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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 97 (Suppl.), April 2005 



“Ecumenism of Holiness” 

Pilgrimage at the Beginning of the 

Third Millennium. 

Pastoral Reflections


Archbishop Agostino MARCHETTO

Secretary of the Pontifical Council 

for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People


This Fourth European Conference on Pilgrimages and Shrines was convened and is being held on the theme of ecumenism. It was opportune and necessary to devote one of our meetings to this matter, thus highlighting the harmony between these pastoral areas and what is one of the key themes of the teachings of Pope John Paul II. The division among Christians, which “scandalises the world” and is detrimental to the preaching of the Gospel, as recognised by the Second Vatican Council,[1] is “a sad heritage of the past [which] unhappily we take with us as we cross the threshold of the new millennium”.[2] 

The Church and all of its faithful members inevitably feel concerned by this sorrowful heritage, and even more by circumstances that might prolong it further. This division among Christians is also clearly and sadly apparent with regard to the promotion of pilgrimages and pastoral welcome at shrines. For this reason, at the first European Conference held in Máriapócs, Hungary, in 1996, this recommendation was included: “Become aware of the need to pay attention to the inter-religious and ecumenical dimension of reception in order to establish full respect and ensure mutual cultural and spiritual enrichment”.[3]

In the final years of the last century, especially regarding celebrations for the year 2000, a large number of ecumenical initiatives were launched which led to considerable ecumenical experience of pilgrimages. Such experience included not only large gatherings, many of them particularly aimed at young people, but also the spiritual revival of traditional pilgrimages such as the Way of Saint James to Santiago. “Pilgrimage in the Great Jubilee Year of 2000” refers to such pilgrimages describing them as the “emblematic image” of the cheerful pilgrim, homo viator in his Christian dimension.[4]

However, a document entitled “The Shrine. Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God”, which encompasses pastoral experience and the everyday life of shrines, provides an excellent overview, including for our meeting today, so I believe it is opportune to quote it at length. Paragraph 12 of this document states:

The intense experience of the Church’s unity which shrines provide can also help pilgrims to discern and welcome the promptings of the Spirit that lead them in a special way to pray and work for the unity of all Christians. Shrines can be places where ecumenical commitment is strongly promoted, since there the change of heart and holiness of life that are ‘the soul of the whole ecumenical movement’ is fostered and the grace of unity given by the Lord is experienced. In the shrine too, a practical ‘sharing in spiritual activities and resources’ can occur, especially through common prayer and in use of sacred places, which greatly promotes the path of unity when the criteria laid down by Church authorities are fully respected.

This experience of Church must be particularly fostered through the fitting welcome given to pilgrims to the shrine. This should take into consideration the specific characteristics of each group and each individual, the yearnings of their hearts and their authentic spiritual needs.

In the shrine, we learn to open our heart to everyone, in particular to those who are different from us: the guest, the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, those of other religions, non-believers. In this way the shrine does not only exist as the setting for an experience of Church, but also becomes a gathering place open to all humanity.

Indeed, it should be realized that on numerous occasions, due to historical and cultural traditions and to greater ease of travel, the Christian faithful are joined in their pilgrimages to shrines both by members of other Churches and ecclesial Communities and by the followers of other religions. A certainty that the plan of salvation embraces them too, a recognition of their oftentimes exemplary fidelity to their own religious convictions, and a common experience of the same historical events open new horizons and show the urgency of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. Shrines can enable this to be carried on in the presence of the holy Mystery of God, who welcomes everyone. At the same time, it must be kept in mind that shrines are meeting places for an encounter with Christ through the Word and the sacraments. Consequently there is need for constant vigilance against all possible forms of syncretism. Shrines are likewise meant to be a sign of contradiction with regard to pseudo-spiritualistic movements, such as the New Age movement. Rather than a generic religious sentiment based exclusively on the heightened use of natural human faculties, shrines strongly insist on the primacy of God and the need to be open to his saving work in Christ for true human fulfilment.

Starting with this reflection, I would like to make a few comments as an introduction to our work over the coming days. 

1. Openness towards ecumenism

In order to make progress along the path to ecumenism it is vital to adopt an attitude of conversion of the individual and collective heart. Above and beyond historical circumstances, or precisely within them, division arises from sin and the failure to fulfil Christ’s mandate, repeatedly expressed in his desire that his disciples should be one (cf. John 17:21) and should be one flock and listen to his voice (cf. John 10:16). 

