Our daily walk in the Faith, and thus our earthly life, are inherent pilgrimages. We are all bound together, as God’s human family, in a transitory march toward eternity and our final resting place. Accompanied by the Word of God and the Eucharist, the faithful are called to seek paths of righteousness on their journey to the Father’s House.
God’s chosen ones have been wanderers since the dawn of humanity and throughout the biblical age. Therefore, it is no surprise that salvation history is rife with imagery of literal and metaphorical pilgrimages. The theme of straying “off the path,” away from God’s love, begins in the Garden, and man is destined to spend the remainder of his days searching for the divine presence and His love, in an attempt to regain entry into the Promised Land. This cycle of departure, conversion, return, and embrace by the Father is present in stories from Abraham to Moses to Elijah. The Psalms sing of the people’s ascent toward God’s holy mountain, where they will dwell in communion with Him. Revelation describes our final destination as well: “… the holy city… coming down from God out of heaven.” Of course, it is not until God’s Son Himself embarks on His own earthly pilgrimage that we are shown the true path to the Kingdom of Heaven and given the keys to re-open its gates. Christ’s teachings, from His parable of the prodigal son to His metaphor of the wayward sheep continue these “journey” and “seeking” motifs. They also illustrate man’s longing and need for closeness with the Father and His Son.
Fostering a deeper union with Christ and His Church is the primary aim of any pilgrimage to holy sites and sacred spaces. The practice of Christian pilgrimage originated in the fourth century with treks to the Holy Land. So who was the first Christian pilgrim to set out on an odyssey to follow in the footsteps of Christ? A daring, sword-wielding young knight? No. A reverent Bishop or Church dignitary? No. A fervent descendent of an early disciple of Christ? No. Daring, reverent, and fervent… yes! But this pilgrim was elderly, a woman, and… a convert.
With a passion ignited by her newfound faith, St. Helena crossed treacherous waters and deserts in dogged pursuit of the True Cross and the Holy Sepulcher. This humble servant of Christ, and mother of Emperor Constantine, mapped the hallowed ground where Our Lord tread and unearthed relics of the Crucifixion, all while ministering to the poor along the way. St. Helena’s journey became the paradigm for all future pilgrimages. It opened the door for all the faithful — Church Fathers, future pontiffs and saints, and clergy and laity alike— to go out and visit those places that connect us with our Faith, inspire us, and lead us to a spiritual conversion. And it stirred the hearts of believers and non-believers alike, illuminating our souls’ hunger and thirst for a deeper intimacy with Christ.
St. Helena’s odyssey also creates parameters that distinguish a true pilgrimage from tourism or an exotic vacation. St. John Paul II encouraged authentic journeys of the soul and elucidated that they can only be spiritual ones if they are a time of prayer, reconciliation, charity, and renewal – intentional, humble, and sometimes arduous walks toward a holy place. As such, the sojourn and chosen destination will then provide “an oasis of contemplation,” a source of grace, refuge, solace, or wisdom.
Pilgrimages help us (re)discover the tangible and intangible treasures of our Faith – relics of the past, Christian fellowship and brotherhood, Our Holy Mother, divine love and mercy. Thus, the fruits of the journey are many, such as conversion, renewal, communion, and evangelization. Their transformative power can unveil the truth, beauty, and mysteries of our Faith.
However, one does not need to trek across the globe to have such personal, spiritual encounters. As the summer reaches its zenith and then lazily winds its way to autumnal breezes, consider including some sort of mini-pilgrimage in your travel plans or leisure time. There are many inspiring, soul-feeding meccas of the Faith right here in the United States. Listed below are some of the favorite destinations of the “pilgrims” who visit our online community:
“For me, it’s definitely the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, MD. It’s on the campus where Mother Seton herself lived, taught, and prayed, up in the mountains on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. There’s a TON of history up there, not to mention an amazing museum that includes things like the medical documents related to her sainthood cause, her wedding ring, a piece of the altar rail where she received her First Communion, and more.” -Matt Swaim, CHNetwork Director of Outreach
“San Antonio, Texas! It’s like a Catholic museum: the missions, San Fernando Cathedral, Basilica of the Little Flower, Oblate School of Theology… so many wonderful Catholic spots.” -Catherine Ranum, CHNetwork Online Community Moderator
“St. Leo Abbey is a Benedictine monastery north of Tampa, FL. The historic abbey church is lovely, and there is also a Marian grotto on the grounds. The monks have a retreat center and offer organized spiritual retreats for individuals and groups.” -Gregory R.
“The Basilica & National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation, in Carey, OH – a wonderful place, especially during the Assumption pilgrimage. If you haven’t been there, then you don’t know what you’re missing.” -Thomas S.
“Holy Hill near Milwaukee, WI. Every year my family would go and climb the 172 steps to the top of the tower. Climbing the tower is a test of bravery, as the spiral staircase dangerously narrows past a 12-foot open window way up there in the sky…. Sitting atop a hill, [its spires] can be seen from miles away” -Linda L.
“Mary Queen of the Universe Shrine in Orlando, FL used to average 300,000 visitors every year. They just installed a huge pipe organ with 32-inch pipes… [There are] statues of St. Michael, St. Peter on a chair with keys, St. Paul (inside, writing Scripture and outside, having a conversion experience), and St. Joseph in his carpenter’s shop with Jesus as a boy.” -Bradlee S.
“The St. Frances Cabrini Shrine outside Denver, CO – not only does it have everything expected at a memorial for a saint, its location on a mountain top provides incredible views of the peaks above and the plains below!” Chuck L.
“The Shrine and Basilica of Nuestra Señora de San Juan del Valle in San Juan, TX – the basilica is huge, holding 5,000 people — yet six Sunday Masses are required each week to accommodate all the pilgrims. The strange thing is that most people outside the immediate area have never heard of it.” David Emery, CHNetwork Community Moderator
“The Shrine of St. Katherine Drexel in Columbia, VA, collocated with St. Joseph’s Catholic Church – a very rural and fun back-road area to visit and spend a few hours in contemplation.” -Tony F.
While all of these locales and sacred spaces invite us to unique encounters with the Lord and Our Faith, one’s itinerary does not necessarily need to be geographical or spatial in nature. On the contrary, it need only be an interior journey, a pilgrimage marked by a search for the One True Love and emanating from a pure desire to know Him, love Him, and serve Him. Consequently, these journeys, in whatever form they take, become Trinitarian in nature – we seek a deeper walk with and through Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, toward the house of our Father. The Blessed Mother cannot be left out of our wanderings, either. For Mary is “the one in whom the pilgrimage of the Word, toward humankind, converges with humankind’s pilgrimage of faith… thus [she becomes] a star of evangelization for the journey of the whole Church.”
Therefore, even the most simple, humble journeys of the mind, heart, and feet can have the most profound effect on our souls. Zacchaeus climbed a tree; Martha put down a dish, and Nicodemus took a walk at night – all seemingly mundane events. Nevertheless, these intentional, albeit unassuming, sojourns held everlasting consequences. Thus, even those incapable of partaking in a traditional pilgrimage are able to embark on an interior journey, one leading to a deeper intimacy with the Lord. So, go out of the way to get a closer look at Christ. Purposely set aside everyday distractions and tasks to listen to the Word of God. Take the time to walk, unafraid, toward the Truth and the answers you seek. Start a journey, and see what wondrous things await you on the path… and who is waiting for you at the end.