Archived News Item

“We are pilgrims on a journey…”

With World Youth Day fast approaching, it is timely that we circulate Sister Elizabeth Julian’s article*, "We are pilgrims on a journey" (previously published in the December 2007 edition of LISTEN**). In her piece, Elizabeth explores the differences between the pilgrim and the tourist.

BY Elizabeth Julian RSM

“We are pilgrims on a journey…” So we sing in The Servant Song. But what do we mean by ‘pilgrim’? Will the thousands of ‘pilgrims’ coming to Aotearoa New Zealand next June en route to World Youth Day in Sydney behave any differently from general tourists? A definition, a brief look at the origins of pilgrimage, a list of its benefits, a word or two about pilgrim spotting, followed finally by some practical suggestions, may help us all prepare for this wonderful season of grace fast approaching.

A definition

Pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place for a religious purpose. Every place has a story, but sacred places are places where the story is associated with God’s self-revelation and with the lives of the saints. So because of the incarnation, that is, the fact that God became human in the person of Jesus, the places associated with his life and death became important places for Christians to visit.

Biblical roots

While the Old Testament mentions several pilgrimage centres, for example, Bethel, where Jacob’s vision took place, and Gibeon, where Solomon went to pray for wisdom after being anointed king, it was the Temple (the ‘house of God’) in Jerusalem which eventually became the most important shrine in Judaism. In fact, the people were required to make three annual pilgrimages to the Temple for the feasts of Passover or Unleavened Bread, Weeks or Pentecost, and Booths or Tabernacles. It was on these journeys that they would have sung the pilgrimage songs, Psalms 24, 84, 118, 120-134. These psalms are full of joy and anticipation.

In the New Testament Jesus makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Festival. Pilgrimages were dangerous and people travelled in groups for support and safety. Luke tells the story of Mary and Joseph anxiously looking for the missing boy Jesus among the other pilgrims with them on their way to celebrate Passover (Luke 2:42-52). When the Temple was virtually destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, pilgrimage for Jews became a journey to pray at the Western Wall, the only remaining piece of the Temple.

The journey metaphor is very strong throughout the Bible, beginning with Abraham and Sarah’s journey in response to God’s call to leave their homeland (Gen 12:1-3). In general, however, the New Testament spiritualises the notion of pilgrimage, portraying the Christian life itself as a journey towards heaven. In fact, the first Christians saw pilgrimage as something for Jews and pagans, not for themselves!

Early history

It was not until the conversion to Christianity of Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena that going on a pilgrimage finally became popular. Helena, with a vast number of pilgrims in tow, visited the Holy Land in 326 AD. Constantine had basilicas built at places associated with the life of Jesus. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, promoted the idea of pilgrimage and decided that journeying to the Holy Land, and Jerusalem in particular, was to be a central aspect of Christian piety. Indeed, in the Middle Ages the Crusades (sanctioned by the pope) began as an attempt to maintain the rights of Christians to visit the Holy Places after Palestine came under Muslim control. While Christianity has never insisted on pilgrimage as a religious duty, the desire of Christians of all denominations to visit the Holy Land is still very strong today.

The first recorded pilgrimage was that by an anonymous pilgrim who journeyed from Bordeaux to the Holy Land in 333. A Spanish woman, Egeria, described in detail her journey to the Holy Land between 381 and 384 in a letter to a group of women friends.

As well as pilgrimages to the places associated with the life of Jesus, other destinations became popular too. The tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul in Rome, James in Compostela (Spain) and various shrines honouring Mary Magdalene were visited frequently.

Because of the loss of the Holy Land in the eleventh and twelfth centuries during the Crusades, many more pilgrimage sites emerged throughout Europe in later medieval times. Instead of going to the Holy Land, pilgrims would visit the shrine of a saint for inspiration about Christian living and to ask for the particular saint’s prayers. Miracles were associated with these prayers and still are, for example, Lourdes. A system of indulgences developed which basically meant that if you went on a pilgrimage you could strike off some of the time you deserved in purgatory. (How anyone knew how much time they had accrued is highly debatable!) Of course, the system was open to abuse and dubious financial practices arose which helped to bring about the Reformation.

