The act of going on a pilgrimage has a long history in Christian tradition. In the early fourth century Christians began to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land as well as the tombs of the saints and apostles in Rome as a way of reliving the experiences in these places. Great basilicas were built over many tombs and holy sites. The middle ages were the golden age of pilgrimages but in the modern period pilgrimages declined. The second half of the nineteenth century again saw a revival in this practice.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments identifies four essential traits to the spirituality of a Christian Pilgrimage. The first and most essential quality of pilgrimage points us to the end of all things in heaven. Like the journey of Israel in the Old Testament, our pilgrimage towards a shrine represents our journey towards the Kingdom. The events of the Old Testament can be likened to our own Exodus through this life to the true Promised Land, in heaven (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 286).
Another important trait involves the awareness of our sin and repentance. The nation of Israel displayed their human failings many times in the narratives of the exodus and desert wanderings. They were frequently guilty of failing to trust God and of grumbling against him. When they became aware of their frailty they cried out to God for forgiveness.
In one such incident, God punished Israel’s grumblings by inflicting seraph serpents on them, who bit people so that many of the Israelites died. “Then the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you. Pray to the LORD to take the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people” (Numbers 21:7). God then provided Moses with a sign in the form of a bronze serpent on a pole which enabled those bitten to be healed. Later Jesus compares this sign to his own crucifixion. Those who believe in the Son of Man when he is lifted up, will be healed and have eternal life (John 3:14).
Thus a pilgrimage should also have a penitential dimension which often provides an extremely favorable occasion for the faithful to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance. The very act of pilgrimage itself has been understood by the Church as a penitential act.
Yet the penitential trait of a pilgrimage points forward to our joyful response to God’s mercy and forgiveness. Having returned from a genuine pilgrimage with the intention of amending our life, and ordering it more closely to God, the pilgrim may enter into a festive dimension enjoying the joy of the Gospel with moments of friendship and Christian fraternity.
Thirdly, the pilgrimage is also essentially an act of worship: “a pilgrim goes to a shrine to encounter God, to be in His presence, and to offer Him adoration in worship, and to open his heart to Him” (Directory, 286). At the place of pilgrimage, the pilgrims’ faith is moved through many prayers of praise and adoration drawn from popular piety.
Very fittingly, there is also an apostolic dimension to pilgrimage. The Congregation notes, “The pilgrim’s journey, in a certain sense, recalls the journey of Christ and his disciples as they travelled throughout Palestine to announce the Gospel of salvation.” This apostolic trait allows the experience of communion on Christian Pilgrimage. “The pilgrim who journeys to a shrine is in a communion of faith and charity not only with those who accompany him on the ‘sacred journey’ (cf. Ps 84, 6), but with the Lord himself who accompanies him as he once accompanied the disciples on the road to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24, 13-35)” (Directory, 286).
Pope Francis has asked that a pilgrimage to a Holy Door be made by the faithful during this Holy Year. Those not afforded the privilege of visiting the Holy Door in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica may visit those set up thoughout the world in Cathedrals and other churches. Seven sites in the diocese have been designated as Places of Pilgrimage for the special Jubilee Year. These sites include Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception; the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph; the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Conception Abbey; Sacred Heart/Guadalupe and Our Lady of Good Counsel Parishes, Kansas City; Sacred Heart Parish, Warrensburg; and Holy Rosary Parish, Clinton. Each site will have a special Holy Door for pilgrims during this year. Pope Francis notes, “The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life . . . May pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion: by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us” (MV 14).
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.