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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14

Pilgrimage in the Christian Religion



What is Pilgrimage?

Christian 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.

In Christianity, the life and ministry of Jesus Christ 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.


The purpose

Hence Buddhism and Islam 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.

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Source

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