The Oxford English Dictionary defines a pilgrimage as being ‘a journey to a sacred place for religious reasons. ‘ Many Roman Catholic Christians feel that going on a pilgrimage makes them feel more aware of God. They have time to deepen their understanding of God by experiencing the places connected with the life of his son, Jesus Christ and time to talk to Him about the things they are concerned about. This may be to fulfil a vow made to God to participate in the pilgrimage, knowing that He will answer their prayers.
The prayers may ask God to physically cure someone of a disability or sickness or to spiritually heal a person, to forgive them, to help them overcome a problem so that they can return home feeling inspired and determined to change. Through their prayers, pilgrims may also want to thank God for blessing them with the opportunity to spend their time being closer with God in spiritual surroundings. I will now look at two places of pilgrimage Lourdes, France and Rome, Italy to explore the possible reasons as to why some Roman Catholics do decide to go on pilgrimage.
Lourdes stands at the foot of the Pyrenees and is perhaps the most commonly visited of the destinations of pilgrimage. Each year over five million people visit Lourdes, many of whom are sick or disabled. There are many reasons as to why people go there, one of the most obvious ones is what actually happened there. On the 11th of February 1858, fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous found herself wandering the riverbank to a place called Massabielle. It was here that she saw the lady dressed in white, wearing a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot.
Today stands a marble statue of the Lady, set in the niche above the cave. It is of the exact description given to the Sculptor by Bernadette. The reason people had believed Bernadette was when during the sixteenth apparition Mary appeared to Bernadette and told her, “Que soy era immaculada conceptiou” meaning “I am the Immaculate Conception,’ chosen at birth to be free from sin. Due to Bernadette having a very basic education, she clearly would not have known the phrase, so when she quoted the term said, to the Priest, he at once believed her vision of Mary.
The Grotto was only an ordinary place where pigs feed until the Virgin Mary had appeared to Bernadette. Considering that the Grotto has connections to Mary makes it an important place for a Roman Catholic Christian to go to. It is a place of quiet for those that go there to think and pray. The Crypt, the Rosary Church and the large Basilica of the Immaculate Conception were built high above the grotto where Bernadette’s vision took place. As they enter the grotto, it is common for pilgrims to touch or kiss the walls. This is to pay homage to Mary who appeared there.
Masses are celebrated at Lourdes to allow more time for prayer and reflection. Normally, visitors light candles there, which are symbolic of our belief that Jesus is the light of the world, through the burning candle we can feel the presence of God. Lourdes is a momentous place to pray for the sick. Candles aid in prayer when asking for the help of others suffering. Prayer should be important to Roman Catholics as Jesus also prayed at times of need, for example when he “went up a hill to pray and spent the whole night praying to God” (Luke 6:12).
An important part of pilgrimage is following the procession of the Blessed Sacrament. The Blessed Sacrament is the wafer of unleavened bread consecrated in the Mass and is the Body of Christ. It is placed in a monstrance and held aloft by the Bishop so that everyone can see it. Another procession followed in Lourdes is the Torchlight procession that occurs every night around the grotto. It has been practised for over one hundred years, representing the movement of humanity to God and done in darkness with the lighting of candles. Everyone is welcome and no one is left out.
Those who are sick are not marginalized, they sit or lay up front and are treated with care and respect. Following the Stations of the Cross is another popular practice to be doing. It is here that we remember Jesus’ journey, his last steps to death. Although the statues are obviously not what the people (in this case Jesus) looked like, they give us the feeling of closeness and a feeling of their presence, just by looking at them. They remind us that even though Jesus was the Son of God, he came down from Heaven to become one of us and to suffer like us.
We kneel on each of the steps, praying for the forgiveness of our sins, thanking him that they can now be taken away. One of the most experienced practices on the trip to Lourdes is the drinking of the water from the spring and the washing in the baths. On the 25th of February, the lady told Bernadette to scratch into the ground close by and it was here where fresh water appeared. Many people are reminded of Our Lady’s command to Bernadette to go and wash in the spring from the grotto.
Still traditional today when visiting the Grotto is to taste the water or bathe in it because it is believed to be special or holy, having healing powers. There have been sixty-four examples of miraculous cures recorded (the latest, two years ago) as a result of visiting Lourdes and drinking or washing in the water. This again strengthens the faith of Roman Catholics when deciding to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes as they know it is the work of God. Many people on pilgrimage are brought closer together during the picnics where they can share the spiritual closeness of God with everyone.
At the outdoor masses there are phenomenal views of thousands, holding hands, singing, sharing food and simply being happy. Many of the people there are disabled or ‘red caps’ who have come to help them. Even though many people go to Lourdes in hope that someday they will be cured of their illness, many continuously keep returning to Lourdes because of the irrepressible sense of love, peace and community spirit that would not usually be experienced in the same way at home. Another place of pilgrimage that millions of pilgrims flock to each year is Rome in Italy.
The Vatican is immediately notable for being the place in which you can find the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a significant place for Roman Catholic Christians to visit Rome, as it is the place where our faith centres. In Matthew 16: 18-19 Jesus gave Peter the title ‘rock’. It is believed that this word describes Peter being the founder of Christianity and so the first Pope, ‘You are rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church. ‘ It is also ironic of the belief that Saint Peter was buried in the Vatican at the place where the Church of Saint Peter can be found today.
It is not known whether our belief is correct or not, however it is thought to be true because of Saint Peter talking of ‘Babylon’, an expression used to describe Rome (1 Peter). The importance of St. Peter makes the Vatican a special place to be visited by a pilgrim. In Matthew 16:13 Peter says, ‘You are the Christ, the son of the living God. ” It was him who recognised Jesus as being the ‘Messiah’. He rose the awareness in people about Jesus being divine. As pilgrims to the Vatican we hope that we too, feel more conscious of Jesus and identify his virtue.
