The Holy See
back up

 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 104, August 2007



ON THE OCCASION OF THE Workshop for Diocesan Pilgrimage Coordinators and Shrine Directors (usa) 

How pilgrimage strengthens faith and spreads the message of the Gospel* 


Cardinal Renato Raffaele MARTINO

President of the Pontifical Council for the

Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People


Esteemed brother priests,

Dear friends in Christ, 

Welcome to the City where the Apostles Peter and Paul gave their lives, and to the See of the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles.  I am pleased to be with you who have come from the United States and who have a unique pastoral sensitivity to the significance of Pilgrimages and Shrines within the Christian tradition.

The places of pilgrimage—Rome, for example—attract tourists, visitors and pilgrims, both young and old, the healthy and the sick, the devout and the curious.  The very nature of a pilgrimage makes the usual social divisions disappear because all of these differences find a common bond in the unifying  experience of the faith pilgrimage.

As we know, pilgrimages began with the history of humanity (cf. Jean Chélini - Henry Branthomme, Les Pèlerinages dans le monde, Hachette Littératures, 2004; Part I, Chap. 2, “Les Pèlerinages aux origins de l’Histoire”, pp. 55-76). A pilgrimage is a profoundly human phenomenon that offers men and women of faith an opportunity to express their thirst for knowledge and truth, and to discover the answers to their searching. A pilgrimage is not merely going on a journey for the sake of traveling.  Rather, it is embarking on a journey in order to search for something beyond what is merely human, for something transcendent. For this reason, a pilgrimage involves visiting places where the pilgrims can experience divine realities, signs and indications of that transcendence which God alone makes manifest for our benefit. The places of pilgrimage and the shrines thus respond to this deepest anthropological need of the human soul.  They are privileged places where the great events of God’s presence on this earth and in human history can be remembered, and in this way be made present in one’s life.

In the Church, pilgrimages have been a very ancient tradition.  Throughout history, one would either go alone or in a group to a “sacred place, to a shrine.” (cf. id. Les Pèlerinages dans le monde, op. cit., Part III, Chap. 1, Les grands sanctuaries de pèlerinage”, pp. 161-183).  Compelled by a strong faith in the Risen Lord, the journey of pilgrims towards a sacred destination is an image of something more profound; that there is an object of man’s searching without which he is less than complete. To realize true human fulfillment, man must go forward, walk and move on. The pilgrimage of life is not complete until one reaches his or her destiny in God. 

In the Catholic tradition, people express this profound reality through the experience of faith pilgrimages.  Pilgrims walk and pray with their footsteps, with their bodies, their voices, their songs, with their hearts set on this destination, even at times in their weariness. A pilgrimage is like a “simple prayer” cadenced to the pace that leads to God’s presence. The important thing to remember, of course, is that what matters most is not where you are coming from, but where you are going.  A pilgrimage can be a blessing for anyone, whether rich or poor, young or old.

The document of this Pontifical Council, The Pilgrimage in the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, pointed out the following: “Pilgrimages, a sign of the condition of the disciples of Christ in this world have always held an important place in the life of Christians. In the course of history, Christians have always walked to celebrate their faith in places that indicate a memory of the Lord or in sites representing important moments in the history of the Church. They have come to shrines honoring the Mother of God and to those that keep the example of the saints alive. Their pilgrimage was a process of conversion, a yearning for intimacy with God and a trusting plea for their material needs. For the Church, pilgrimages, in all their multiple aspects, have always been a gift of grace” (No. 2). In other words, a pilgrimage is as much an “inward” journey as it is an “outward” journey.

The people of God who peregrinate bring a very concrete prayer in their hearts, many times a prayer to give thanks, or to ask for bread, work, health, or perhaps for  a more urgent need; a prayer that is simple, profound, and confident that God is present in our lives, and that God has a plan for our lives.

In his Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, His Holiness Benedict XVI indicates the following: “Prayer, as a means of drawing ever new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed. People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone. Piety does not undermine the struggle against the poverty of our neighbors, however extreme. In the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbor but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service” (No. 36).

Pilgrimages are a growing reality not only among Christians, but also among the entire human family (See: id. Les Pèlerinages dans le monde, op. cit.): from the most ancient places, to the most recent ones like Taizé in France, where hundreds of young people from all over the world, but especially from Europe, visit to make a “pilgrimage of confidence”.

*      *      *

The Shrine is the destination of the pilgrimage. In the Shrine, a pilgrim often opens his heart in a way that he may never do in another place and time. Many pilgrims come from afar, not only from a geographical point of view, but also from different life experiences.  Like the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son, pilgrims often approach sacred places with the intuition that they will experience the embrace of the Father of Mercy, who celebrates this encounter with tears of joy in his eyes. 

Another way to describe the experience of pilgrimage is with an analogy to the human body. It could be said that, just as blood enters the heart and leaves it purified to bring life to the rest of the body, so too the pilgrim people enter the Shrine bringing their weariness, concerns, hopes and dreams, and leave renewed in spirit, and in this way they also renew the social fabric of the human family with their Christian hope.

As I wish you a pleasant stay in Rome, allow me to refer again to the Document on Pilgrimage.  It seems to me that the following passage is filled with deep meaning for our walk through history, and gives a faith meaning to everything that happens to us: “Even in our days, humankind, on one hand, seems to be going towards positive goals of different natures: worldwide integration in global systems, but at the same time, sensitivity for pluralism and respect for the different historical and national identities, scientific and technical progress, inter-religious dialogue, communications that are diffused in the areopagus of the whole world through instruments that are more and more effective and immediate. On the other hand, however, in each one of these ways, ancient and invariable obstacles appear in new forms and ways: the idols of economic exploitation, abuse of one’s political position, scientific arrogance, religious fanaticism. The light of the Gospel guides Christians to the discovery, in these manifestations of contemporary civilization, of new ‘areopagi’ wherein to proclaim salvation and discover the signs of longing that lead hearts to the house of the Father.  It does not seem strange that in the whirlpool of this constant change, humankind also experiences fatigue and wishes for a place, which may be a shrine, where he could rest, a space of freedom that makes dialogue possible - with himself, with others and with God. The Christian’s pilgrimage accompanies this search of humankind and offers him the security of a goal, the presence of the Lord ‘for he has visited his people, he has come to their rescue’ ” (No. 24).

May the Lord Jesus, a Pilgrim in our history, bless your efforts, your pastoral work, and all the faithful of the United States. 


* Rome, 15 February 2007.