September 14, 2015

All people are pilgrims on this earth, but some choose to go on pilgrimage. My wife Nora and I will be among millions of Christians who make a physical pilgrimage this year when we leave Edmonton this fall for a hike that will begin in Lourdes, France, and end nearly 1,000 km later in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Going on pilgrimage is not an exclusively Christian pastime - Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists all make holy pilgrimages - but the Christian, mostly Catholic, spiritual exercise of pilgrimage has unique features.

Christian pilgrimages originated in the early years of the Church. As the Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire, people wanted to visit the holy sites of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Later, the devout began to make pilgrimages to Rome, not because it was the seat of the papacy but because it was the site of the martyrdom of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Only in the second millennium did Santiago de Compostela, reputedly the burial ground of St. James the Greater, emerge as the third major site for mediaeval pilgrimages.

As well, scattered around the globe are numerous sites of local pilgrimages; in the Edmonton Archdiocese, pilgrimages to Lac Ste. Anne and to the Marian grotto at Skaro occur at specific times each year and draw large crowds of the faithful.

The main reason for a Holy Land pilgrimage is obvious: Pilgrims want to know more about Jesus as a way of increasing their devotion to the redeemer of humanity. However, why people travel thousands of kilometres to visit the tomb of a saint is not so apparent.

In mediaeval times, those reasons were threefold - relics, healings and indulgences. Pilgrims sought to venerate, touch or steal a relic - preferably a part of a saint's corpse. Most often, it seems, they wanted a miracle, and stories of miraculous healings attributed to the veneration of a relic abound.


As well, one could receive an indulgence for visiting a pilgrimage site and performing other pious acts, such as going to Confession and receiving Communion. Christians believed that even thousands of years could be removed from one's time in purgatory by receiving an indulgence.

Pilgrimages were always met with some skepticism by the higher clergy, but at the Reformation, the reformers condemned them as a vile form of superstition and idolatry.

Today, while many still seek healing at pilgrimage sites, interest in relics and indulgences is a marginal part of the Catholic imagination. The contemporary pilgrimage might best be described as a geographic retreat, an effort to better put on the mind of Christ by leaving behind one's daily activities to focus totally on one's relationship with the Lord.

This brings us to the unusual case of pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, the Camino. The Camino has returned to popularity in recent decades, but more recently has enjoyed an explosion of interest in North America due in part to New Age actress' Shirley MacLaine's 2001 book The Camino and Catholic actor and director Martin Sheen's 2010 film The Way.

People walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons - religious, "spiritual," to mourn a loss or because they are looking for something to do.


The Camino also draws a crowd because it involves the expenditure of considerable physical energy. It is not as physically demanding or dangerous as were mediaeval pilgrimages, but it does have a strong aspect of self-denial, something not immediately apparent in other contemporary pilgrimages in which one flies in an airplane to the pilgrimage site, stays in a hotel, and rides in an air-conditioned bus to holy sites for several days before returning home.

I do not denigrate such pilgrimages, only state that they have a different emphasis than does the Camino. If the goal of pilgrimage is to encounter Jesus, that can happen in many different ways.

As several holy people have noted, the important thing is not the travel, but one's growth in spiritual fervour.

After making a pilgrimage there St. Jerome, spent the rest of his life in Jerusalem. However, even he said, "You can reach the court of heaven just as well from Britain as from Jerusalem."


St. Gregory of Nyssa, another father of the Church, criticized pilgrimages as a source of temptation. "Rascality, adultery, theft, idolatry, poisoning, quarreling, murder are rife," he wrote.

Nora and I will attempt to avoid such evils and to make our pilgrimage a time of drawing closer to the Lord.