The Power of Pilgrimage
How to get the most from walking in the footsteps of Jesus
Over the past 10 years, I have had the good fortune of co-leading three pilgrimages to the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine and Jordan), one to Turkey and one to Greece, with more planned for the coming years. I have also taught in a summer program in Jerusalem and served as chaplain for pilgrimages to Rome, Poland and Mexico. Maybe some of you have also led pilgrimages yourselves, with people from your parishes, families, schools, seminaries or other organizations. Hopefully, some of what I say here can resonate with your own experiences. And if you have never led a pilgrimage, or have never even gone on one, I hope this article might inspire you to do so.
The Purpose of Pilgrimage
We sometimes speak metaphorically of our life as a “pilgrimage” here on earth. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), so Christians are always called to be with Jesus “on the way,” journeying toward the Kingdom. Jesus himself was an itinerant preacher and teacher, traveling throughout ancient Galilee and Judea, so being “on the way” with him is an important image for Christian discipleship, especially represented in the Gospel of Mark.
More literally, a pilgrimage is an actual journey to visit holy places. Some pilgrimages visit historical churches, religious shrines or other sacred sites in a particular country. Others are organized around themes, such as Marian apparitions, particular saints or religious orders (Franciscan, Dominican, Ignatian).
Given my own background as a New Testament scholar, this article will focus primarily on pilgrimages “In the Footsteps of Jesus” or “In the Footsteps of St. Paul and Early Christians.” These are journeys to some lands that are foundational for our Catholic Christian faith, where most biblical events occurred and most biblical characters lived.
The ultimate purpose of a pilgrimage, however, is not just to see sacred sites (“religious tourism”) but to grow in our faith, become better disciples of Jesus and encounter God more deeply.
Pilgrimages in the Bible
When Abraham is told by God to leave his homeland and journey with his family to what is later called “the holy land” (Zec 2:16), it might be considered a pilgrimage in the broadest sense, and yet he is not visiting places that are already historically or spiritually significant in his faith.
Similarly, when Moses journeys with the Israelites through the desert for 40 years, their eventual destination is “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8), the land God promised to give to the twelve tribes of Israel; yet they do not necessarily visit any places already considered sacred due to biblical events involving their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In the days of the monarchy, under the rule of Kings David and Solomon and their successors, Jerusalem became more and more important for the Israelites as the capital of their nation and the location of their Temple. Jerusalem eventually came to be called the “holy city” (Neh 11:1; Is 52:1) and its temple the “holy place” (Ez 43:12). So it is understandable that the Jews returning from exile in Babylon place more and more emphasis on Jerusalem and its temple as the center of their lives.
Even so, in the days of Jesus, people did not go up to Jerusalem primarily to see the grand Temple, recently renovated by King Herod the Great, although those from small towns and villages such as Jesus’ disciples were understandably impressed by its beauty and grandeur (cf. Mk 13:1; Mt 24:1; Lk 21:5). Nor did people go to the Jerusalem Temple, because it was traditionally thought to be the site where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ parents practiced this custom regularly — “Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover” (Lk 2:41) — and recounts what happened when Jesus was 12 years old. All four of the Gospels also tell us that, as an adult, Jesus and his disciples went up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, the week that he died. Only John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem at least three times, in three different years, for the feast of Passover. It also mentions Jesus’ presence in the Temple for several other major Jewish festivals: Tabernacles, Hanukkah and possibly Pentecost.
This idea of gathering in Jerusalem for the annual festivals is slightly different, however, from the Christian practice of traveling to holy sites, which we do not only on major feast days but at any time of the year. Moreover, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70, it was no longer common — or even possible — for most Jews to travel to Jerusalem for the three annual “pilgrimage festivals.” For those Jews who believed in Jesus, along with the gentiles who joined them to form the early Christian Church, there was little need to go to Jerusalem or its Temple, which in a sense had been replaced by Jesus himself. Rather than journeying to the holy city, Christians could gather anywhere to worship their Lord. They didn’t need to travel to special places to celebrate, since Jesus himself came to meet them wherever they were, his spiritual presence through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
No Old Testament or early Christian texts show people intentionally traveling to historically sacred places. Yet the foundations for the Christian practice of pilgrimage can be seen in the New Testament, even at the birth of Jesus.
When the angels tell the shepherds, “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:11-12), the shepherds respond by saying, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place” (v. 15). The Evangelist then tells us, “So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger” (v. 16).
The visit of the Magi from the east to worship the child Jesus in Bethlehem is similar, in that Matthew describes an intentional journey with a spiritual purpose to a specific place: they followed the star “until it came and stopped over the place where the child was” (Mt 2:9).
Another biblical foundation for the practice of pilgrimage might be the visit of the women to the empty tomb, where the angel tells them, “Come and see the place where he lay” (Mt 28:6).
