Pilgrimages are like the various creatures of land and sea: they come in various shapes and sizes. While they all involve travel, the goal of that travel can vary greatly. A literary pilgrimage might take in places involved with Shakespeare such as Stratford-on-Avon and the Globe Theater; closer to home (in the vicinity of Boston), places like Thoreau’s Waldon Pond and the literary commune at Brook Farm.
A patriotic pilgrimage might take in the government buildings in Washington, D.C., or the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
It is often difficult, however, to determine if these are truly pilgrimages or simply tourist trips. I want to discuss some religious pilgrimages. While the destinations of religious pilgrimages could likewise be tourist destinations, the religious aspect of these travels is foremost, and therefore we can call them religious pilgrimages. Here we shall look at certain religious pilgrimages in the context of different religions.
Mecca is the birthplace of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, the religion of Muslims. It is a central pillar of Islam that every able-bodied Muslim should carry out a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca at least once in his lifetime. Wikipedia says that this is at the rate of two to three million pilgrims per year.
Buddhist tradition has it that Gautama Buddha sat under a bodhi tree about 2,600 years ago in what is now Bodh Gaya, India, and attained enlightenment. Up to four million pilgrims come each year.
While there is no obligation, religious Hindus often make a circuit of four particular shrines in northern India as either a religious pilgrimage or religious tourism. Much more impressive is the crush of humanity to bathe away their sins in the Ganges River by Hindus, up to 120 million over a short period of time, which is determined by the alignment of stars and planets. This is known as the Kumbh Mela.
Jews had three pilgrimage feasts at which all men were called upon to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate. This practice ended with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. There is a connection to these pilgrimages to be seen in the wistful pledge, “Next year in Jerusalem.” We shall take another look at Jewish pilgrimages later.
Catholics have many sites for religious pilgrimages or for religious tourism. Locally, there are pilgrimages to the La Salette Shrine in Attleboro. St. Anne Church in Fall River used to be a great draw for pilgrims. Area laypeople are working hard to keep that tradition.
If you leave early, a one-day pilgrimage can be made to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs and the birthplace of the first indigenous saint of North America, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, at Auriesville, N.Y.
It would be a three-day pilgrimage to take in some of the sites in nearby Canada: Ste. Anne du Beaupre, Cap de la Madeleine, and St. Joseph’s Oratory.
Again, a three-day pilgrimage would be necessary to take in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and certain other sites connected to the Holy Land to be found in Washington, D. C.
Pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe are the largest of any in the Americas, and among the largest Catholic pilgrimages in the world. Typically this is a six- or eight-day pilgrimage.
Prior to the destruction of the Temple of the Jews by the powers of Rome, there were three pilgrimage feasts which the Bible prescribed to be observed by Jewish men: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Booths). Passover commemorated the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Shavuot was a thanksgiving festival for the wheat harvest in the spring. Sukkot was a thanksgiving festival for the barley harvest in the fall. After the destruction of the Temple these festivals became family festivals observed in homes or synagogues without a pilgrimage.
After the Resurrection of Jesus, His followers began to meet on the first day of the week, Sunday, to commemorate the Resurrection.
This is attested to by both numerous passages in the Bible and also by the writings of various Roman officials and historians. A prominent part of these gatherings was given to thanksgiving (in Greek, eucharistein).
In the Book of Exodus when Moses enacts the obligatory pilgrimage feast of Passover he also speaks of it as a memorial feast. At the Last Supper Jesus instituted a new pilgrimage feast when He enjoined us to “do this in memory of Me.” Thus we have one obligatory pilgrimage feast for Christians to go from their homes each week to the Sunday celebration of Thanksgiving at a church.
I encourage all of you to take this weekly pilgrimage to your parish church to offer thanks to God seriously!
Father Buote is a retired priest of the Fall River Diocese and a regular contributor to The Anchor.