Shrines vary in size, designation

Have you ever been to a shrine?

Some people have been able to travel to shrines known worldwide — such as international shrines at Lourdes in France and Guadalupe in Mexico and they have been recognized by the Vatican. Others have been able to travel to local shrines such as Holy Hill in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee or the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion in our own diocese. These are known as diocesan shrines.

(On Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption, the shrine at Champion will host Mass at 11 a.m., followed by an outdoor rosary procession. Archbishop Jerome Listecki will be the main celebrant and Bishop David Ricken will be the homilist.)

Other shrines in the United States have been designated as national shrines. These include the National Shrine of the Apostle Paul in St. Paul, Minn., and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. International shrines include St. Mary Major in Rome, which had its feast day on Aug. 5.

Officially designating shrines as national shrines is a recent happening in the church’s history, even though there were shrines from the first days of the Christian faith. The 1917 Code of Canon Law, which was in effect until 1983, did not mention shrines at all, national, local or international. The modern code speaks of shrines in canons 1230-34 and describes a shrine 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).

In November 1992, the U.S. bishops set up “Norms for the Designation of National Shrines.” In it, they 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 worshiped.”

Many places where God has been revealed and worshiped have become shrines. We may most often think of shrines as places like the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela or sites like Fatima in Portugal or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. However, a shrine can be much smaller and far more humble.

For example, a shrine can be a little chapel placed along a roadside, or even an alcove chapel inside a church. A side altar with a statue of Joseph can also be a shrine. People even have shrines in their homes, where they pause at times to pray.

National shrines, however, are larger than side altars in a church; they must be able to accommodate large groups of pilgrims and be the end goal of formal pilgrimages. Most national shrines are Marian in nature.

According to the U.S. bishops’ conference 1992 directives, U.S. national shrines must:

  • First be designated “as a diocesan shrine and place of pilgrimage by the local ordinary for at least 10 years before national designation will be considered;”
  • Be easily accessible, with appropriate facilities for pilgrims of various physical abilities;
  • Be dedicated to promoting the faith of the pilgrims who come there by centering on a particular mystery of the faith, a traditional devotion, revelations recognized by the Church, or the lives of those in the calendar of saints;
  • Nourish the spiritual lives of pilgrims and “be a center for worthy and exemplary celebrations of the liturgy, especially celebrations of the Eucharist and penance (c.1234).
  • Be visited by a member of the national bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship before any national designation is given.
  • Must provide for various language and ethnic groups.

A national shrine, or any shrine, cannot function as a parish. Thus, while a shrine should have regular celebrations of the Eucharist and offer the sacrament of reconciliation, it should not normally be the site of weddings, funerals or baptisms. Also, unlike a parish, a shrine does not have a specific geographic territory, but is open to all pilgrims of faith.

A formal set of statutes by which the shrine functions, must be developed by the local ordinary (diocesan bishop) and submitted to the national conference for approval. Without the national conferences approval of these statutes, a shrine cannot be designated as a national shrine (c. 1232). These statutes must be reviewed every 10 years by the national conference as part of its pastoral oversight.

While national shrines — and certainly international shrines — are large, it’s good to remember that 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 where pilgrims come to encounter God’s living Word: Jesus?


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