In our post on the Stations of the Cross, we explained the Origin and the true significance of the Way of the Cross. If you can recall, we made mention of the fact that in the early times, that is, few years after the crucifixion of Christ, The Stations or The Way Of The Cross, was used as a kind of substitute for pilgrims who could not make it to the Holy Land, and Jerusalem. Now, this brings us to the true meaning of Pilgrimage and the questions;
What is a Pilgrimage?
A pilgrimage is a journey that pilgrims make to a place that is considered holy. To us Catholics, a pilgrimage is more than just traveling to historic sites and viewing religious relics. It is a journey with a deeper and more spiritual meaning.
The word pilgrim comes from the Latin word “peregrinum” which means “wandering over a distance”. But, to Catholics, a pilgrimage is not purposeless wandering. It is regarded as a journey with a higher purpose. That purpose is to honor God.
One of the earliest use of the word can be found in works of Saint Augustine of Hippo. In his text, “Peregrinatio,” he described a Christian spiritual journey as a self-imposed exile of the pilgrim in which he searched for God’s truth.
Pilgrimages are steeped in religious history. It all started around 957 BC when the temple was built at Jerusalem and because of this all Jewish men were obliged to present themselves there for three major feasts. Today the Jews call these feasts the “Pilgrimage Festivals.” These feasts include:
- Pesach – The Feast of the Unleavened Bread
- Shavu’ot – The Feast of Weeks or Pentecost
- Sukkot – The Feast of Tabernacles or Festival of Ingathering
After the death and resurrection of Jesus and the spread of Christianity, Christians were motivated to follow the footsteps of their Savior, the Holy Mother, and the Apostles. Pilgrimages became a significant part of the Catholic tradition in the 4th century when Christians traveled to different places that were part of Jesus’ life or in the tombs of martyrs and saints.
What Is Its Significance?
Many devotees would visit these sites and tombs even during a time of religious persecution. This act served as a deep expression of their reverence for God. By honoring the saints, the pilgrims honored God, too.
It Is An Act of Sacrifice and Penitence
Christian pilgrimages became very popular in the Middle Ages. The pilgrims in the Middle Ages carried symbols with them like a scallop shell or a special scarf which marked them as pilgrims. The most sought after pilgrimage were those that took place in the Holy Land.
Embarking on a pilgrimage outside familiar areas in Europe was not only financially challenging, but it was also potentially life-threatening. Many robbers waited to ambush travelers in order to steal from them and there were many dangerous deserts to cross. Many pilgrims were injured or killed because of this.
From time to time, pilgrimages were required as an act of penance when someone committed a grave sin. Going on a pilgrimage involved great hardship because the sinners were asked to walk barefoot and in tattered clothing. He also had to beg for his food throughout the journey. This was definitely the stark opposite of what we imagine pilgrimages are in the modern day. There were no luxury hotels and guided tours. In fact, a pilgrimage was every bit an act of great sacrifice.
It Is A Transformative Inner Journey
A pilgrimage has moral and spiritual significance to the pilgrim. Generally, it involves embarking on a journey to a shrine or site that the pilgrim considers important in light of his faith and religious convictions. There is much to see, discover and learn from visits to these religious locations. There is also a rich, inner transformation that can be received from a pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage lets us plan and immerses ourselves in the cultural, historical and spiritual aspects of the life of Jesus and the saints.
Investing time on our spiritual health and growth is important to our lives as Catholics.
Since some pilgrimages can be done in groups it is a great opportunity for us to bond with people who share our beliefs. We can grow stronger together as one spiritual family as we deepen our understanding of the lives of different religious figures.
It Reflects The Importance of Prayer
A pilgrimage is not a vacation or holiday trip. It is a beautiful opportunity for us Catholics to grow in our faith and see the life of Jesus and the saints in a new light. Of course, there are important preparations to be made such as finances and logistics but, we must not forget that a pilgrimage is a spiritual experience so we must prepare for it spiritually as well.
Prayer is the most basic yet most important act of preparation we can do prior to the pilgrimage. Before you select your destination, pray and ask God to guide you to make the best place and sites for you to go.
After God has revealed a destination, start praying every day. Pour out whatever concerns you have about the journey and ask God to give you a humble and receptive heart and spirit.
When you arrive at the site, be in a prayerful and reflective mindset. This is a rare and important time for you to witness and feel what God has to say to you through the lives and legacies of his followers.