The breaking of unity contradicts the essence of Christian identity, because it directly attacks the unity of all those baptised in Christ (Galatians 3:27-28) and is, consequently, a rejection of the Triune communion in which the Resurrection of the Lord made us participants. Moreover, in the long term, passive acceptance of the historical situation – of division among Christians – makes us accomplices to this sin.

The path of ecumenism is, therefore, a call for recognition of this sin and an invitation to conversion before God and one’s brothers and sisters.

a.  An attitude of conversion before God

In a meeting such as the one gathered here today, it is particularly enlightening to refer to the pilgrim nature of the Church, as this image of a pilgrim people shows the gift of grace that renewed all those baptised in Christ and the hope of a fulfilment yet to be achieved. As the Second Vatican Council says, “the pilgrim Church in her sacraments and institutions, which pertain to this present time, has the appearance of this world”.[5] Above all, as the Council explains, it is a question of the impermanence of “this world that passes”, in the face of which sacraments and institutions proclaim and bring about the fulfilment of salvation accomplished in Christ. Therefore, sacramental celebration and the evangelising action of the Church necessarily entail in their most genuine practice a “denunciation” of impermanence and all the temptations that this introduces into the lives of believers. By doing this, the call to conversion is realised at an individual and collective historical time.

Extending the Council’s reflection, we could thus ask ourselves what is the “image of this present time”, which holds fast to the Church’s path as a permanent temptation to adapt to transitory things. Temptations of power and exclusivism undoubtedly exist, but individualism and what we might describe as rejection of witness have also grown. Certainly, the confession of faith or – in contemporary terms – proposing the faith, has become more difficult in societies such as those in Europe which, by assuming, often without digesting, the heritage of modernity, come up against unexpected religious questions, as is the case with immigration. The most common temptation is silence bordering on renunciation. And here we should recall the process that followed the proposal for a European “constitution”. Courageous and insistent calls for Christianity to be remembered were not lacking, but we have to admit that they did not receive much support. In addition, we could mention other cases in which individual and collective “lack of witness” exists to a greater or lesser extent, such as in legislation regarding genetics and human life or solutions to immigration problems. 

In these circumstances the paschal message conveyed by Saint Paul rings out as appropriate: “Set your hearts on things above” (Colossians 3:1). This is not a call for escapism, but rather a need for truth and authenticity. These words imply a call for conversion of hearts so that the life of Triune communion will be what really defines and sanctifies the Church and each one of its members. They invite recognition of all the times that we have given in to the temptations of power, sectarianism, selfishness and renunciation of witness. They urge us to live, through sacraments and institutions, the gift of communion that God has granted to those who believe in Jesus Christ.

b.  Recognition of holiness

On the path towards ecumenism, acceptance of the gift of God entails recognition of his victory over sin and division. God has vanquished our sins so that his Word may be proclaimed and heard above and beyond our divisions. Becoming aware of this reality is to understand, as Pope John Paul II says, how “contemplation of ‘the mighty works of God’ has been enriched by new horizons, for which the Triune God calls us to give thanks: the knowledge that the Spirit is at work in other Christian communities, the discovery of examples of holiness, the experience of the immense riches present in the communion of saints, and contact with unexpected dimensions of Christian commitment”.[6]

Without a shadow of doubt, this recognition is one of the major driving forces along the path towards ecumenism. As Pope John Paul II asserted on another occasion: “Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs. The communio sanctorum speaks louder than the things which divide us”.[7] 

Indeed, in the memoria sanctorum, certainty of the will of God and the effectiveness of his Word annihilates our hybris of division. It obliges us to acknowledge always, despite separation, “the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ”.[8]

Moreover, this refers us to the fundamental truth that justifies and calls for ecumenism.

2. The heart of the ecumenical experience

Often everything relating to our efforts in favour of ecumenism turns out to be the most visible and most “published”. Theological declarations or regulations, arising from extensive discussions, study and patient preparation, come to the forefront and play a leading role. However, in the silence of reports, what remains is the personal reality of unity experienced by heeding the Word, in common prayer and in solidarity-based service to suffering humankind. 

a.  Common prayer

“Along the ecumenical path to unity, pride of place certainly belongs to common prayer, the prayerful union of those who gather together around Christ himself. If Christians, despite their divisions, can grow ever more united in common prayer around Christ, they will grow in the awareness of how little divides them in comparison to what unites them”.[9] These words of Pope John Paul II eloquently and accurately sum up the ecumenical awareness of our times. This certainty is shared and expressed by many representatives of other Churches and ecclesial communities, and also by a multitude of witnesses who take part in common prayer.

