‘We are pilgrims on a journey…’
So we sing in the Servant Song. But what do we mean by ‘pilgrim’? Will the thousands of ‘pilgrims’ coming to Aotearoa New Zealand next June en route to World Youth Day in Sydney behave any differently from tourists? A look at the origins and benefits of pilgrimage may help us all prepare for this season of grace fast approaching.
Pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place for a religious purpose. Because of the incarnation, the fact that God became human in the person of Jesus, the places associated with his life and death became important for Christians.
The Old Testament mentions several pilgrimage centres, e.g., Bethel, where Jacob’s vision took place, and Gibeon, where Solomon went to pray for wisdom after being anointed king, but it was the Temple in Jerusalem which eventually became the most important shrine in Judaism. In fact, the people were required to make three annual pilgrimages to the Temple for the feasts of Passover/Unleavened Bread, Weeks/Pentecost, and Booths/Tabernacles. It was on these journeys that they would have sung psalms full of joy and anticipation—24, 84, 118, 120-134.
In the New Testament Jesus makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Festival. Pilgrimages were dangerous and people travelled in groups for support and safety. Luke tells of Mary and Joseph anxiously looking for the missing boy, Jesus, among the other pilgrims (Luke 2:42-52). When the Temple was virtually destroyed by the Romans in 70CE, pilgrimage for Jews became a journey to pray at the Western Wall, the only remaining piece of the Temple.
The journey metaphor is very strong throughout the bible, beginning with Abraham and Sarah’s journey in response to God’s call to leave their homeland (Gen12:1-3). In general, however, the New Testament spiritualises the notion of pilgrimage, portraying the Christian life itself as a journey towards heaven.
It was not until the conversion to Christianity of Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena that going on a pilgrimage finally became popular. Helena, with a vast number of pilgrims in tow, visited the Holy Land in 326 AD. Constantine had basilicas built at places associated with the life of Jesus.
Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, promoted the idea of pilgrimage and decided that journeying to the Holy Land, and Jerusalem in particular, was to be a central aspect of Christian piety. Indeed, in the Middle Ages the Crusades (sanctioned by the pope) began as an attempt to maintain the rights of Christians to visit the holy places after Palestine came under Muslim control. Christianity has never insisted on pilgrimage as a religious duty, but the desire of Christians of all denominations to visit the Holy Land is still strong today.
The first recorded pilgrimage was that by an anonymous pilgrim who journeyed from Bordeaux to the Holy Land in 333. A Spanish woman, Egeria, described her journey to the Holy Land between 381 and 384 in a letter to a group of women friends.
Other destinations also became popular for pilgrims. The tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul in Rome, James in Compostela (Spain) and various shrines honouring Mary Magdalene were visited frequently.
Because of the loss of the Holy Land in the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries, many more pilgrimage sites emerged throughout Europe in later medieval times. Instead of going to the Holy Land, pilgrims would visit the shrine of a saint for inspiration about Christian living and to ask for prayers. Miracles were associated with these prayers and still are, for example, Lourdes.
A system of indulgences developed which basically meant that if you went on a pilgrimage you could strike off some of the time you deserved in purgatory. (How anyone knew how much time that they had accrued is highly debatable!) Of course, the system was open to abuse and dubious financial practices arose which helped to bring about the Reformation.
(See Dante’s Divine Comedy, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress for a classic treatment of the idea of pilgrimage.)
Nine benefits of pilgrimage
1. An important aspect of traditional pilgrimage was the penitential attitude it involved. Pilgrims had to leave their homes for many months and travel by mule through often dangerous territory. Leaving behind the comforts of home also meant leaving a sinful past and today the sacrament of reconciliation is always available at shrines such as Lourdes, and at World Youth Day (WYD).
2. In the Middle Ages pilgrimages gave pilgrims a chance to reassess priorities and experience personal transformation. Built into pilgrimages today are times of silent prayer to foster the retreat aspect.
3. Pilgrimages of the past were always associated with almsgiving. Beggars often waited at the gates of shrines. WYD will no doubt include many opportunities for solidarity with the poor.
4. Pilgrimages of the past provided an opportunity to expand horizons. Hopefully, the journey to Sydney will enable pilgrims to ‘see beyond’, to catch a glimpse of the ‘more than’ to which God may be calling them in order to make and be the difference in today’s Church and world.
5. Pilgrimages of the past were wonderful occasions of hospitality. This has its roots in the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who offered hospitality to Jesus. There will be countless opportunities for WYD pilgrims to receive and extend hospitality and encounter the Risen Christ who will make their hearts ‘burn within them’.
6. Pilgrimages of the past were community-forming experiences. Rituals celebrated along the way and at the pilgrimage site itself ensured that relationships were forged and deepened (See psalm 122).
7. As in earlier pilgrimages, communal celebrations will be a big part of WYD with Eucharist, of course, being at the heart. While reality for young adults is normally booming, buzzing, fast-paced and fragmented, WYD pilgrims will experience Catholic spirituality at its integrating best in liturgy that moves, inspires and challenges them.
8. The earliest Christian pilgrimage was the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), the route Jesus took from Pilate’s house to Golgotha. Thousands of Christians still walk this route. Many WYD pilgrims will wear a cross. A universal symbol, the cross speaks of the extremes of love and suffering and the ‘more than’. There is no escaping its reality in our lives. Many who carried the WYD Cross throughout New Zealand would have found this a transforming experience. It was a way to remind them of the cross’s centrality in a life lived to the full and a love outpoured totally.
9. Many young people today are searching for a place to belong in an increasingly fragmented world. Pilgrimage with its rich tradition enables them to achieve a wholeness and integration that they cannot do alone. WYD will enable pilgrims to experience a Catholicism highlighting the devotional, the emotional and the communal, rather than the doctrinal, the intellectual and the private. Perhaps it is what they need to experience a sense of belonging. But for the majority of young adult Catholics, the Church is completely irrelevant. In our eagerness to support WYD pilgrims we must not forget the majority.
The second part of Sr Elizabeth’s reflection on pilgrimage will appear in next month’s Wel-com.
The photo shows pilgrims walking the WYD Cross through Wellington’s Civic Square en route to Parliament, June 2007.