Vacation is a welcome component of life. Months before the actual vacation is to take place, people spend a good deal of time planning and preparing for their annual vacation. Vacation is an important and necessary part of our lives. It helps to revitalize us physically and spiritually, and it allows us to be re-created so that we can put forth our very best self to whatever duties our station in life requires of us.
In discussing vacation plans it is not an uncommon occurrence to hear someone say that they are going on a pilgrimage to Rome, to the Holy Land or to the Shrines of Canada, Mexico or France. Recall the thousands of young people who gathered in France for World Youth day in August 1997 or the thousands who daily arrive in Rome. Annually, one-half million people come to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Some come as tourists, some come as pilgrims. Hopefully, all leave as pilgrims.
When people hear the word "pilgrimage" some frequently equate pilgrimage with a glorified form of vacation or consider the use of the word pilgrimage, semantics. People honestly confuse going on pilgrimage with going on vacation. While the two are not mutually exclusive, there is a difference between being a pilgrim and being a tourist. Tourists go on tour or vacation to see things. Pilgrims go on pilgrimage not necessarily to see something, but to receive something, such as renewed spirit, greater devotion, or a closer relationship with God.
From the earliest times, the graves of the martyrs were visited on the anniversary of their martyrdom. The excavation beneath Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome reveal that the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul were visited by the local community as early as the beginning of the second century. The diary of the Spanish virgin, Egeria (c. 350) documents the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the services held there during Holy Week and throughout the Easter Season. Pilgrimages in the early Church were undertaken for a number of reasons, among them being as penance for sin, to obtain some favor, for divine assistance, in thanksgiving, or for spiritual growth and devotion. Through the mortification, self denial and discomfort involved in the pilgrimage, one atoned for sin, fulfilled the needed self purification for the favors sought and was spiritually disposed to receive the blessings God bestowed. A pilgrimage was undertaken for a specific purpose and it certainly was not a holiday nor a spectator sport.
Pilgrimage is one of the principle spiritual practices highlighted by Pope John Paul II in Tertio Millennio Adveniente as a means of preparing for the Jubilee Year 2000 and in celebrating the Jubilee Year itself. The Holy Father encourages pilgrimages to the holy places of the world and expresses his own desire to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land (TMA, 24). As the Jubilee Year 2000 draws near, it will become easier to encourage people to go on pilgrimage, especially to the Holy Land or Rome. However, we will also be faced with the question or challenge as to whether these journeys are a vacation or a pilgrimage?
"The Pilgrimage in the Great Jubilee" published in April 1998 by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, highlights the aim of the contemporary pilgrim as "first of all a meeting with God....the pilgrim meets the mystery of God and discovers his countenance of love and mercy. In pilgrimages, people acknowledge that from the very circumstances of his origin, man is invited to converse with God." (#33) The challenge that is set before those involved in the promotion of pilgrimages today, is to recapture for the contemporary pilgrim the ancient pilgrim's understanding of a pilgrimage as a journey to draw closer to God. This will only happen if we are successful in turning tourists into pilgrims. People naturally want to see things that the trip they are making is unlike other trips. This trip is a spiritual trip, a journey undertaken for a spiritual purpose with a spiritual end.
To place things in proper perspective, it might be beneficial to remind the participants that they are not tourists, they are pilgrims. This mind set is established prior to departure. When they are packing their bags and checking their lists, pilgrims should be reminded that the most important thing they take with them on the pilgrimage is a sincere attitude of seeking God. They must be open to God's presence and activity in their lives, before, during and after the pilgrimage. The result of the pilgrimage will not be the amount of souvenirs brought home or the number of places visited, but the transformation that has taken place inside the person. If we are successful in delivering this message, then we will be successful in turning tourists into pilgrims.
by Reverend Walter R. Rossi, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington D.C. Originally Published in Jubilee 2000, the Newsletter of the USCC Secretariat of the Third Millennium and the Jubilee Year 2000.