Undoubtedly in it the essential aspects of ecumenism emerge, namely the recognition that unity is a gift from God and obedience to his Word.

Recognition that unity is a gift from God to the Church implies in turn a dual dimension. Indeed, first of all, gathering together for common prayer is in itself a recognition that God has in some way given his Church unity by bringing us together as a single family that acknowledges Christ as its head and which is animated by the Holy Spirit. And secondly it is recognition of this gift because the community of prayer lifts up its prayer in the knowledge that only God can truly fulfil this unity in prayer, by vanquishing the sin of our divisions.

Moreover, the community of prayer comes together in obedience to the Word of God, heeding the proclamation of salvation, which constitutes it as the family of God and sends it out to be “yeast” in the world. However, at the present time when unity is not yet complete, some of the instruments of sanctification that God has provided for his Church may not be celebrated in common. In particular, it is impossible to celebrate together the Eucharistic Memory of the Lord, “the supreme sacrament of the unity of the People of God, in as much as it is the apt expression and the unsurpassable source of that unity”,[10] which is sad confirmation of the need for us to “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1).

Common prayer also helps to share what in each of us gives rise to meditation on the same Word of God, thereby opening up the wealth that the Holy Spirit grants each person, with an understanding of different inspirations and sensibilities. Finally, the many treasures of the tradition of contemplation and prayer are put together, thus constituting a spiritual heritage of the one Church of God.

b.  Witness and “diakonia”

Heeding the Word of God and common prayer, through which conversion to God becomes real, will undoubtedly give rise to a common awareness of the mission that God has given his Church, which consists of proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ, and also giving a special welcome to the neediest, the suffering and the marginalised. Indeed, ecumenism will encourage and, at the same time, grow in strength via the witness of evangelisation and diakonia.

Regarding this matter we can also recall the words of Pope John Paul II. First of all, Pope John Paul II refers to a statement from Vatican II, which in the Decree on Ecumenism says: “Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses the relationship which in fact already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant”.[11] “This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion”, adds John Paul II, “but is a manifestation of Christ himself.” He concludes: “In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelisation which benefits all involved”.[12] 

Indeed, in common witness we find an effective means of evangelisation for our times, which is undoubtedly completely appropriate. Today men and women need actions in which charity and solidarity-based ethics are combined with a quest for truth. Charity, when driven by ecumenism, adds a highly eloquent shade of meaning to witness to the truth. Faced with all the scepticism and pragmatism of our times, it demonstrates that assertion of its existence, and recognition that it has not been completely achieved, are compatible. We might almost say – if you will allow me a somewhat “philosophical” interpretation – that the indissoluble implication of unity, truth and goodness reappears. 

Moreover, there is also the public aspect – tending towards the common good – which characterises ecumenical witness and diakonia. Precisely because they tend to bear witness to the truth and share God’s gifts, they inevitably offer concrete proposals, which are not – and do not intend to be – group interferences or prerogatives. Finally, ecumenism thereby achieves a global dimension that undoubtedly fosters understanding and awareness of catholicity. 

3. Pastoral suggestions

Reality does not precede aspirations, but rather follows them. We should give thanks to God the Father as he has multiplied the desire for unity among Christians and gives us the necessary strength to convert to Him and move forward along the path to ecumenism.

The aim of this conference is to bring together the steps that are being made along this path, through promotion of pilgrimages and pastoral welcome at shrines. It is a highly pastoral proposal, aimed at discovering new paths, opportunities and aspirations.

I could end my speech here and make way for our work together, but before I do so, please allow me briefly to make my contribution to this specifically pastoral perspective which has run through – at least that was my intention – what I have already said.

a.  Reviving the pilgrimage of the Church

Since the early days of Christianity, having received a rich and prophetic biblical tradition, the Church has considered pilgrimage as “an experience of profound and mature faith”, a “sign of being a disciple of Christ in this world”.[13] The desire to visit places that preserve the memory of Our Lord and remind us of the most important moments narrated in Holy Scripture and other testimonies of holiness, which also keep alive the witness of apostles and martyrs, has motivated pilgrimage. The goal thus defines the path, so that by walking along it, pilgrims may experience their conversion to God, celebrate the gift of Redemption through Jesus Christ and renew their meekness before the Holy Spirit who moves them to bear witness to the communion of all in the One and Triune God.

Moreover, this path is walked in the company of and with a view to meeting other brothers and sisters, which is an experience of shared faith and a salutary exchange of spiritual and earthly goods.

