A Parish Pilgrimage is part of the ancient practice, going back to the Old Testament, of people making journeys to holy places for particular purposes. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob journeyed to Shechem and Mamre where God made a promise to them to lead them to the “promised land.” Sinai, where Moses received God’s covenant, became for the people a place to gather for prayer. Jerusalem became a holy city, where people would journey to pray at the Temple of the Ark of the Covenant. Many of the psalms are songs which the Israelites would sing on entering Jerusalem on pilgrimage, “I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Ps 122). It became in Judaism a requirement to go to Jerusalem on pilgrimage at the Feast of Weeks, at Passover and at Pentecost.
It is clearly shown in the life of Jesus the importance of pilgrimage. Jesus made a pilgrimage when He was growing up and the climax of salvation happened whilst on pilgrimage. The Holy Spirit came with great power on the apostles whilst people from many nations were gathered in Jerusalem for the pilgrimage at Pentecost. In the fourth century Christians rediscovered pilgrimage as part of their heritage. Basilicas were built in Jerusalem on key places associated with Jesus. These quickly became centers of pilgrimage. Martyrs' tombs also became places to which Christians would make a prayer journey.
The golden era of pilgrimages was, unsurprisingly, the Middle Ages. Rome, Cologne, Santiago Compostela, Canterbury and Walsingham are but a few of the places which were not only key places of pilgrimage, but also cultural and economic centers. During the Reformation many pilgrimage centers were destroyed, yet the idea of pilgrimage remained strong in the minds of many Christians. In Chartres Cathedral a labyrinth is detailed on the floor, on which people would make an inner journey; a pilgrimage without an arduous physical journey. At the same time the Stations of the Cross were developed for those unable to walk the actual journey Jesus made in Jerusalem. These symbolic journeys are still as powerful today with the addition of the Way of Resurrection and many other aids to prayerful inner journeys. In the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s, pilgrimages had a massive revival. Journeys once made by foot or horse, taking many months and with no certainty of return, now were made by boat or by air-conditioned luxury coach. However the reality is the same, somehow Christians need these times to take stock, to be with other like-minded people and to draw closer to God.
An authentic pilgrimage means the pilgrimage begins many weeks before the day of departure…the time of preparing is all part of the journey. Preparation helps us to focus our inner being on the presence of Christ. It helps us ask the question “Why am I going?” and helps us to see our need for spiritual renewal, to thank God for something, to offer something back and to seek real forgiveness. While a Pilgrimage may be tiring and demanding on many levels, it should help us to be more active Christians, more apostolic in our everyday life and more willing to serve the needs of the people with whom we make this journey. A Pilgrimage is a unique opportunity for us to experience prayer which comes from what is deepest inside us. Only by offering ourselves in service to God and to each other can we answer for ourselves “why pilgrimage?”
~ Fr. Robert Cooper