Pilgrimage: Roman Catholic Pilgrimage in Europe

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During the Middle Ages the concept of Christian pilgrimage became a reality in Europe, with varied significance. Pilgrimage, making one's way to holy places, is above all an ascetic practice that lets the Christian find salvation through the difficulties and dangers of a temporary exile. It is also a means of coming in contact with that which is divine and thereby obtaining grace because of the accumulation of supernatural power in the pilgrimage site. However, there are occasions where the blessing requested has already been received, and the pilgrimage is then an act of gratitude. One can therefore distinguish two kinds of journey: the journey of the pilgrim seeking blessing and the journey of the pilgrim giving thanks. Important in both cases, however, is the interchange between God and man through the medium of the saints. It works like an exchange: a material offering (often symbolic, such as a candle) and a self-imposed mortification, the journey to the shrine, correspond to a spiritual or material favor bestowed upon the faithful, who considers it a miracle.

Principal Types of Shrine

The first type of shrine for pilgrimage evident in Europe was the sanctuary for relics, centered on a tomb or reliquary containing the remains of a saint or a fragment thereof. Usually initiated by mass devotion, such worship was validated by the bishop up to the thirteenth century and thereafter by the pope. Among these shrines, the tomb of Peter in Rome and that attributed to James the Greater at Santiago de Compostela in Spain were by far the most frequently visited. But there were also thousands of small churches frequented mainly by local pilgrims, most of which were brought to life only once a year, on the feast day of the patron saint.

The second large category of centers of pilgrimage is that of the Marian shrines. From the twelfth century onward, the worship of Mary developed greatly in Europe, worship that continues to draw the faithful right up to the present. Two main types of Marian shrines have evolved. First are those based on the veneration of a miraculous statue, sometimes called the Black Madonna; important examples of the type are found at Chartres, Le Puy, and Rocamadour in France; Montserrat and Guadalupe in Spain; Mariazell in Austria; Einsiedeln in Switzerland; and Częstochowa in Poland. All these shrines have been frequented since the Middle Ages. A variation on this type is represented by the two locations where homage is paid in a place where the Virgin Mary was miraculously transported or resurrected: Loreto in Italy and Walsingham in England.

The second main category of Marian shrine consists of places sanctified by an apparition of the Virgin and the transmission of a message to a believer chosen by her. These apparitions are evident mainly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The principal ones took place in the rue du Bac in Paris (1830), at La Salette (1846), Lourdes (1858), Pontmain (1871), and at Pellevoisin (1876) in France; at Fátima in Portugal (1917); and at Beauraing and Banneux in Belgium (1932). Of all the shrines, those dedicated to the Virgin Mary still attract the greatest number of believers.

The Evolution of Pilgrimage in Europe

There have been six main stages in the evolution of pilgrimage in Europe beginning with the Middle Ages. The period encompassing the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries saw a dramatic increase in the number of centers of pilgrimage and a corresponding rise in the number of pilgrims. During the fifteenth century and above all the sixteenth century (at the time of the Reformation), the practice of pilgrimage underwent a crisis in which its very usefulness was called into serious question (in the context of the rise of the iconoclastic movement in the churches). With the Council of Trent (15451563) there began a period of resurgence, the duration of which varied from country to country. The impulse was halted in France at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but it continued in the Germanic and Slavic countries right up to the time of the French Revolution. Generally speaking, the pilgrim movement became victim to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which favored reason above religion, and victim as well to the wish to purge the faith. (The pilgrimage is interpreted by the Roman Catholic hierarchy at this time as a form of superstition to be discouraged.) In the nineteenth century, Catholicism underwent another renewal of faith, which brought with it a renewed impulse for pilgrimage, slow in the first half of the century, then gathering momentum and reaching a peak between 1850 and 1875, probably due to the development of rail travel coinciding with a rise in the influence of the papacy. Since the end of World War I, pilgrimage has been at a notable level, while undergoing sociological change: collective pilgrimages have taken the lead over individual journeys, and more than ever before, young people are taking part in pilgrimages, previously more of an adult occupation. This contributes a notably more universal and ecumenical tone to pilgrimage. However, the modern-day pilgrimage continues, as in previous centuries, to temporarily dissolve the normal lines between social classes. It has also kept its popular nature, even if some of the folklore and customs attached to it have disappeared.

The current record for the number of visits to a shrine is held by Lourdes, to which three million pilgrims journey each year. Next comes Fátima with two million visitors. There are several shrines that annually receive more than one million pilgrims: the Chapel of the Miraculous Medallion at the rue du Bac in Paris, Our Lady of Rocamadour, Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel (French, Montaigu) in Belgium, Our Lady of Montserrat in Spain, the Sacré-Coeur at Montmartre in Paris and Mont-Saint-Michel in northwestern France. With regard to pilgrimages to Rome, the greatest number of believers come in the Holy Years.

Today, as during previous centuries, the pilgrimage is a manifestation of collective devotion in which are mingled the two great concerns of the faithful: the salvation of the soul and the thirst for miracles. The pilgrimage is also an opportunity for human contacts of all sorts and for economic, artistic, and religious interchanges, making it one of the most vital elements of European Catholicism.

See Also



For a general view of the meaning of Christian pilgrimage, see Victor Turner and Edith Turner's Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York, 1978). A more detailed work on Roman Catholic pilgrimage in Europe, and particularly in France, is the recent and well-informed publication edited by Jean Chelini and Henry Branthome, Les chemins de Dieu: Histoire des pèlerinages chrétiens des origines à nos jours (Paris, 1982). With regard to the medieval period, a good study in English is Jonathan Sumption's Pilgrimage: An Image of Mediaeval Religion (London, 1972). More recent developments are described in the work edited by Bernard Plongeron and Robert Pannet, Le christianisme populaire (Paris, 1976). Finally, a good work on the greatest European contemporary pilgrimage, the pilgrimage to Lourdes, is that of Bernard Billet and Pierre Lafourcade, Lourdes pèlerinage (Paris, 1981).

New Sources

Dahlberg, Andrea. "The Body as a Principle of Holism: Three Pilgrimages to Lourdes." In Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage, edited by John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow. New York, 1991.

Dunn, Maryjane, and Linda Kay Davidson, eds. The Pilgrimage to Campostela In the Middle Ages. New York, 1996.

Nolan, Mary Lee, and Sidney Nolan. Christian Pilgrimage In Modern Western Europe. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989.

Kessler, Herbert L., and Johanna Zacharias. Rome 1300: On the Path of the Pilgrims. New Haven, Conn., 2000.

Webb, Diana. Pilgrims and Pilgrimages in the Medieval West. London, 1999.

Pierre AndrÉ Sigal (1987)

Translated from French by P. J. Burbidge
Revised Bibliography

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