I have long been impressed by the prayers of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem that refer to “the gloriously empty tomb of Jesus.” Visiting the place where Jesus was buried is very different from the usual practice of visiting a cemetery. Rather than visiting gravesites to remember the deceased, who remain buried in the ground, visits to the Holy Sepulchre celebrate our faith in the resurrection of Jesus, whose body is not there, as the angel told the women (cf. Mk 16:6; Mt 28:6; Lk 24:6).
This new Christian motivation for journeying to places made sacred by the life of Jesus — especially his birth, death and resurrection — grew stronger in the fourth century, when Christianity was no longer deemed illegal by the Roman Empire.
As reported by the early Christian historian Eusebius, in 326-28, St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, visited Palestine and Jerusalem, locating sites associated with Jesus and promoting the building of Christian churches. A “pilgrimage diary” was also written by Egeria, a Spanish nun who traveled to the Holy Land in the 380s. Visiting the Holy Land has been a goal for many Christians ever since, including Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and millions of others.
Elements of a Pilgrimage
Several aspects make a true pilgrimage more than a just “study trip” or “religious sightseeing.” Although the emphases may vary, the most meaningful pilgrimages integrate three main elements: educational, spiritual and communal.
Learning about the biblical, historical, archaeological and cultural aspects of the sites you are visiting helps you understand and appreciate what you are seeing much more deeply. This can start long before the actual pilgrimage, through reading the Bible, attending workshops, taking courses and even browsing good websites. During the pilgrimage, one can learn much from information provided in the churches, museums and archaeological sites, as well as from gifted local guides. Our pilgrimages have been blessed with truly excellent guides who not only know the history and archaeology but are also skilled communicators and attentive resources.
A Christian pilgrimage is much more than an academic study trip, since it is primarily about spiritual transformation, which can be facilitated by various resources from the faith tradition. These include celebrating Mass and other rituals at sacred sites — for example, renewing baptismal vows at the Jordan River or marriage vows in Cana — participating in a Holy Hour in Gethsemane, walking the Way of the Cross on the streets of Jerusalem, and praying or singing together at other times, even on the bus.
It is very moving when prayer is integrated into pilgrim experiences throughout the day, not just at Mass. We have also learned that it is important to provide extended times for silent reflection so that the pilgrims can truly interiorize what they are experiencing.
Celebrating daily Mass with a community of pilgrims at the sites made holy by Jesus’ earthly life is often among the pilgrims’ most moving memories. We also include a brief morning and/or evening prayer daily, either in the hotel or on the bus, so that prayer and Scripture always accompany us. Many pilgrims also appreciate reciting the Rosary together or using other popular devotions.
Singing together on the pilgrimage is especially moving, even for those who say they can’t sing! Our groups particularly enjoy singing biblical canticles in the appropriate places: Mary’s Magnificat at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem; the Benedictus of Zechariah in the nearby Church of John the Baptist; the Beatitudes on the Mount of Beatitudes; and Christmas carols in Bethlehem. As we approach Jerusalem, driving up the road from Jericho into the Judean hills, our pilgrims sing “Jerusalem, My Destiny” by Rory Cooney.
Although one can be a solitary pilgrim, a pilgrimage is usually a profoundly communal experience. A pilgrimage can facilitate the development of community through group meetings, informal conversations, sharing local meals together and singing or even playing games on the bus. Selecting prayer partners for the journey, asking pilgrims to provide assistance to those with mobility needs and enjoying a festive closing banquet are all ways that build a sense of Christian fellowship among pilgrims journeying together. Some time for shopping together can also enhance the group experience, as well as provide support for local artisans and businesses. Finally, we encourage people to share photos after the trip and invite them to gather for a reunion after a few months.
Pilgrimage Leadership Teams
Some companies that help groups organize pilgrimages recommend that each group has both a spiritual leader and a group coordinator, in addition to the local guide(s) and/or tour host in the country or countries one is visiting.
The spiritual leader is often a priest or bishop, who can preside at most Masses and provide other sacraments along the way, although other priests and deacons can, of course, also assist with presiding and preaching.
The group coordinator, on the other hand, takes care of many practical and organizational details before and during the pilgrimage.
Since most pilgrim groups are composed of both men and women, we have come to believe that it is important to have one or more women involved as co-leaders of the pilgrimage, rather than a priest as the only leader. Some bishops invite a woman who works for the diocese to be the co-leader, while priests can work together with a member of the parish staff.
For the past decade, the co-leader of most of “my” pilgrimages has been my friend and colleague Gail Gresser, the director of Campus Ministry at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. We try to model a truly collaborative style of leadership, rather than leaving the spiritual aspects to me and the other matters to her. Although I obviously preside and preach at the Masses, Gail leads most of the morning and evening prayers and some other non-Eucharistic services, assists in pastoral care and helps organize the liturgical ministries for the Masses. On the flip side, although she pays special attention to how the pilgrims are doing and how things are going with the group overall, I also assist with many of the logistical, practical and social dimensions of the pilgrimage. Working with a co-leader requires more effort in communication and a willingness to compromise when differences arise, but the extra effort is certainly worthwhile. Moreover, the different personalities of the co-leaders can reach a variety of pilgrims with their unique personalities, backgrounds and needs.
