Hollywood has nothing on the Bible. Seriously.
No screenwriter’s imagination or cinematographer’s vision can hold a candle to the array of wondrous tales – such as the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, the birth and crucifixion of Jesus, and Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus, among many others – that are depicted in the Scriptures.
Our minds are capable of visualizing people, places and events in extraordinary detail, and we do just that whenever we read the stories that provide the framework for our faith. Nevertheless, our “words-eye view” is nothing like actually being at the places studied and honored by Catholics worldwide for millennia. That’s why many people of faith go on pilgrimages, or journeys of spiritual significance.
What exactly does a pilgrimage encompass? It’s easier to define the term by looking at what it’s not.
“Vacations and tours are about the destination,” says Jean Chase, pilgrimage account manager at Corporate Travel Service located in Michigan. “While pilgrimages also highlight a destination, they even more importantly focus on the journey it takes to get there, both figuratively and literally. A vacation – to vacate – is an escape, a getaway; a pilgrimage is an engaging encounter that transforms the heart.”
Vacationers go to see places, to get away from it all, to relax. And while those on a pilgrimage have sights to see, the very core of this experience is to be with God – to know Him more intimately and to grow in relationship with Him. Take away the essential spiritual element and you have, well, a vacation.
Catholicism along with other religions attaches spiritual importance to particular locations: the place of birth or death of a saint or a location where a miracle has taken place or been witnessed, for example. These places are widely believed to have special spiritual powers.
Catholic pilgrims go on their journeys for a variety of reasons. For some, the journey is like a retreat, with time away from the daily grind to focus on spiritual life without distractions – a time for prayer, meditation and learning. For others, it provides a unique opportunity to pray for a special intention or offer thanks for blessings received. Still others may be seeking a new perspective on life, purifying their hearts, doing penance or simply following their faith and intuition.
“A pilgrimage has the unique power of sparking motivation, conversion of the heart and renewal in purpose for those seeking a deeper meaning in their lives,” says Chase. “The pilgrim’s experience gives a deeper dimension to ‘knowledge’ of a people, a time and a place, whose history and events have impacted the world and their faith.”
Before embarking on your pilgrimage, become familiar with your destination. Learn about its history and culture. Immerse yourself in several virtual trips via the internet. (While all roads may lead to Rome – a wonderful pilgrimage destination – these days all journeys invariably begin at Google.) Many prefer to go with a tour company that specializes in pilgrimages, and for good reason.
“Planning your pilgrimage with a trusted company or agent who has expertise in the destination adds exceptional ease to the preparation, scheduling and promotion of your pilgrimage,” Chase says, with a caveat: “Be selective! The company you choose to work with could translate an ordinary pilgrimage tour into an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime, faith-enriching experience.”
Spiritual preparation is just as important, since your journey will be rooted in spirituality and religion. For Catholics, and all Christians, the pilgrimage ultimately comes with the desire to meet Christ and become closer to God. Rather than listing your photo ops in detail, consider spending time praying and meditating in the days leading up to your journey. Or read the Gospel with friends and family members who will travel with you.
The Holy Land – including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, among other famed locales – is by far the most popular pilgrimage destination. “It’s a bucket-list destination … that provides for a personal encounter with the mysteries of our faith and salvation history,” says Chase.
Rome, the Eternal City, is another top choice among the traveling faithful. Chase notes that it connects and unites Catholics around the world, since the pontificate of Peter, the first Pope. And it’s where history, culture, art and faith unite.
Other popular pilgrimage destinations include Fatima, in Portugal; Lourdes, in France; Santiago de Compostela, in Spain; Guadalupe, in Mexico; and the Knock Shrine, in Ireland. Still, hundreds of places can fit the bill. For example, Germany alone offers more than 125 pilgrimage churches in towns and cities from Abensberg to Zwiefalten.
Once you’ve traveled thousands of miles and have arrived at a holy spot, you may say, “What now?”
It’s essential to focus on the meaning of the place and to continually understand that the entire journey itself is your pilgrimage. Approach your chosen spot as if it’s the only one on Earth that matters. At that point in time, it happens to be true. And as you walk away, know that when you get home you may never be the same again.
“Expect to be moved and inspired, and you will be surprised at how deeply your life will be enriched,” Chase says. “Those who seek, find!”