When Peter denied knowing Jesus three times (Matthew 26: 69-75), he showed a true human emotion, selfishness. Peter is a good example to all Christians to never loose faith, particularly at times when others are in need. In visiting the Vatican people can pray to recognise our weaknesses and to gain spiritual strength to overcome it like Peter did. It is believed that in 64 AD Emperor Nero decided to blame the Christians, (who were not approved of at the time, as they wouldn’t worship the Roman Gods), for his actions to set fire to the city of Rome. It is said that Nero killed many Christians, even burning some to death in his gardens.
Peter is believed to have been martyred in Rome for his faith as well. Some people may feel that it is important to visit the territory of the Papal State, the area where Nero had his gardens as it can teach pilgrims the spiritual strength of those that died and can help pilgrims to empower their faith. Visiting a place such as the Catacombs where many Christians met to worship when they were being persecuted and where many where buried underground in the first four centuries AD, may encourage people to feel stronger about their faith knowing that we are able to worship without being punished for it.
Going to the Vatican, it is very likely to visit La Piazza Di San Pietro (St Peter’s Square), which lies before the Basilica of St Peter. The square was initially intended to be a place in which Roman Catholicism could portray its love for all people on Earth. As in Lourdes with the picnics, St. Peter’s square too provides the same sense of unification when listening to the Pope as a large group of people. This too can empower the faith, knowing that so many people are believers and have devoted their time to listen to the Pope.
In the Basilica there is a statue of the Virgin Mary and the crucified body of Jesus, known as the “Pieti?? “, which means sadness or grief. The statue gives us a feeling of their presence, a feeling of closeness and a deeper understanding of the feelings involved. Many pilgrims may also visit the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted the ceiling. Working high above the chapel floor, lying on his back on scaffolding he devoted himself to painting the creation story between 1508 and 1512, which is significant of our religion as it gives us an idea as to where we came from.
One of the main attractions for any visitor to Rome is the Colosseum, one of the most interesting and well known monuments. With the coming of Christianity, gladiatorial battles were forbidden at the beginning of the 5th Century and animal hunting in the next century. This can be a great inspiration to Roman Catholic Christians, as when you go on pilgrimage you do not necessarily have to visit a place of religious significance to see the works of Christianity.
The Arch of Constantine, (dedicated in 316 AD) a memorial to Emperor Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge is said, that he believed Jesus had given him the victory. In 313 AD the Emperor Constantine recognised Christianity as an acceptable religion of the Roman state. This encouraged many other people to follow Christ or to not be afraid to. A pilgrimage to Rome is more of the hope for a spiritual healing than a physical healing like in Lourdes. It is going to such a place like Rome that we can begin to understand the sacrifices people made for their religion and beliefs.
Evaluation ‘All Christians whatever their denomination should be encouraged to make pilgrimage at least once in their lives. ‘ Pilgrimage is not a compulsory Christian practice but it is very popular. As Christians we share the belief in Jesus Christ and follow his teachings, so it is fair to say that as followers we should live by the example he has set for us. The Bible contains two examples showing that Jesus too, went on pilgrimage during his life. Luke 4: 1-13 explains that before Jesus began his preaching he went to the desert.
This was a different place where there were no distractions so that he could focus on prayer. Jesus wanted the strength to carry out his duty to teach people to live according to the way God wants us to. Another example is Mark 14: 32-42 which describes Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane alone when he was fearful of his oncoming death. Sometimes like Jesus we need to get away to think and to pray to God about the problems that we face in our everyday lives and to ask for the courage to go on.
Pilgrimages are specifically dedicated to people who like Jesus, want to devote their time to prayer and reflection. In places of pilgrimage it is common to see people trying to live the way Jesus did. People travelling in groups may feel that they are able to be part of a community, where everybody has the same belief and a similar goal when going on a pilgrimage i. e the renewal of faith, to spiritually grow.
Not everyone that goes on pilgrimage goes for his or her own benefit: many people give their time up to go to such places because they want to help those that may need them (e. . the red caps who help the disabled). In doing this they are ‘loving their neighbour’, the way God intended. When returning from pilgrimage, people have often commented on the sense of happiness that followed them home, and their problems being left behind. The prayers said during their pilgrimage may have been asking God to physically cure someone of a disability or sickness or to spiritually heal a person, to forgive them, to help them overcome a problem so that they can return home feeling inspired and determined to change.
Even though many of the reasons stated are believed to encourage people to go on pilgrimage there are some reasons that may make us believe that there isn’t much point in going on a pilgrimage. Although there are examples of Jesus going away to pray, the Bible does not state that it is necessary to go on a pilgrimage, it doesn’t say you are any less of a Christian if you don’t go. Although the places of pilgrimage are associated with religious figures such as Jesus, Mary and other Saints, we are taught that God is everywhere and can be experienced anywhere.
Many people find that pilgrimage is expensive and find it is not really worth it as we can practice many aspects experienced through pilgrimage, during our everyday lives. We do not need to go away to spend time helping those that need us when we can do it at home. Going on retreats and reflection days can also be experienced without travelling away from home. A few people may find that Pilgrimage is meaningless if they do not get anything out of it and if the people who they met had no impact on their life at all.
Having looked at both sides of the argument I think that Christians should be encouraged to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lives. Even though it can be expensive, I think it is worth for a follower of Christ to go to places associated with his life. You can’t really get away to fully concentrate and devote your time to God without going on a pilgrimage. If Jesus found it important to get away to pray then it should be important for his followers to do the same.