Christians have been making pilgrimages to holy places since the beginning of Christianity. Records exist in the form of diaries and letters from the early centuries where Christians describe travelling to Jerusalem to walk in the footsteps of Christ. Pilgrimages reached a peak during the Middle Ages.
However, large numbers of pilgrims do go to various holy places today, especially with modern means of travel.
A place to pray
Making a pilgrimage to a holy place has a two-fold purpose: first, being present in a place made holy by Christ or the saints; second, immersing oneself in God through prayer. One may choose to go on a pilgrimage in thanksgiving to God for blessings received or to ask for divine help through the intercession of a saint. But always its chief goal is a desire to grow in holiness and to encounter Jesus.
A pilgrimage usually includes the sacrament of Reconciliation and the celebration of the Eucharist, along with personal prayer and contemplation. The holiness of the place and the presence of other prayerful pilgrims enhance the experience.
Usually, one is spiritually and deeply touched by the experience and comes to a closer relationship with God. Sometimes, it changes the focus of one's life.
A pilgrimage is an intensified experience of what Christian life is meant to be, that is, a spiritual journey. From birth to death, we grow and change, physically, emotionally and spiritually. We never stand still; we either go forward or backward. To live our Christian lives fully, we need to grow in our relationship to God and others through prayer and reaching out to those in need.
One of the earliest and continuing destinations for pilgrimages is the Holy Land. Christians go to Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem. They read the scriptural accounts of Jesus' life and death at the spots where these events occurred. They spend time in prayer or celebrate the Eucharist at the grotto that marks the place Jesus is believed to have been born.
They pray at the site of the crucifixion and at the tomb where Jesus was laid. They visit the building which is on the site of the Last Supper. They walk the journey of the Stations of the Cross which Jesus walked carrying his cross to Calvary.
Christians also make pilgrimages to Turkey and Greece in the footsteps of St. Paul. There, they come in touch with our Christian roots in the early churches that Paul founded and nurtured, as well as the sites of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
In this part of the world, the first Church councils took place, again reminding us of those who were instrumental in developing an understanding of our faith.
To Rome of course
Rome, the early centre of the Church, has always been a main site for pilgrimages because of its historical significance for Christianity. There, St. Peter's Basilica, the place of Peter's burial and many other churches are visited. The catacombs where early Christians buried their dead and worshipped in secret are a source of awe and inspiration.
Other places where Catholics journey on pilgrimage are shrines of Mary and the saints. Some of the most famous where Mary appeared are Lourdes (1858) and Fatima (1917). Many miraculous healings of body and spirit have occurred at these shrines. More recently, Medjugorje, where Mary is believed to have appeared for several years to young people, has become a popular destination of pilgrims.
An ancient and recently popularized pilgrimage is to Santiago de Compostela in Spain where the Apostle James is believed to be buried. Pilgrims make the long and arduous journey, walking great distances across France and Spain. Hostels for rest and nourishment have been provided along the way. Pilgrims travel alone or in one another's company. They sustain one another's faith and spirit.
There are a number of pilgrimage sites in Canada. These include St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, as well as St. Anne de Beaupre and Our Lady of the Cape in Quebec. In our own province, we have the shrine at Skaro and the pilgrimage at Lac Ste. Anne. There are lesser-known shrines all over the country.
We must remember that a spiritual pilgrimage is different from visiting a place as a tourist. During a recent pilgrimage, I spoke to a number of tourists who regretted not being given an understanding of the significance of the sites for our Christian faith and history.
So, yes, Christians have the opportunity and do visit our holy places. Reading the Bible becomes more meaningful after having read it in the places where Jesus walked and preached, where Jesus healed, forgave and loved people. With the experience of a pilgrimage, Christian life can take on a whole new purpose. Christians can and do experience a deep conversion such as that of our Muslim football players.