As the People of God, our earthly existence is an eschatological journey towards the heavenly kingdom, our ultimate destination. This divine goal, our raison d'etre, too often takes on a secondary importance, however, as we set our eyes on other, more earthly goals such as careers, homes, and material possessions.
Yet, deep inside each of us, there is an inner yearning to be free of these encumbrances, to know the truth, unfettered by human things. A yearning to know who God is, to understand His goodness, His love for us, His desire for us to be with Him in eternity. A yearning to understand how the saints reached the goal we all aspire to. A yearning to understand how truly unimportant everything else is, if it does not lead us to God.
From Moses in the desert to modern times, man has sought this truth, has sought an understanding of himself, and of God, through pilgrimages. A pilgrimage is not only a trip to a destination, it is, as St. Benedict said in his Rules, a return to the promised land, to paradise lost, to a place where man can speak to God, one on one. By visiting shrines - be it to seek spiritual benefit, to venerate a sacred object or image, or simply to be in the presence of a holy person - pilgrims take an important step on this road to self-knowledge, and eventually to eternity.
The first disciples were entrusted by Christ with the mission of bringing the Good News "out of their Father's house" and to the four corners of the earth. Since then, pilgrimages have become an inversion of that mission as the faithful seek the route that brings them back to their Father's house.
Pilgrimages, and the role of shrines in the life of the faithful are, in fact, so important that we find five canons dedicated to this subject in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, in the section governing Sacred Places and Times.
Canon 1230 tells us: "The term shrine signifies a church or other sacred place to which the faithful make pilgrimages for a particular pious reason with the approval of the local ordinary." Canon 1231: "For a shrine to be called national, the conference of bishops must approve; for it to be called an international one, the Holy See must approve."
The last one, Canon 1234, Para 1, states: "At shrines, abundant means of salvation are to be provided the faithful: the word of God is to be carefully proclaimed: liturgical life is to be appropriately fostered, especially through the celebration of the Eucharist and Penance: and approved forms of piety are to be cultivated."
PART 2 –
Pope John Paul II, in a homily at the Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopan, Mexico, in 1979, called shrines "places of grace, ... places of conversion, penance and reconciliation with God" and "privileged places to encounter an ever more purified faith, which leads to God."
In 1992 in Rome, the Holy Father addressed participants in the First World Congress of the Pastoral Ministry of Shrines and Pilgrimages, and spoke of the aim of a pilgrimage: "It is a basic and founding experience of the believer's state 'homo viator', man en route towards the Source of all good and towards his fulfillment. By placing his entire being on this path, his body, his soul and his intelligence, man reveals himself'in search of God and a pilgrim to Eternity'."
Whatever the reason for an individual's pilgrimage, when it is undertaken with due spiritual preparation, the heart of a shrine becomes enshrined in the heart of the pilgrim. Whether the shrine houses an image of the Virgin Mary, an image, relics or the remains of a saint, it indelibly becomes part of the pilgrim, with its very special message.
The message, the story, the history, varies with each shrine. In some the story is of conversion. In others it recounts a life of heroic sacrifice for love of God. And in others, a miracle.
The first "shrine," the shrine par excellence, was Mary, the Mother of God, a "sanctuary" to Jesus for nine months before He began his earthly journey. It is thus no wonder that the overwhelming majority of shrines throughout the world are dedicated to this most perfect of God's creatures, she who succeeded to the highest degree in her encounter with God, in understanding His goodness, His love for us, and His desire that we share the Kingdom of Heaven with Him.
As we start our pilgrimage to the basilica shrines of the Eternal City, we will look at their history but more important, we will seek to discover why people come back, again and again, why they feel compelled to visit a particular place. Are they drawn to Mary? To a saint? To a message?
Often the answer may be found in the votive gifts left at a shrine for "PGR," per grazie ricevute, that is, for favors received. While you will note a number of these votive offerings at the major basilicas you will visit on your Roman pilgrimage, they are far more numerous at some of Italy's other shrine-basilicas such as St. Anthony of Padua, St. Francis of Assisi, Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii and the Holy House of Loreto, to name but a few. At these shrines the votive gifts often cover all available wall space and, occasionally, separate rooms are set aside for the pilgrim's "thank yous."
Only the imagination limits the form a votive offering can take. They can range from the standard silver wall plaque engraved with PGR to clothing, bicycles from champion racers, canes, crutches, embroidered items, statues, vases, jewelry, baby clothes, military uniforms, awards, diplomas, trophies, model cars, and sports teams' uniforms. And it is up to the imagination to guess the nature of the "favor received."
There is even a canon on this subject. Canon 1234, para 2: "Votive gifts of popular art and piety are to be displayed in shrines or adjacent places and kept secure."
So, pack a mental suitcase (don't forget your rosary!) as we start our pilgrimage, traveling not just as tourists, but as Christians seeking that deeper meaning of our life here on earth, undertaking a trip that is not to a place, but rather one that is a return home.
Looking forward to journeying with you!
Kelly, Teresa and Joan