As you make or finalize your plans for summer travel, you could and perhaps should include visiting one or more shrines or sacred places.
As our children were growing up, my wife and I shared with them our love of castles, knights, and all things medieval. We spent countless hours building and re-building the Playmobil castle. Our favorite books were Tomie dePaola’s The Knight and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges’s Saint George and the Dragon, and Edward Eager’s Knight’s Castle—to say nothing of classics such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia with their medieval feel. Our favorite movies were The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn; Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, The Sword and the Stone, and The Fighting Prince of Donegal; as well as The Court Jester with Danny Kaye.
I dearly wanted to take our children to Europe so they could see not only castles but also cathedrals and monasteries that were built in the Middle Ages. That was out of the question since our minivan could not get us across the Atlantic! Then I realized we had a place with a medieval feel (a walled city with a citadel) within driving distance from where we lived in Ohio—Old Quebec! So, see Old Quebec we did, and our visit coincided with its annual but, sadly, now-defunct Medieval Festival.
My wife and I made visiting shrines and churches an integral part of that vacation. On the way there, we drove through other parts of Canada, which enabled us to stay a night in Montreal where we spent time at Notre-Dame Basilica, Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral (a scale model of Saint Peter’s Basilica), and Saint Joseph’s Oratory. Outside of Quebec City, we visited the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. On the way home, we went through New York State, which enabled us to explore Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine, which is the Shrine of the North American Martyrs. (I admit: we also stopped at another “shrine” of sorts – the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown.)
Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 letter on the Pastoral Care of Pilgrimages and Shrines has a marvelous description of what a shrine is and why it is important.
Shrines, he says, are “sacred places” of “dignity and beauty,” “the image[s] of ‘God’s dwelling . . . with the human race’ (Revelation 21:3), “spaces for both personal and community prayer, and attention to devotional practices,” and “lighthouses of charity” where “the Word of Christ, the Son of the living God, can ring out clearly, and the event of his death and resurrection, the foundation of our faith, can be proclaimed completely…favoring in particular the faithful’s reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and taking part worthily in the Eucharistic celebration, making this the center and apex of all the pastoral activity of the shrines.” A shrine also has a
great ability to summon and bring together . . . [those who] are in complicated human and spiritual situations, somewhat distant from living the faith and with a weak ecclesial affiliation. Christ speaks to all of them with love and hope. The desire for happiness that is imbedded in the soul finds its answer in Him, and human suffering together with Him has a meaning.
Fr. William Saunders’s perceptive article, “Cathedrals, Shrines and Basilicas,” explains the difference between these three places. He points out that a shrine is a place “where a relic is preserved, like the Shrine of St. Jude in Baltimore; where an apparition has taken place, like the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock in Ireland or the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City; or where an historical event of faith has taken place, like the Shrine of Our Lady of the Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y., where [three 17th century] Jesuit missionaries were martyred.” He adds that a shrine “may also be a place designated to foster a belief or devotion,” an example of which is the inter-denominational Shrine of Christ’s Passion in St. John, Indiana.
Shrines can easily be found on the internet. Anyone can do a search for “Catholic shrines” for the state in which they live or intend to visit. You may wish to check out this helpful site as you do your vacation preparations.
Also worth visiting are other sacred places, not just cathedrals and basilicas but also monasteries or other churches. One of my favorite places to spend time at is the Abbey of the Genesee, a Trappist monastery in western New York State, where guests are welcome to pray the Divine Office with the monks in the Abbey Church. (You can also buy delicious Monks’ Bread in the Abbey Bread Store.)
When a shrine or sacred place is the destination of a trip and not a stopover, that trip is a pilgrimage. As worthwhile as the long and arduous Camino de Santiago in northern Spain is, it is not the only model of pilgrimage.
Benedict XVI made a helpful contrast that helps us understand the nature of pilgrimage. “In fact, different from a wanderer whose steps have no established final destination, a pilgrim always has a destination . . . And this destination is none other than the encounter with God through Christ in whom all our aspirations find their response.” We can add that this purpose of encountering Christ also distinguishes the pilgrim from the tourist. What makes a pilgrimage a pilgrimage, then, is not the degree of physical challenge involved but the intentional openness to growing in relationship with Christ by making a trip to a sacred place out of one’s ordinary routine.
Furthermore, adds the pope, “. . . the celebration of the Eucharist can be considered the culmination of the pilgrimage.” If Mass is not available during our time at the sacred place, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or even prayerful contemplation of sacred art can serve as the crowning moment of pilgrimage.
Reasons for Making a Pilgrimage or Sacred Visit
There are several classic reasons for making a pilgrimage or visiting a sacred place, and, of course, there can be more than one reason for a trip. Here are reflection questions for each purpose.
Petition: Should I offer up to God my efforts to travel and then, while I am there, ask God for something for myself? Is my petition spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual? Do I need to grow in some way or change in some way? Do I need help in a particular relationship or situation?
Intercession: Should I offer up to God my efforts to travel and then, while I am there, offer prayers for someone else? Is what they need spiritual, material, emotional, intellectual? Do they need to grow in some way or change in some way? Do they need help in a particular relationship or situation?
Penance: Should I do some specific penance for something wrong I did? Do I need to show that I am truly sorry?
Praise: Should I express my love for God and my acceptance of His will in my life? Am I looking for something religious to do in order to live out my faith? Do I need to worship or thank God in a special way? Is there a devotion I should deepen or begin, such as the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross?
Resting in the Presence of God: Do I need to spend more time with God and get away from the cares and challenges of daily life? Is it an especially good time to bask in the beauty of sacred art and architecture? Is there a saint I want to venerate?
Searching: Am I currently searching for God in my life? Does God seem unreal to me at this point in my life? Does making a journey to a holy place seem appropriate?
Since we live in a culture that seems to be addicted to emotions, we can apply C. S. Lewis’s caveat from his great classic Mere Christianity to making sacred visits and pilgrimages:
Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay [that we make ourselves an enemy to God and His absolute goodness every day] . . . In religion . . . comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.
Likewise, let us always be looking for truth as we make our summer travels more Catholic. In a nutshell, if our travels do not help us grow in fidelity to Catholic doctrine, we will be making God into our own image and likeness rather than growing in His image and likeness.
Life Is a Pilgrimage
Making a particular pilgrimage or stopping at a sacred place during our travels is a good reminder that this world is not our home. We should be like Benedict XVI: “I have wanted to live . . . with the sentiments of a pilgrim who travels over the roads of the world with hope and simplicity bringing on his lips and in his heart the saving message of the Risen Christ….” As the Holy Father points out, Christ
continues to walk with us, enlighten our lives with his Word, and share with us the Bread of Life in the Eucharist. In this way, the pilgrimage to the shrine will be a favorable occasion to strengthen the desire in those who visit it to share the wonderful experience with others of knowing they are loved by God and sent to the world to give witness to that love
a love which will find its fulfillment only in the Kingdom of God, the ultimate destination to which we should be journeying. God “does not leave us alone on the journey but stays at our side and shows us the way.”
Benedict XVI concluded his Letter likening us as we make our pilgrimage “through life” to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and offering a prayer that we can make our own:
Lord Jesus Christ, pilgrim of Emmaus,
you make yourself close to us for love,
even if, at times, discouragement and sadness
prevent us from discovering your presence.
You are the flame that revives our faith.
You are the light that purifies our hope.
You are the force that stirs our charity.
Teach us to recognize you in the Word,
in the house and on the Table where the Bread of Life is shared,
in generous service to our suffering neighbor.
And when evening falls, Lord, help us to say:
“Stay with us.” Amen.