(Interested readers may like to examine the idea of pilgrimage explored in some classic works of literature: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress.)

So, what’s in it for me?

Why did and why do people make pilgrimages? Here are nine benefits:

  1. An important aspect of traditional pilgrimage was the penitential attitude it involved. Pilgrims had to leave their homes for many months and travel by mule through often dangerous territory. Leaving behind the comforts of home also meant leaving behind a sinful past and today the sacrament of reconciliation is always available at shrines such as Lourdes. It will, of course, be available at World Youth Day (WYD).
  2. In the Middle Ages, pilgrimages were like long retreats, a chance for pilgrims immersed in a spiritual atmosphere away from the normal routine to reassess priorities and experience personal transformation. Built into pilgrimages today are times of silent prayer to foster the retreat aspect.
  3. Pilgrimages of the past were always associated with almsgiving. Beggars often waited at the gates of shrines. WYD will no doubt include many opportunities for solidarity with the poor.
  4. Pilgrimages of the past provided an opportunity to expand horizons. Hopefully, the journey to Sydney will enable pilgrims to ‘see beyond’, to catch a glimpse of the ‘more than’ to which God may be calling them in order to make and be the difference in today’s Church and world.
  5. Pilgrimages of the past were wonderful occasions of hospitality. This, of course, has its roots in the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who offered hospitality to Jesus. There will be countless opportunities for WYD pilgrims both to receive and extend hospitality, and in so doing, encounter the Risen Christ who will make their hearts “burn within them”.
  6. Pilgrimages of the past were community forming experiences. (The pilgrim psalm 122 begins, “I rejoiced when…” and continues, “We will go up…” indicating the community dimension of the journey to Jerusalem.) Rituals celebrated along the way and at the pilgrimage site itself ensured that relationships were forged and deepened.
  7. As in earlier pilgrimages, communal celebrations will be a big part of WYD with Eucharist, of course, being at the heart. (Achieving solemnity in outdoor celebrations is always somewhat challenging. There will be stiff competition from iPods and mobile phones.) While reality for young adults is normally booming, buzzing, fast-paced and fragmented, WYD pilgrims will experience Catholic spirituality at its integrating best in liturgy that moves, inspires and challenges them.
  8. The earliest Christian pilgrimage was the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), the route Jesus took from Pilate’s house to Golgotha. Thousands of Christians still walk this route. Many WYD pilgrims will wear a cross. A universal symbol, it speaks of the extremes of love and suffering and the ‘more than’. There is no escaping its reality in our lives. The pilgrims have already carried the WYD Cross throughout New Zealand. Many would have found it a personally transforming experience. It was a way to remind them of the cross’s centrality in a life lived to the full and a love outpoured totally. The pilgrims’ lives must be no different from that of their Lord and Master.
  9. Many young people today are searching for a place to belong in an increasingly fragmented world. Most pilgrims understand that it is their own sense of interior incompleteness that makes them seek contact with holy places and holy people. The experience enables them to achieve a wholeness and integration that they cannot do alone. Pilgrimage has a wonderfully rich tradition. WYD will enable pilgrims to experience a Catholicism highlighting the devotional, the emotional and the communal, rather than the doctrinal, the intellectual and the private. Many older Catholics will remember processions and devotions which touched their hearts, nourished their faith and put them in contact with something greater than themselves. They could be carried along with the bells, smells and hymns that went with these practices and feel so much at home in the midst of it all. Today’s pilgrims have had little experience of such things. Perhaps it is what they need to experience a sense of belonging. However, WYD pilgrims are but a tiny minority of young adult Catholics worldwide. For the majority, the Church is completely irrelevant. In our eagerness to support the former we must not forget about the latter.

