be celebrated.

In the Americas, standing out for fame and number of pilgrims are the sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and the Shrine of Aparecida in Brazil. But every country has its national shrine — in the United States it is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Fruits of a Pilgrimage

Looked at from a religious perspective, a pilgrimage is a trip different than usual. It is not only for admiring masterpieces of art, although many places of pilgrimage are full of history and beauty. In days gone by pilgrims could be imagined as ragged and emaciated, willing to forgo any comfort along long roads full of dangers. But a conscientious pilgrim still chooses a certain restraint and intentionality as one chooses accommodation, food and drink, and, of course, places an importance on silence and prayer.

To experience something different from other trips, the pilgrim must be different and live differently in the simplicity of faith. Otherwise, the pilgrimage does not contribute to real change. The pilgrim moves within the geography of faith, along the path on which are scattered traces of holiness, in places where God’s grace has been shown with particular splendor and produced abundant fruits of conversion and holiness.

One goes on a pilgrimage to ask God for help needed to live more generously your own Christian vocation once back in your home, explains the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. Therefore, the pilgrimage is not, and never should be, just “a journey to a place of religious interest.” Alone or with others, it is a physical component of the path of one’s heart toward God.

Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome where she covers the pope and the Holy See.