Pilgrimages: More than three dimensions

By | March 30, 2014

Many things to keep in mind to gain the most from a pilgrimage

Did you know Pope Francis travels light?

According to a Catholic News Service story for the pope’s first anniversary, Pope Francis brought his own carry-on on a plane last July. Inside? A razor, a breviary, an appointment book and a book to read.

“I have always taken a bag with me when traveling — it’s normal,” he told reporters.

We should all travel light when we make a pilgrimage — be that to a local shrine or as far away as Jerusalem and especially during Lent. Remember the reason for a pilgrimage — to meet God.

The first thing to know about the how-to’s of a pilgrimage is that it is meant to have some difficulty. So traveling light means carrying along less than usual. Since we are in the season of Lent, we can relate to having a little less than usual — be that food, money given away in charity, or play time (because we give it to prayer).

Remember how, in medieval times, pilgrimages were often given as penance? While today a pilgrimage is not always for penance, we should remember that, as St. Augustine of Hippo said (in 5th century) about the spirituality of a pilgrimage: “It is solved by walking.”

“Walking is what pilgrims do; they pray with their feet,” explained Kathy Spaar, former pilgrimage coordinator at the Washington National Cathedral (Episcopalian). “The outer journey of walking leads the pilgrim inward to that deep place of stillness where one’s innermost self flows into divine life …”

Spirituality is always part of the how-to of a pilgrimage. According to the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, a pilgrimage has six distinct dimensions: eschatological, penitential, festive, worship, apostolic and communion.

Eschatological Dimension

Eschatology comes from a Greek word about life’s last things: death, heaven and hell. While on pilgrimage, we must always remember that our journey only truly ends when we die and reach our true goal: God.

As Marianist Br. John M. Samaha, who often writes about Catholic traditions, has noted, “The purpose of the pilgrimage is to guide the pilgrim ‘to the essential: Jesus Christ, the Savior, the end of every journey, and the source of all holiness.’”

Penitential dimension

For Christians, there is always a prayerful and penitential character to pilgrimages and this often includes celebrating the sacraments: especially confession and the Eucharist. While people today are not ordered to make a pilgrimage, every pilgrim should be aware of the need for forgiveness and healing. Whatever we can do to enter that frame of mind will help. As Benjamin Thorpe wrote in 19th century Britain about pilgrimages: “It is a deep penitence that a layman lay aside his weapons and travel far barefoot and nowhere, pass a second night and fast and watch much and pray fervently, by day and by night and willingly undergo fatigue.”

Festive dimension

It may seem odd to speak of a festive aspect to a pilgrimage right after talking about penance. However, the Congregation for Divine Worship notes that “the joy of a Christian pilgrimage is a continuation of the joy experienced on Israel’s pious pilgrimage to Jerusalem” which took 40 years and certainly had many hardships — and joys. The congregation also said that “pilgrimage can be a break from the monotony of daily routine; it can be an alleviation of the burdens of everyday life, especially for the poor whose lot is heavy; it is an occasion to give expression to Christian fraternity, in moments of friendship meeting each other, and spontaneity which can sometimes be repressed.”

Worship dimension

Once a pilgrimage site has been reached, the goal is in sight: God. And, just as Israel rejoiced to reach the Promised Land, so do pilgrims. We do this best through shared worship, especially the Eucharist.

As the Catechism says, “Participation in the Holy Sacrifice identifies us with (Christ’s) heart, sustains our strength along the pilgrimage of this life, makes us long for eternal life, and unites us even now to the church in heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the saints. (n 1419).

Apostolic dimension

After the Lord’s Ascension, his disciples went into the world to spread the Good News. This continues today and former pilgrims, who have experienced God in a special way, are called to share their experiences with others, to be, as the Vatican congregation said, “errant heralds of Christ.”

As we have said, our pilgrimage continues all through life — and during Lent. As Fr. Edward Hayes, author and retreat leader notes about Lenten pilgrimages: “Do not fear, but instead rejoice, for the very same Holy Spirit that led Jesus into the desert is at this very moment leading you….. If you take this road, you are called to travel it with great passionate delight as you perform countless deeds of love.”

Dimension of communion

Fr. Hayes is reminding us of something else the Vatican Congregation notes, that pilgrims journey with others — and with the Lord. “(The Lord) travels with his own community and through that community, he journeys with the church in heaven and on earth.”

Pilgrimages are not just about sacred journeys. They can indeed be journeys of discovery and may even include a sight-seeing element, but they always retain a sacred element. As Fr. Walter Rossi, a former director of pilgrimages for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, noted: “(Pilgrims) must be open to God’s presence and activity in their lives, before, during and after the pilgrimage. The result of the pilgrimage will not be the amount of souvenirs brought home or the number of places visited, but the transformation that has taken place inside the person.”

The varied dimensions of all pilgrimages should remind us of what our entire lives are meant to be: a journey, with others and for others, to meet God.


Sources: “The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy”; Catholic News Service; “A Lenten Hobo Honeymoon”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Mission of Shrines” at www.udayton.edu; and vatican.va.


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 April 2014. 


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