So here are the points for carrying out a pilgrimage in an ecumenical way:

- Make explicit in all actions the common tradition of heeding the Word of God, which calls for conversion and holiness.

- Seek out new motives, itineraries and specific opportunities which, through pilgrimage, may highlight any event or aspect along the way that unites all Christians.

- During the journey and on arriving at the place of pilgrimage, encounters with Christian communities should be lived to the full.

- During a pilgrimage, charity in all its aspects should be expressed through symbols and initiatives as individual and communal witness that make those who believe in Christ brothers and sisters.

b.  Celebration of the memory of the Lord’s mercy

Likewise, in the face of any deviation, as the Church Fathers warned, it should always be remembered that the goal of any pilgrimage is not first of all monumental or geographical, but rather a celebration of the mercy that God has shown towards his children through the ages. This should be very clearly highlighted in welcome at shrines, with regard to information given and initiatives taken.

In this sense, we can all look to the example of the Virgin Mary, “the image and beginning of the Church”[14] towards her live faith in the living Word of God, her deep-rooted obedience to it, the closeness of her communion with the Triune God and her presence in the prayers of the first community. It is worth meditating on what Pope John Paul II says in his Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, when he writes: “In this sense, one can say that the Church is both ‘Marian’ and ‘Apostolic-Petrine’”.[15] According to what Pope John Paul II said on another occasion, the Marian “profile” is anterior and pre-eminent, if both are united and complementary. Finally, shrines, many of which are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, should vigorously develop a genuine “Marian ecumenism”.[16] With the Virgin Mary, the Church lifts up its Magnificat of praise and action of grace to the Lord for the wonders of his mercy.

Regarding reception at shrines, we suggest that: 

- The ecumenical aspect is always taken into account, not only out of respect for brothers and sisters from other Churches and ecclesial Communities, but also in order to strengthen everyone’s ecumenical commitment.

- Prayers for Christian unity should always be present in the liturgical celebrations.

- Circumstances permitting, time should be set aside for forms of meditation which, in accordance with the general rules, may be attended by members of all Churches and ecclesial Communities.

- In relating the history and explaining the meaning of a shrine, any devotional excesses, or other things, that may have occurred in the course of history should not be concealed, thereby only serving as a salutary reminder of the pilgrim nature of the Church and its requirement for a deeper conversion to God.

- Shrines bear witness to all the holiness of God and the gift of communion granted to those who believe in the Lord Jesus. Therefore they should make a constant appeal to the holiness of all those baptised in Christ and an expression of the same holiness that God has granted to his Church. 


I would like to conclude by inviting you to reflect on the work to be carried out in the coming days. Undoubtedly, the goal that we have outlined is important, especially for our European continent that is politically involved in achieving unity after so many centuries of misunderstanding and violence due to many different causes, which divided it into North and South, and into West and East. Here we are not inspired by political, economic or cultural motives, although obviously we recognise their great importance. We wish to hear again “what the Spirit says to the churches” (cf. Revelations 2:7) and hasten the day when God grants us fulfilment of complete and visible unity, so as to make it a better witness in Europe and throughout the world.


[1] Cf. Vatican Council II, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, no. 1.
[2] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo millennio ineunte, no. 48.
[3] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People , I Santuari dove Dio cerca l’uomo. Atti del I Congresso Europeo sui Santuari e Pellegrinaggi, Vatican City, 1996, p. 191.
[4] The, Pilgrimage in the Great Jubilee Year of 2000, no. 30.
[5] Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, no. 48.
[6] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Ut unum sint, no. 15.
[7] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio adveniente, no. 37.
[8] Vatican Council II, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, no. 3. 
[9] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Ut unum sint, no . 22.
[10] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 43.
[11] Vatican Council II, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, no. 12.
[12] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Ut unum sint, no. 40.
[13] Cf. Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, the Pilgrinage, no. 2.
[14] Vatican Concil II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, no. 68.
[15] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, no. 27. Cf. Idem., Speech to the Cardinals and Prelates of the Roman Curia (22.12.1987), Insegnamenti X, 3, pp. 1481-1492: “This bond between the two profiles of the Church - the Marian and the Petrine - is therefore, close, deep and complementary, whilst being the anterior first in both God’s plan and time, as well as being higher and pre-eminent, and richer in personal and community implications for each of the ecclesial vocations”, no. 3.
[16] See: Cardenal Marc Ouellet, “Maria e il futuro dell’Ecumenismo” (Mary and the future of Ecumenism), in Communio, no. 194 (March-April 2004) pp. 84-95.