Pilgrimages: An Ancient Tradition

Pilgrimages: An Ancient Tradition


In today’s modern world, we take so many things for granted; and not least among the list, international travel. Yet what can often seem a new innovation is often far from the case. Our modern concept of international tours, in fact, is an ancient tradition, one that truly has its origins in the Christian tradition of pilgrimage to sacred places and shrines in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Holy Land. 

As Christianity spread through Europe, many of its earliest apostles and adherents were individuals of exceptional character, conviction and faith. Many of the first saints of European peoples died a martyrs’ death in witness of their faith; more than a few performed great acts of piety, as well as miracles. As these figures of the early Church became recognized as saints and their miracles became well-known, early Christians sought to venerate the relics and places associated with those whom they asked for their intercessions in their daily lives. Other traditions included many of the Biblical figures, such as Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, Saint James the Apostle, and others visiting some of the lands of Europe. In time, places associated with the visits of these holy figures were turned into centers of worship and pilgrimage, often with monasteries and cathedrals being built as offerings of thanks by nobility, tradespeople, and people of simple means alike. In time, relics from the Holy Land also made their way to Europe, especially with the return of Crusaders who had completed their vows of pilgrimage to the Holy Land and brought back to their homes items of sanctity which would be given a special place of reverence in the local cathedral, church or monastery. 

The rite of passage

A culture of pilgrimage as a rite of passage was developed, one in which people would prepare themselves for journeys to such places as Rome or the Holy Land, or regional shrines of significance, much the same way that people today prepare for retirement. Indeed, in a world where lifespans were much shorter than present, and illnesses, highway robberies and exposure to the elements could have life-threatening consequences. Indeed, because of the risks, discomfort and lengths of time involved, pilgrimages were often a form of penance for sins. Others would undertake pilgrimage out of thanks for a miraculous event in their lives, to complete a promise for an answered prayer, to pray for the soul of a departed family member or loved one, and to prepare oneself for death as well. 

The Canterbury Tales, one of the first modern novels of Western civilization, is actually a collection of short stories as attributed to a group of pilgrims of varying backgrounds, professions, social classes and personalities having come together, united by their common destination to venerate the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury in England, each in their own way.  

Pilgrims who returned from their pilgrimages were often held in high esteem by their families and communities. Tokens of pilgrimage were often deposited in local parish churches, and also passed down as family heirlooms. Many often would change their names to denote pilgrimage, as evidenced by many family names found amongst many people of various European ancestries in the present day.

Pilgrimages Today

Pilgrimages are not limited to those of the Catholic and Orthodox faiths. Today, pilgrimages within Protestant and Evangelical traditions are common to not only such places as the Holy Land, but also Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, sharing in many of the traditions of the Catholic and Orthodox faiths as well as taking note of the historic traditions within their own faith traditions in their places of origin.

Pilgrimages to Europe can also be of deep personal significance to many Americans, many of whom have family ties to nations such as Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Poland. Having a chance to better understand the faith as they learned from parents, grandparents and communities who themselves or their ancestors came from these lands can be a deeply rewarding, often emotional experience.

Pilgrimages can also be an adventure amongst family, friends or as a solitary experience, a chance to discover new lands, new people, new customs, culture and cuisine, and perhaps, something new about oneself! 

Today, pilgrimages to Europe and beyond have been made immensely easier through all the benefits of modern civilization: stable relations between nations, public health, safety and security, modern transportation, wireless technology, and so forth. Yet the call to pilgrimage remains, and each year, millions answer by stepping away from their daily routines and setting out to better understand the mysteries of their faith.

See how a pilgrimage can transform your life, and join Good Shepherd on a pilgrimage tour.

Brynne TurnerComment