For Lent: What links shrines and shells?

By | March 2, 2014

Large or small, these holy spots draw pilgrims to encounter God

How much water could you carry in a scallop shell?

If you were a medieval pilgrim going to the shrine of St. James (Santiago de Compostela) in northwest Spain about 1,000 years ago, that’s what you would get to drink if you begged for water during your travels.

A traditional emblem of Christian pilgrims is the scallop shell. Its use first developed around the shrine of St. James the Great due to a legend that the apostle saved a young man from drowning near the site. Also, since medieval pilgrims were expected to beg along their way to holy sites, the scallop shell came to be their tool for begging. The shell held the amount of water or food that they were allowed to ask for at any one place where they stopped.

As we begin our journey through Lent, we are like those pilgrims. The Lord spent three years on a journey that revealed the good news of God’s kingdom as he made his way to Jerusalem — which was a pilgrimage site, even in his day. But the Lord didn’t go to Jerusalem to see the sites. He went there to offer the perfect sacrifice and win our redemption for all time.

Since then, many of the places in Jerusalem and around it, where Jesus and his followers walked, have become holy sites for Christians; they are shrines of our faith.

The U.S. bishops, in their 1992 “Norms for the Designation of National Shrines,” defined shrines as holy places of faith: “From time immemorial, people have set aside places that have deep spiritual significance — where God is revealed, honored and worshipped.”

Many places where God has been revealed and worshipped have become shrines. We may often think that shrines are sites like the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela or sites like Lourdes in France or Guadalupe in Mexico. However, a shrine can be much smaller and more humble.

For example, a shrine can be a little chapel by the road, or even an alcove chapel inside a church. A side altar with a statue of Joseph or an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help can also be a shrine. People even have shrines in their homes, where they pause at times to pray.

The size of a shrine isn’t important, or even its location. In fact, a shrine can be very small. Think of what we used to call “bathtub Marys,” those outdoor shrines made from cast iron bathtubs with a statue of Mary placed inside and flowers growing around it. Many prayers were said at these little shrines.

The word “shrine” comes to us from a Latin word for a small container like a chest, especially one used for writing. What better word to describe a place to encounter God’s living word, Jesus?

What’s important about a shrine is that people are drawn to it to seek God. Church law defines official shrines — publicly sanctioned shrines — as “a church or other sacred place to which the faithful make pilgrimages for a particular pious reason with the approval of the local ordinary” (c. 1230).

Such official shrines focus on either:

  • a mystery of the Catholic faith;
  • a devotion based on authentic church tradition;
  • revelations recognized by the church;
  • the lives of those in the church’s calendar of saints.

Thus we can find shrines devoted to the sacrament of the Eucharist or to Christ’s Passion and death; to Mary or one of the saints; at the site of a reported apparition such as our local Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, or at a place dedicated to a specific prayer devotion such as the Stations of the Cross.

Shrines differ from parish churches in that they have no permanent congregations as parishes do. Also, unlike parishes, shrines do not cover a specific geographic territory, are not always subject to the local bishop (there can be national and international, as well as diocesan, shrines) and are not meant to be sites of regular celebrations of the sacraments.

Most shrines do have celebrate Mass and have confession, because pilgrims find themselves in need of the healing and strength offered by these sacraments. However, permission from the local bishop is required to have a wedding, baptism or funeral Mass at a shrine.

Shrines are places where we encounter God and grow in spiritual life. The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship tells us that the personal encounter with God that takes place at a shrine means many things to the people who journey there in faith. For them, shrines can offer:

  • a memorial to an original extraordinary event;
  • a witness to the piety and gratitude of people who have received blessings there;
  • a place of divine help and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints or beati (the blessed);
  • harmony and beauty because of their physical locations;
  • call to conversion because of what is preached at them;
  • an invitation to increased charity and works of mercy;
  • an exhortation to follow Christ;
  • a place that consolidates faith and offers refuge and consolation in affliction;
  • a particular interpretation of the Word of God;
  • encouragement to learn to direct their footsteps “towards the sanctuary of heaven.”

During Lent, we all seek at least one of these goals. Whether we travel to a shrine in a distant land or to the side chapel of our nearest church, we are sure to find refreshment that would overflow any scallop shell we might carry along with us.


Sources: 1983 Code of Canon Law; USCCB “Norms Regarding the Designation of Shrines as National Shrines”; “The Mission of Shrines” at; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy”; and


Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.  Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” will be published by OSV in March 2014.

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