Catholic Teaching




"Hear my prayer, O Lord, and my supplication: give ear to my tears. Be not silent: for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner as all my fathers were." (Psalm 38:13)

"By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by my calling a pilgrim of humblest origin." (from The Way of the Pilgrim)


     The word "pilgrim" comes from the Latin "peregrinus," meaning "foreigner" or "stranger," and in the deepest sense, that is what all Christians are: a people whose home is not this world, but the Heavenly Jerusalem, toward which our lives move us. But in that journey to share in St. John's vision, we often make smaller journeys, or "pilgrimages" -- that is, journeys made to sacred places for the purpose of veneration, to ask help from or to thank God and His Saints, to fulfill a vow, or to do penance. One of the earliest usages of the word is found in the writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). His work, Peregrinatio, described a Christian spiritual journey as a kind of self-imposed exile of the pilgrim in which he searched for God's Truth in his wanderings while visiting the holy shrines of the Faith.

     Our Hebrew forebears were commanded by God to make a pilgrimage to the Temple: "Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose: in the feast of unleavened bread, in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles. No one shall appear with his hands empty before the Lord: But every one shall offer according to what he hath, according to the blessing of the Lord his God, which he shall give him." (Deuteronomy 16:16-17)

     For Catholics, a pilgrimage is a journey or search of great moral significance to our belief and faith. The object of a particular pilgrimage can vary greatly, from pilgrimages of great meaning to all Catholic believers to those that may have significance to believers in a local area. One who undertakes such a journey is called a pilgrim. While pilgrimages are common among most religions, pilgrimages among Christians have been common since the beginning of Christ's Church. Pilgrimages by Christians were first made to sites connected with the birth, life, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Pilgrimages also began to be made to Rome and other sites associated with the Blessed Virgin Mother, the Apostles, various Saints, Martyrs for the Faith, and those sites associated with the history of our salvation.

      Catholics still mark out sacred spaces and make pilgrimages to them like our Old Covenant ancestors, but with this difference: We are not bound to journey. The Old Covenant is fulfilled, and we are not Muslims for whom pilgrimage (hajj) is considered a sacred duty. Instead, we go on pilgrimage in the spirit of Joshua and of the Gospels -- to remember, and for the purposes of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and leaving behind our daily lives to follow Him: "Then Jesus said to His disciples: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for My sake, shall find it." (Matthew 16:24-25)

      We might journey in a spirit of penance, fasting and giving alms along the way. We might do so joyously, in thanksgiving for blessings received or in a spirit of supplication for blessings desired. Or we might do so simply to be blessed by being in the presence of holy relics or by walking on ground hallowed by Our Lord, His Blessed Mother or the Saints. Whatever our particular purposes, leaving behind what is comfortable to us and visiting a strange place is a way to get out of a "spiritual rut" and step outside our normal routines which can sometimes keep us distracted or focused on the wrong things -- or perhaps focused too much on otherwise good things. When made with the right attitude, pilgrimage is a way to "lose" our lives for His sake.

      Occasionally,a command to go on a pilgrimage was given as penance for grave sin. It was often a dire hardship as the sinner might be bound in conscience to walk barefoot and in tatters, never spending more than one night in a particular place, and begging for his food along the way. During the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrimages became very common, especially for those who could afford to leave their daily lives behind for a period of time. The medieval pilgrim even had his own "habit" which consisted of a loose frock or long smock, over which was worn a hooded cape. On his head, he would wear a broad- brimmed hat that tied under his chin, and across his chest he wore a strap from which hung a scrip to carry his money, food, and souvenirs. In his hands he carried a walking staff or, sometimes, banners, crosses, or bells. Many of these items -- the scrip, staff, and cross -- were blessed, becoming sacramentals. Medieval Christians making a pilgrimage often wore a scallop shell symbol on their hat or clothes. The pilgrim also carried a scallop shell with him, and would present himself at churches, castles, abbeys etc., where he could expect to be given as much sustenance as he could pick up with one scoop. Most likely, he would be given oats, barley, and perhaps beer or wine. Thus, even the poorest household could give charity without being overburdened.

      There are countless effects which pilgrimages produced throughout history: The devotion to a saint drew so many religious pilgrims that several towns sprang up into real significance. Many towns have arisen, or grown, or decayed, accordingly as their popularity among pilgrims began, advanced, declined. Roads were made in many cases by the pilgrims who drove tracks and paths across the landscape, from shrine to shrine, in search of grace. Geography, too, sprang from the same source. Each pilgrim who wrote an account of his travels for the instruction and edification of his fellows was unconsciously laying the foundations of a new science. Miracle Plays are believed to be derived from returning pilgrims. The return to the West of those who had visited the scenes of the life of Christ naturally led them to reproduce these as best they could for their less fortunate brethren for the benefit of those who were unable to visit the very shrines.  International Communications owed an enormous debt to the continued interchange of pilgrims. Pilgrimages and wars were practically the only reasons that led the people of one country to visit that of another. Special enactments allowed pilgrims to pass unmolested through districts that were in the throes of war. The result of this was naturally to increase communications between foreign countries. Religious Orders began to be founded to assist the pilgrims. The most famous orders of the medieval Church, the Knights Hospitallers and the Knights Templars, had as their office to guard the straggling bands of Latin Christians.

      Today, one may plan a pilgrimage to any of the numerous sites worldwide that have drawn pilgrims over the centuries.  Some "pilgrimage tours" may be akin to prayerful but luxurious vacations, while others remain more in a spirit of pilgrimages of days gone by (miles of walking from one site to another, sleeping on the ground, meager meals, etc.).  Whatever the means and mode of one's pilgrimage, it is a deep connection to our forefathers in the Faith, as well as a natural desire of the heart to journey to a place that brings us closer on this earth to the heavenly home we long for.

      This writer and her family have been blessed by the opportunity to take part in the Annual Pilgrimage in Honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help at Mount Saint Macrina Monastery in Uniontown, PA for the past seven years.  The Pilgrimage (referred to as Otpust in the old country) is a special ministry of the Sisters of St. Basil the Great. This prayerful event has been held each year over Labor Day weekend following a decree issued by Pope Pius XI on March 25, 1935. Pope Pius XI gave the Sisters a beautiful Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, requesting them to spread devotion to the Theotokos (the Mother of God) under that title. Since 1935, countless pilgrims have come to pay honor to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, placing their needs, their hopes and desires in prayer before this holy Icon. The Pilgrimage is the oldest and largest Byzantine Catholic Pilgrimage in the United States.

Thank you to Fish Eaters, New Advent,, and the Sisters of St. Basil the Great for the information above.)

Patricia Johnson

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