Tourists or pilgrims – spot the difference

But, confronted with thousands of young people, how will we know that they are pilgrims and not just tourists? Obviously they won’t be dressed in the gray garb and hat of pilgrims in the Middle Ages which ensured equality of status. Instead, wearing jeans and trainers they will have jetted at enormous cost, not trudged thousands of miles. Perhaps using rosary beads as jewellery and tattooed with crosses, they’ll have iPods and mobile phones. While these may not indicate a life of simplicity, appearances can be deceptive. As part of their preparation, these pilgrims will have discovered what makes a genuine pilgrim. As spirituality writer Doris Donnelly points out:

  1. Pilgrims realise that their journey has an internal, depth dimension, while tourists think only about the outward journey.
  2. Pilgrims invest themselves and surrender the clutter that normally surrounds their lives so that God can take centre stage while tourists avoid any form of personal commitment.
  3. Pilgrims understand that the getting there and being there are both important, while for the tourist, ‘being there is everything’ as a current advertisement says.
  4. Pilgrims experience the joys and challenges of being part of a community, while tourists journey as individuals even though they may be part of a ‘tour group’.
  5. Pilgrims want the pilgrimage to change them while tourists expect it to be business as usual – until the next trip.
  6. Pilgrims try to avoid the souvenir stalls and enshrine their memories in their hearts, while tourists are eager to accumulate trinkets, etcetera.
  7. Pilgrims travel light and unencumbered, while tourists try to take the comforts of home with them.
  8. Pilgrims respect the environment and all life forms wherever they are, being careful about the size of their footprint. Tourists put the environmental question in the too-hard basket.

Back on the road again

What can we do to support WYD pilgrims? Is there some way we can hold these young people in prayer? Our best contribution may be by becoming pilgrims ourselves for a while, to experience our own personal transformation. Bishop John Bluck’s suggestions (below) given during an address at the National Conference of the Association of Christian Spiritual Directors in August 2003 offer some very practical ideas for developing a pilgrimage mentality in the ordinary and the everyday, here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Perhaps we could find out the names of the pilgrims in our pastoral area and hold them in the highways of our hearts as we take to the road. Now’s good.

  1. Prepare yourself well with prayer and silence and pause before you begin each day of the journey.
  2. Treat each new start, even if it’s only a trip around the block, as a new beginning, braced for all sorts of discoveries. Travelling with great expectations – hugely, extravagantly, naively, hopefully so – is the essence of all pilgrimage.
  3. Consider everything and everyone you meet on the way as grist for your spiritual mill. Feed it all indiscriminately into the grinder of signs and meanings that will emerge eventually.
  4. Find a reason to be grateful for everything that happens and everyone you meet, however much like a setback to your plans and progress they may appear to be.
  5. Don’t be fooled by labels. Whether a pilgrimage route has or might have religious recognition is a poor indicator of its spiritual significance. In a country that prides its Pakeha self so highly as ‘secular’, the most grace-full journeys may prove to the least religious, like speedway tracks and racehorse stables, garden tours, old mine sites, off-road courses for four-wheel drivers and beach walks at sunset.
  6. Pilgrimages don’t wait on feeling right or getting fit or ideal weather forecasts. Trust them to speak of God through whatever your state of unreadiness. So get started, knowing that you can always repeat the journey and that next time it will be different anyway.
  7. Ask at the end of the day how whatever happened might be a parable for something bigger in the way you live your life and see the world.

Let’s take up Bluck’s suggestions either individually or as a community and enjoy our time on the road. Who knows what may happen!

* Elizabeth Julian RSM is a Sister of Mercy and an Adult Educator at Wellington Catholic Education Centre in Aotearoa New Zealand where she teaches courses in Scripture, Theology and Spirituality, tutors in and co-ordinates the Distance Learning Programme and manages the library. An edited version of this article was published in Wel-com, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Wellington and the Diocese of Palmerston North.

**If you would like to subscribe to LISTEN, the Institute’s theological journal, published twice yearly ($25 per annum), find out more here. Alternatively, a limited number of single copies are available for purchase from the Institute Office. Contact Kathy Fuller on Phone: (02) 9564 1911 or Email: