Article Info

published: 5/22/13

Related Books

Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Cross & Livingstone

Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis

Introduction to Christianity

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

Christian Theology

Alister McGrath

Christian Beliefs

Wayne Grudem

Catechism of the Catholic Church

U.S. Catholic Church

A Summary of Christian History

Robert Andrew Baker

Jesus Among Other Gods

Ravi Zacharias


Deacon Friel.jpg

What is Pilgrimage?

The Definition of pilgrimage

Pilgrimages may be defined as journeys made to some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation.

The origin of pilgrimage

The idea of a pilgrimage has been traced back by some (Littledale in "Encycl. Brit.", 1885, XIX, 90; "New Internat. Encyc.", New York, 1910, XVI, 20, etc.) to the primitive notion of local deities, that is, that the divine beings who controlled the movements of men and nature could exercise that control only over certain definite forces or within set boundaries. Thus the river gods had no power over those who kept away from the river, nor could the wind deities exercise any influence over those who lived in deserts or clearings or on the bare mountain-side.

Similarly there were gods of the hills and gods of the plains who could only work out their designs, could only favour or destroy men within their own locality (III Kings, xx, 23). Hence, when some man belonging to a mountain tribe found himself in the plain and was in need of divine help, he made a pilgrimage back again to the hills to petition it from his gods. It is therefore the broken tribesmen who originate pilgrimages.

Without denying the force of this argument as suggesting or extending the custom, for it has been admitted as plausible by distinguished Catholics (cf. Lagrange, "Etudes sur les relig. sémit., VIII, Paris, 1905, 295, 301), we may adhere to a less arbitrary solution by seeking its cause in the instinctive notion of the human heart. For pilgrimages properly so called are made to the places where the gods or heroes were born or wrought some great action or died, or to the shrines where the deity had already signified it to be his pleasure to work wonders. Once theophanies are localized, pilgrimages necessarily follow.

The Incarnation was bound inevitably to draw men across Europe to visit the Holy Places, for the custom itself arises spontaneously from the heart. It is found in all religions. The Egyptians journeyed to Sekket's shrine at Bubastis or to Ammon's oracle at Thebes; the Greeks sought for counsel from Apollo at Delphi and for cures from Asclepius at Epidaurus; the Mexicans gathered at the huge temple of Quetzal; the Peruvians massed in sun-worship at Cuzco and the Bolivians in Titicaca.

But it is evident that the religions which centered round a single character, be he god or prophet, would be the most famous for their pilgrimages, not for any reason of tribal returns to a central district where alone the deity has power, but rather owing to the perfectly natural wish to visit spots made holy by the birth, life, or death of the god or prophet.

Hence Buddhism and Mohammedanism are especially famous in inculcating this method of devotion. Huge gatherings of people intermittently all the year round venerate Kapilavastu where Gaukama Buddha began his life, Benares where he opened his sacred mission, Kasinagara where he died; and Mecca and Medina have become almost bywords in English as the goals of long aspirations, so famous are they for their connexion with the prophet of Islam.

Granting then this instinctive movement of human nature, we should expect to find that in Christianity God would Himself satisfy the craving He had first Himself created. The story of His appearance on earth in bodily form when He "dwelt amongst us" could not but be treasured up by His followers, and each city and site mentioned became a matter of grateful memory to them. Then again the more famous of His disciples, whom we designate as saints, themselves began to appeal to the devotion of their fellows, and round the acts of their lives soon clustered a whole cycle of venerated shrines.

Especially would this be felt in the case of the martyrs; for their passion and death stamped more dramatically still the exact locality of their triumph. Moreover, it seems reasonable to suppose that yet another influence worked to the same end. There sprang up in the early Church a curious privilege, accorded to dying martyrs, of granting the remission of canonical penances. No doubt it began through a generous acceptance of the relation of St. Stephen to St. Paul. But certain it is that at an early date this custom had become so highly organized that there was a libellus, or warrant of reconciliation, a set form for the readmittance of sinners to Christian fellowship (Batiffol, "Etudes d'hist. et de théol. posit.", I, Paris, 1906, 112- 20).

Surely then it is not fanciful to see how from this came a further development. Not only had the martyrs in their last moments this power of absolving from ecclesiastical penalties, but even after their deaths, their tombs and the scenes of their martyrdom were considered to be capable also-if devoutly venerated-of removing the taints and penalties of sin. Accordingly it came to be looked upon as a purifying act to visit the bodies of the saints and above all the places where Christ Himself had set the supreme example of a teaching sealed with blood.

Again it may be noted how, when the penitential system of the Church, which grouped itself round the sacrament of the confessional, had been authoritatively and legally organized, pilgrimages were set down as adequate punishments inflicted for certain crimes. The hardships of the journey, the penitential garb worn, the mendicity it entailed made a pilgrimage a real and efficient penance (Beazley, "Dawn of Modern Geography", II, 139; Furnival, "The Stacions of Rome and the Pilgrim's Sea Voyage", London, 1867, 47).

To quote a late text, the following is one of the canons enacted under King Edgar (959-75): "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 and be so squalid that iron come not on hair or on nail" (Thorpe, "Ancient Laws", London, 1840, 411-2; cf. 44, 410, etc.). Another witness to the real difficulties of the wayfaring palmer may be cited from "Syr Isenbras", an early English ballad:-

"They bare with them no maner of thynge That was worth a farthynge Cattell, golde, ne fe; But mekely they asked theyre meate Where that they myght it gette. For Saynct Charyte."

(Uterson, "Early Popular Poetry", I, London, 1817, 83). And the Earl of Arundel of a later date obtained absolution for poaching on the bishop's preserves at Hoghton Chace only on condition of a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Richard of Chichester ("Archæologia", XLV, 176; cf. Chaucer, "Works", ed. Morris, III, 266). And these are but late descriptions of a practice of penance which stretches back beyond the legislation of Edgar and the organization of St. Theodore to the sub-Apostolic age. Finally a last influence that made the pilgrimage so popular a form of devotion was the fact that it contributed very largely to ease the soul of some of its vague restlessness in an age when conditions of life tended to cramp men down to certain localities. It began to be looked upon as a real help to the establishment of a perfectly controlled character. It took its place in the medieval manuals of psychology. So John de Burg in 1385 (Pupilla oculi, fol. LXII), "contra acediam, opera laboriosa bona ut sint peregrinationes ad loca sancta."

History in General

In a letter written towards the end of the fourth century by Sts. Paula and Eustochium to the Roman matron Marcella, urging her to follow them out to the Holy Places, they insist on the universality of the custom of these pilgrimages to Palestine:-"Whosoever is noblest in Gaul comes hither. And Britain though divided from us yet hastens from her land of sunset to these shrines known to her only through the Scriptures."

They go on to enumerate the various nationalities that crowded round these holy places, Armenians, Persians, Indians, Ethiopians, and many others (P. L., XXII; Ep. xlvi, 489-900). But it is of greater interest to note how they claim for this custom a continuity from Apostolic days. From the Ascension to their time, bishops, martyrs, doctors, and troops of people, say they, had flocked to see the sacred stones of Bethlehem and of wherever else the Lord had trod (489).

It has been suggested that this is an exaggeration, and certainly we can offer no proof of any such uninterrupted practice. Yet when the first examples begin to appear they are represented to us without a word of astonishment or a note of novelty, as though people were already fully accustomed to like adventures. Thus in Eusebius, "History" (tr. Crusé, London, 1868, VI, xi, 215), it is remarked of Bishop Alexander that "he performed a journey from Cappadocia to Jerusalem in consequence of a vow and the celebrity of the place." And the date given is also worthy of notice, A. D. 217. Then again there is the story of the two travellers of Placentia, John and Antoninus the Elder (Acta SS., July, II, 18), which took place about 303-4.

Of course with the conversion of Constantine and the visit to Jerusalem of the Empress St. Helena the pilgrimages to the Holy Land became very much more frequent. The story of the finding of the Cross is too well known to be here repeated (cf. P. L., XXVII, 1125), but its influence was unmistakable. The first church of the Resurrection was built by Eustathius the Priest (loc. cit., 1164). But the flow of pilgrimages began in vigour four years after St. Helena's visit (Acta SS., June, III, 176; Sept., III, 56). Then the organization of the Church that partly caused and partly resulted from the Council of Nicæa continued the same custom.

In 333 was the famous Bordeaux Pilgrimage ("Palestine Pilgrim Text Society", London, 1887, preface and notes by Stewart). It was the first of a whole series of pilgrimages that have left interesting and detailed accounts of the route, the peoples through which they passed, the sites identified with those mentioned in the Gospels. Another was the still better-known "Peregrinatio Silviæ" (ed. Barnard, London, 1891, Pal. Pilg. Text Soc.; cf. "Rev. des quest. hist." 1903, 367, etc.). Moreover, the whole movement was enormously increased by the language and action of St. Jerome whose personality at the close of the fourth century dominated East and West. Slightly earlier St. John Chrysostom emphasized the efficacy in arousing devotion of visiting even the "lifeless spots" where the saints had lived (In Phil., 702-3, in P. G., LXII).

And his personal love of St. Paul would have unfailingly driven him to Rome to see the tomb of the Apostles, but for the burden of his episcopal office. He says ("In Ephes. hom. 8, ii, 57, in P. G., LXII), "If I were freed from my labours and my body were in sound health I would eagerly make a pilgrimage merely to see the chains that had held him captive and the prison where he lay." While in another passage of extraordinary eloquence he expresses his longing to gaze on the dust of the great Apostle, the dust of the lips that had thundered, of the hands that had been fettered, of the eyes that had seen the Master; even as he speaks he is dazzled by the splendour of the metropolis of the world lit up by the glorious tombs of the twin prince Apostles (In Rom. hom. 32, iii, 678, etc., in P. G., LX).

Nor in this is he advocating a new practice, for he mentions without comment how many people hurried across the seas to Arabia to see and venerate the dunghill of Job (Ad pop. Antioch. hom. 5, 69, in P. G., XLIX). St. Jerome was cramped by no such official duties as had kept St. Chrysostom to his diocese. His conversion, following on the famous vision of his judgment, turned him from his studies of pagan classics to the pages of Holy Writ, and, uniting with his untiring energy and thoroughness, pushed him on to Palestine to devote himself to the Scriptures in the land where they had been written. Once there the actual Gospel scenes appealed with supreme freshness to him, and on his second return from Rome his enthusiasm fired several Roman matrons to accompany him and share his labours and his devotions. Monasteries and convents were built and a Latin colony was established which in later times was to revolutionize Europe by inaugurating the Crusades.

From the Holy Land the circle widens to Rome, as a centre of pilgrimages. St. Chrysostom, as has been shown, expressed his vehement desire to visit it. And in the early church histories of Eusebius, Zosimus, Socrates, and others, notices are frequent of the journeyings of celebrated princes and bishops of the City of the Seven Hills. Of course the Saxon kings and royal families have made this a familiar thing to us. The "Ecclesiastical History" of St. Bede is crowded with references to princes and princesses who laid aside their royal diadems in order to visit the shrine of the Apostles; and the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" after his death takes up the same refrain. Then from Rome again the shrines of local saints begin to attract their votaries.

In the letter already cited in which Paula and Eustochium invite Marcella to Palestine they argue from the already established custom of visiting the shrines of the martyrs: "Martyrum ubique sepulchra veneramur" (Ep. xlvi, 488, in P. L., XXII). St. Augustine endeavours to settle a dispute by sending both litigants on a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Felix of Nola, in order that the saint may somehow or other make some sign as to which party was telling the truth. He candidly admits that he knows of no such miracle having been performed in Africa, but argues to it from the analogy of Milan where God had made known His pleasure through the relics of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius (Ep. lxxvii, 269, in P. L., XXXIII). Indeed, the very idea of relics, which existed as early as the earliest of the catacombs, teaches the essential worth of pilgrimages, i. e., of the journeying to visit places hallowed by events in the lives of heroes or of gods who walked in the guise of men (St. Aug., "De civ. Dei", XXII, 769, in P. L., XXXVIII).

At first a mere question of individual travelling, a short period was sufficient to develop into pilgrimages properly organized companies. Even the "Peregrinatio Silviæ" shows how they were being systematized. The initiators were clerics who prepared the whole route beforehand and mapped out the cities of call. The bodies of troops were got together to protect the pilgrims. Moreover, Christian almsgiving invented a method of participation in the merits of a pilgrimage for those unable actually to take part in them; it established hospices along the line (Ordericus Vitalis, "Hist. eccles.", ed. Le Prévost, Suc. hist. France, II, 64, 53; Toulmin Smith, "English Guilds", passim). The conversion of the Hungarians amplified this system of halts along the road; of St. Stephen, for example, we read that "he made the way very safe for all and thus allowed by his benevolence a countless multitude both of noble and common people to start for Jerusalem" (Glaber, "Chron.", III, C. I. Mon. Germ. Hist., VII, 62).

Thus these pious journeys gradually harden down and become fixed and definite. They are allowed for by laws, civil and ecclesiastical. Wars are fought to insure their safety, crusades are begun in their defence, pilgrims are everywhere granted free access in times alike of peace and war. By the "Consuetudines" of the canons of Hereford cathedral we see that legislation was found to be necessary. No canon was to make more than one pilgrimage beyond the seas in his own lifetime. But each year three weeks were allowed to enable any that would to visit shrines within the kingdom. To go abroad to the tomb of St. Denis, seven weeks of absence was considered legal, eight weeks to the body of St. Edmund at Pontigny, sixteen weeks to Rome, or to St. James at Compostella, and a year to Jerusalem (Archæol., XXXI, 251-2 notes).

Again in another way pilgrimages were being regarded as part of normal life. In the registers of the Inquisition at Carcassone (Waterton, "Pictas Mariana Britannica", 112) we find the four following places noted as being the centres of the greater pilgrimages to be imposed as penances for the graver crimes, the tomb of the Apostles at Rome, the shrine of St. James at Compostella, St. Thomas's body at Canterbury, and the relics of the Three Kings at Cologne. Naturally with all this there was a great deal of corruption. Even from the earliest times the Fathers perceived how liable such devotions were to degenerate into an abuse.

St. John Chrysostom, so ardent in his praise of pilgrimages, found it necessary to explain that there was "need for none to cross the seas or fare upon a long journey; let each of us at home invoke God earnestly and He will hear our prayer" (Ad pop. Antioch, hom. iii, 2, 49, in P. G., XLIX; cf. hom. iv, 6, 68). St. Gregory Nazianzen is even stronger in his condemnation. He has a short letter in which he speaks of those who regard it as an essential part of piety to visit Jerusalem and see the traces of the Passion of Christ. This, he says, the Master has never commanded, though the custom is not therefore without merit. But still he knows that in many cases the journey has proved a scandal and caused serious harm. He witnesses, therefore, both to the custom and the abuse, evidently thinking that the latter outweighed the former (Ep. ii, 1009, in P. G., XLVI).

So again St. Jerome writes to Paulinus (Ep. lxviii in P. L., XXII) to explain, in an echo of Cicero's phrase, that it is not the fact of living in Jerusalem, but of living there well, that is worthy of praise (579); he instances countless saints who never set foot in the Holy Land; and dares not tie down to one small portion of the Earth Him whom Heaven itself is unable to contain. He ends with a sentence that is by now famous, "et de Hierusolymis et de Britannia æqualiter patet aula cœ;lestis" (581).

Another well-quoted passage comes from a letter of St. Augustine in which he expounds in happy paradox that not by journeying but by loving we draw nigh unto God. To Him who is everywhere present and everywhere entire we approach not by our feet but by our hearts (Ep. clv, 672, in P. L. XXXII). For certainly pilgrimages were not always undertaken for the best of motives. Glaber (ed. Prou, Paris, 1886, 107) thinks it necessary to note of Lethbald that he was far from being one of those who were led to Jerusalem simply from vanity, that they might have wonderful stories to tell, when they came back.

Thus, as the centuries pass, we find human nature the same in its complexity of motives. Its noblest actions are found to be often caused by petty spites or vanity or overvaulting ambition; and even when begun in good faith as a source of devotion, the practices of piety at times are degraded into causes of vice. So the author of the "Imitation of Christ' raises his voice against overmuch pilgrimage-making: "Who wander much are but little hallowed." Now too the words of the fifteenth-century English Dominican, John Bromyard ("Summa Prædicantium", Tit. Feria n. 6, fol. 191, Lyons, 1522):-"There are some who keep their pilgrimages and festivals not for God but for the devil. They who sin more freely when away from home or who go on pilgrimage to succeed in inordinate and foolish love-those who spend their time on the road in evil and uncharitable conversation may indeed say peregrinamur a Domino-they make their pilgrimage away from God and to the devil."

But the most splenetic scorn is to be found in the pages of that master of satire, Erasmus. His "Religious Pilgrimage" ("Colloquies" ed. Johnson, London, 1878, 11, 1-37) is a terrible indictment of the abuses of his day. Exaggerated no doubt in its expressions, yet revealing a sufficient modicum of real evil, it is a graphic picture from the hand of an intelligent observer. There is evident sign that pilgrimages were losing in popularity, not merely because the charity of many was growing cold, but because of the excessive credulity of the guardians of the shrines, their overwrought insistence on the necessity of pilgrimage-making, and the fact that many who journeyed from shrine to shrine neglected their domestic duties.

These three evils are quaintly expressed in the above mentioned dialogue, with a liberty of speech that makes one astonished at Rome's toleration in the sixteenth century. With all these abuses Erasmus saw how the spoiler would have ready to hand excuses for suppressing the whole system and plundering the most attractive treasures. The wealth might well be put, he suggested, to other uses; but the idea of a pilgrimage contained in it nothing opposed to the enlightened opinions of this prophet of "sweet reasonableness". "If any shall do it of their own free choice from a great affection to piety, I think they deserve to be left to their own freedom" (op. cit., 35).

This was evidently the opinion also of Henry VIII, for, though in the Injunctions of 1536 and 1538 pilgrimages were to be discouraged, yet both in the bishop's book (The Institution of the Christian Man, 1537) and the king's book (The Necessary Doctrine and Erudition of the Christian Man, 1543), it is laid down that the abuse and not the custom is reprehensible. What they really attack is the fashion of "putting differences between image and image, trusting more in one than in another" (cf. Gairdner, "Lollardy and the Reformation", II, London, 1908, IV, ii, 330, etc.).

All this shows how alive Christendom has been to evils which Reformers are forever denouncing as inseparable from Catholicism. It admits the danger but does not allow it to prejudice the good use ("Diayloge of Syr Thomas More", London,1529). Before dealing with each pilgrimage in particular one further remark should be made. Though not properly included under a list of abuses, a custom must be noted of going in search of shrines utterly at haphazard and without any definite notion of where the journey was to end (Waterton, "Piet. Mar. Britt.", London, 1879, III, 107; "Anglo-Sax. Chron.", tr. Thorpe in R. S., London, 1861, II, 69; Beazley, "Dawn of Mod. Geog.", London, 1897-1906, I, 174-5; Tobl. Bibl. Geog. Pal. 26, ed. of 1876).



The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914 ed. in the public domain), "Pilgrimage" with minor edits.