How beautiful are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord (Psalm 83:1).
These beautiful words were prayed by the Israelites as they made their annual pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. The concept of a pilgrimage is one that has deep roots in Christian tradition, since it has ties all the way from the Biblical era. From the journey of Abraham, to the exodus of the Jews as they prepared to enter the promised land, to the journey of Christ towards Jerusalem to face His Passion, all of these events in salvation history have the spirit of pilgrimage ingrained in them. This spirit of pilgrimage is a microcosm of earthly life itself, since our true home is to attain unto the beatific vision in heaven, and we thus recognize that all earthly joys are only fleeting. Just as Christ knew that His principal mission was to suffer His Passion in Jerusalem, so we too should realize that our principal end is to attain unto eternal life by faith and a holy life.
Although all pilgrimages are only tiny steps along the great pilgrimage of earthly life, the Church has always recognized their spiritual value, and thus special indulgences were attached to many of the popular pilgrimage sites. The most prized of all pilgrimages was the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, since the Holy Land was sanctified by the life of Our Lord Himself, and it is in the Holy Land that we are able to come into contact with the very same sites where the mysteries of salvation unfolded. However, since the journey to the Holy Land has historically been one of the most dangerous journeys on account of the long distance, the presence of bandits, and the hostility of the surrounding nations (e.g. the Ottomans), many Christians in Europe would find it more feasible to make pilgrimages within Europe itself. Thus, the city of Rome naturally became the next most popular pilgrimage site, since Rome is the seat of Christendom and holds the tombs of the Holy Apostles, Peter & Paul.
Editor’s note: for the traditional Catholic pilgrimage to Rome, click here.
Additionally, the tomb of St. James the Greater in Compostela in Spain also attracted many pilgrims, and up to this day, devout Christians would still travel on foot to the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela to visit the tomb of this great apostle.
Today, there is an abundance of pilgrimage sites and modern transport has made these sites more accessible and affordable than ever before in history. In fact, it almost seems like most pilgrimages today have taken on the character of a ‘holy vacation’ that wealthier Catholics can enjoy. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, perhaps most people are unaware that for most of history, pilgrimages generally carried a penitential spirit, on account of the ardor of the journey which had to be carried out on foot or horseback before the invention of modern transportation. Thus, pilgrimages were bittersweet events, where the thrill of adventure was mixed with the challenges that naturally entailed long journeys. This fits in perfectly into the experience of earthly life, which carries a mixture of joys as well as sorrows. It is no wonder that the Church has always looked favorably upon this holy practice.
Last fall, I attended the 30th Christus Rex Pilgrimage in Australia, which took place from 28th to 30th October. This pilgrimage was started in 1991 and pilgrims journey roughly 90km by foot from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the town of Ballarat to the Sacred Heart Cathedral in the town of Bendigo. This pilgrimage is mostly attended by Catholics who have a special love for the traditions of the Church and the pilgrimage is undertaken in honor of the Kingship of Christ, culminating with the traditional feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday of October.