I have been thinking about pilgrimage lately.

The growing popularity of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has put the whole idea of pilgrimage on the radar screen for many people who might never have thought about undertaking a pilgrimage before. A recent New York Times story relates that 240,000 pilgrims are expected this year on the Camino, as it is called, compared to 423 pilgrims who were certified as completing the route in 1984. 215,880 pilgrims completed the route last year alone. Is pilgrimage becoming a revived category of meaning today?

cockleshellJust this week, I heard from a friend who lives in Versailles, France, who described to me a parish pilgrimage in honor of the baptism of the parish’s patron Saint, St. Louis. 1,300 parishioners joined the walk, which could be as long as 15 miles or as short as 1,000 feet. Again, the number of participants was impressive. The pilgrimage was punctuated with reflections on one’s own baptism as well as the baptism of the parish’s patron saint. Texts taken from the Church’s rite of baptism for adults provided inspiration along the way. Getting to know other parishioners on the pilgrimage was also a benefit my friend derived from this experience.

I see a connection between pilgrimage and two other phenomena in the Church today.

First, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults talks about faith as a journey. Initiation is an iterative process. There is a path and a goal, but the journey takes as long as it takes. As the rite says, “nothing can be determined a priori.” The journey unfolds in stages, a concept very congenial to human sensibilities about life as a journey and faith as an unfolding story of discovery and relationship.

Second, this reminds me of the popularity of the labyrinth as a spiritual exercise. Again, it is an exercise that relies on walking. Those who walk the labyrinth report a spiritual mystery unfolds within themselves as they follow the path–not focusing so much on the end point as on the next step. They trust that they will reach the center of the labyrinth and spiral out again (back into everyday life). The walk is an icon of the experience of faith.

Although pilgrimages are not per se liturgical exercises, it seems to me that they are related to liturgical spirituality. The Book of Blessings has a rite of blessing for pilgrims. Yet even more fundamentally, the liturgy as a whole is about blessing pilgrims on their journey — from the moment of their call to faith until the day they reach journey’s end. A pilgrim is not someone wandering and confused but someone on an intentional journey. It was in this sense that the Second Vatican Council called the Church a pilgrim people (LG 48, GS 57).


  1. I did Compostella after graduating from College in 93. There were a few thousand on it then. I have a hard time comprehending the numbers mentioned here.

  2. This is finding renewal because in a real sense it is a liturgical movement. It sends you to a place much like the forward movement in coming forward for the Eucharist. The person walking usually starts in a sense of prayer and prayer filters back into the experience at different times.

    The comparison to the Labyrinth is deeply accurate. Maybe you are accurate in liturgical spirituality than a liturgical exercise but I find that physical movement in prayer touches a mind-body-spirit place in one’s soul.

    Interesting that in the age of video anything, that physical exertion and movement would be making such a leap. Thanks Rita.

    1. @Ed Nash – comment #2:
      Ed, I think your comment about “the age of video anything” is astute. We can “see” just about anything by the click of a mouse, so what is being sought through the effort of walking and going in person? We could say it’s to say that you’ve been there, or to push limits (for those who take one of the longer routes) like those people who run marathons. But I think you’re onto something when you point to the mind-body-spirit unity that is involved. People hunger for that.

      Thanks for your comment.

    2. @Ed Nash – comment #2:
      The renowned Orthodox liturgist Alexander Schmeman thought as much. He thought that the Mass begins when all individual disciples cross over the thresholds of their homes and move to the place where they become the Church. This informs my meditation when I venture out every Sunday. It is a kind of pilgrimage, or a sacramental reminder of how we are a pilgrim people.

  3. I started an article in GIA Quarterly a couple of years ago with these words:

    Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? To the Holy Land, or to Rome, or to a shrine? I wonder what it felt like for you.

    In the Middle Ages, going on pilgrimage was a serious business. The mode of transport would be on foot, or if you were lucky on horseback. Only the very rich might be taken in a carriage of some kind. Pilgrimages therefore took a long time, much longer than they do today. Weeks, months and even years were common; so there was plenty of time for preparation and build-up on the journey there, and plenty of time for reflection and mystagogia on the way back again. Creature comforts would be sadly lacking: uncertain food, and little of it; sleeping on floors or on straw in barns; few opportunities for washing and personal hygiene, nor for changing clothes. You would get to know your fellow-pilgrims in sometimes unpleasantly intimate detail. And yet this was all part of the experience.

    That kind of experience was not confined to the Middle Ages, of course. The great Johann Sebastian Bach at the age of 20 walked the 250 miles each way from Arnstadt to Lübeck and back again on pilgrimage to see the famous organist-composer Dietrich Buxtehude and hear the Advent Abendmusik series of concerts. That must have taken him two to three weeks each way, plus the five weeks he spent there… And in more recent times friends of mine have walked to Rome and back from England. That’s roughly 1200 miles each way. Another popular destination is Compostela, and many pilgrims there walk the last 500 miles across Spain from the French border.

    The point of all this is that I think we have lost a sense of what pilgrimage means. It means time as well as distance. A London parishioner on pilgrimage to the Holy Land will typically dive into the nearest subway station, take the subway train and emerge from the bowels of the earth directly inside the terminal at London Heathrow, from where s/he will board the plane and arrive at the airport in Tel Aviv a matter of hours after setting out from home. Probably not a breath of real outside fresh air the whole way, and certainly a diminished sense of journey. Our annual diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes is undertaken by most people using plane or train. The few like myself who have to go by car (because of the amount of stuff I have to take with me) have a harder and longer time of it, but it’s still nothing compared to those pilgrims of old. For most people today, it seems, a pilgrimage is simply starting from point A and arriving at point B. The whole process of getting there, and getting back, has been largely lost.

    Rita is pointing to an increased sense of journey that I had not perceived was happening, so thank you, Rita, for this interesting update.

    I think the parallel with the labyrinth is very true, especially the putting one step in front of another rather than focusing on the center. A similar experience can be had when climbing Mount Sinai in the middle of the night to reach the summit in time for dawn (which, curiously, I also wrote about in a GIAQ article).

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #3:
      Paul, thank you for sharing those reflections from your archive. I’m blissfully unaware of people who take pilgrimages by plane. I’d agree with you, it irons out some of the wrinkles that make a pilgrimage on foot so powerful.

      I heard one person talking about his experience of walking the Camino as a refreshingly focused time in his life. Every day, he said, I would wake up and I wouldn’t have to ask “What am I doing today?” because I know what I’m doing. I’m walking.

      I loved that comment.

  4. I think the body/spirit aspect of the purposeful Pilgrim is touching something that is hard to name. Reflection and mystagogia name the head reality…your calling out of the “time as well as distance” may be why the practice seems to be gathering traction…very little we do in our prompts us to recognize what you ask about time and distance.

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