Do we still believe in Pilgrimages??
Of all of the things that have been downplayed or modified post Vatican II, I suspect that pilgrimages do not figure much on the list. There is an abiding affection in the minds of the laity and priests for travelling to pilgrimage sites, and I strongly suspect that there has been no reduction in numbers of those who go. So do we still believe in Pilgrimage? “Yes”. Next question please.
Hmmm, but I think that we can do a little better than that. So let’s make it a bit more challenging.
This country used to be a honeycomb of shrines dedicated to saints, and much more to the Blessèd Virgin. Wells, holy sites, places of apparition, saints’ tombs, all of these things studded our land as constant reminders that God was present in the everyday of our lives. We needed, and still need, the presence of the holy next to us where we can go for inspiration and intercession.
We can still see some of the relics of the past in place names and in the few pilgrimage sites that remain. Of course there are the well-known ones, such as Walsingham and Canterbury, but there are so many more. One of the lovely things that has happened in recent years is that pilgrimages to these places in our country have been revived. But there are many, many more pilgrimage sites, and what is better, they are not too far away. In fact they are near to you, to where you live, to your everyday life.
Of course pilgrimage has always been something of a religion holiday, and I would not want to decry that for one minute, because every pilgrimage has its own feel. Lourdes shows the universal Church honouring the Virgin Mary in song and procession. The Chartres Pilgrimage thrust a young, vibrant, traditional faith onto the landscape of France. Rocamador comforts addicts of drink and drugs. Rome stands for the pillars of our faith. But it would be so much better if it were part of the fabric of our country again.
One of the lovely thing about returning to the North East of England, and especially studying in Durham, is that I am next to my bones. My holy and Venerable Saint Bede lies in the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral. I go in as often as I can and kneel next to his tomb, to kiss it and press my rosary against it and to say my prayers. This is greatly to the bemusement of the Anglican Vergers. And that is one of the reasons why I do it! But to this I could add the Shrine of Saint Cuthbert, St Aidan’s Well, Our Lady of Mount Grace, Holy Island, St Hilda’s Abbey, Our Lady of Jesmond… I could go on and on and on. And this is just one small part of Northumberland. And I am only scratching the surface.
My saint, my pilgrimage site is just here round the corner. And so when I say that I still believe in pilgrimages I mean that I still believe in making frequent visits to holy places where my faith is strengthened and I am inspired by the countless pilgrims before me who have trodden the same path. In my small way, by praying at the tomb of my Holy Patron, I am restoring a pilgrimage in my land. I am showing that we should be what we once were – a land of saints, the dowry of the Blessèd Virgin.
Look around you and find the holy places where you live. Visit them and pray at them. Remind the saints that they are not forgotten and that their intercession for the conversion of our country is needed as much in our own time as ever it was. Plant your pray into the soil of these shrines and it will spread into the hills and valleys, the cities and towns of this country.
And we can again live in a land of pilgrimages and pilgrims.
(Published in LMS Magazine)