The local guides, in addition to being skilled experts and teachers, are also indispensable primary liaisons with the people and cultures of the lands we are visiting. They help us avoid difficult situations, model appropriate and caring behavior and share their own experiences and insights, thus helping our pilgrims encounter the contemporary people who are hosting us.
After being in the Holy Land, many of our pilgrims have said that their most significant moments were when they had a deep sense of communion with Jesus by being where he himself was 2,000 years ago. For some, this is in Galilee: in his hometown of Nazareth or in Capernaum, where much of his public ministry took place. It might be seeing the ruins of the ancient synagogues, or sailing on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, or standing on the shores of the lake. For others, it is in Jerusalem: in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the House of the High Priest, or at the site of the Crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Why Pilgrims Went to the Temple in Jerusalem
Pilgrims primarily visited the Temple to make sacrificial offerings to the Lord and to participate in the religious festivals. What people today call the three main “pilgrimage feasts” of the Hebrew Bible — Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles — are simply called “festivals” in the Bible. Yet these can rightly be considered “pilgrimage feasts” because all able-bodied Israelites were required to gather together on these three occasions.
For some of our pilgrims, the most memorable moments were not just seeing the biblical lands and ancient sites, but meeting some local Christians of today. We always try to arrange for pilgrims to encounter students at Bethlehem University, workers at the Sindyanna Cooperative in Cana or Catholic Relief Services in Jerusalem, and/or seminarians in the Latin-rite seminary in Beit Jala.
Moreover, while most daily Masses are celebrated in biblical sites by our pilgrim group alone, on Sundays we try to participate in a regularly scheduled Mass in a local parish, such as the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth or the parish churches in Jaffa or Beit Jala. Indeed, some pilgrims recently told us that the Sunday Mass celebrated with local Palestinian Christians (in Arabic!) was the most moving experience of the whole pilgrimage.
People often say that going on a pilgrimage is a “life-changing experience.” There is much truth in this — especially if the changes persist! We often get letters or emails from former pilgrims saying how they understand and appreciate the Scriptures so much more deeply now. When hearing the readings proclaimed at Mass, they envision the places we visited. When certain feasts are celebrated on the Church’s liturgical calendar, their memories are easily transported back to the holy sites, such as Nazareth on the feast of the Annunciation, Bethlehem and the Shepherd’s Fields at Christmastime, the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday and Ascension Sunday, and many sites within Jerusalem during Holy Week. Many pilgrims also tell us that being in the Holy Land made them recognize Jesus as “a real person, who lived in a real place.”
People who cannot afford the time or money to literally and physically journey to the Holy Land or other religious sites can still make a type of pilgrimage, virtually traveling and prayerfully imagining themselves at the sacred places.
Realistic etchings and paintings made by visitors to the Middle East in the 17th and 18th centuries helped many Europeans imagine the Holy Land more realistically. By the 19th century, photographs and maps made things even more vivid, as did artifacts brought back to European museums after archaeological expeditions. In the 20th century, films and television productions helped make the Holy Land accessible for many more people, despite their inaccuracies and anachronisms.
Today’s technology makes it possible for anyone to share the sights and sounds they experienced during their own pilgrimages with friends and family, and with the wider world through social media. Virtual-reality programs are also beginning to be produced, allowing people to take self-guided tours of some of the major sites visited by pilgrims. If you lead a pilgrimage, you could send daily pictures or videos that enable others to join with you virtually.
Moreover, anyone at any time can prayerfully visit places associated with biblical events and characters by using the techniques of imaginative prayer, such as Ignatian contemplation. Such prayer experiences can, of course, be enhanced by viewing pictures or videos or websites, or — for those who have gone on actual pilgrimages — by recalling the places through their own memory.
In many ways, the rich rewards of pilgrimage are available to everyone. Yet no technology can completely substitute for the experience of actually being there, seeing the places where Jesus lived, and walking the paths where Jesus walked during his pilgrimage here on earth!
FATHER FELIX JUST, SJ, is director of Biblical Ministries at the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, California. His website of Catholic resources (catholic-resources.org) has a wide variety of biblical, liturgical and theological materials useful both for academic studies and for pastoral applications.
The Importance of Walking
Although today’s pilgrim groups travel mostly by airplane and/or bus, walking remains an important aspect of being on a pilgrimage. Traveling by foot, as Jesus and his disciples did, is still the main way of getting around the Old City of Jerusalem, and is also necessary within most of the wonderful archaeological sites that can be visited in the Holy Land. Walking together, even for short distances, helps give pilgrims a sense of being on a special journey. Even when traveling by bus, pilgrims are often surprised at how close many biblical sites are to one another. The wide variations in climate and geography also remain especially vivid memories.