What Is the Bible’s View?
Pilgrimages—an Expression of True Faith?
ON May 9, 1973, Pope Paul VI proclaimed 1975 a Holy Year. In view of this, it is believed that some twenty-five million pilgrims and other visitors will pour into the city of Rome during the year.
Pilgrims to sites such as Rome are by no means something new. In fact, it was during the Middle Ages that religious pilgrimages enjoyed their greatest popularity. Large numbers of men and women trekked to shrines where they believed that God had manifested his power in some way. Poor roads and the possibility of bandit attacks and hostility from foreigners did not stop them from starting a pilgrimage.
But were all the pilgrims sincere? Were they motivated by faith?
The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home observes: “It was not uncommon during the Middle Ages for pious writers to complain that too many people took to the pilgrim routes to seek pleasure, shirk responsibility, or escape from the drabness of ordinary existence. . . . Some critics suggested that pilgrimages had become pleasure jaunts . . . Others criticized the increasing fanaticism and superstition apparent in pilgrim life. They felt that pilgrims sought more for miraculous cures and special material benefits than for spiritual growth, and that they attracted unfavorable attention by such practices as whipping themselves all along their routes. By the time of the Reformation many sincere Christians viewed pilgrimages as an abuse with little real spiritual value.”
Can pilgrimages today be cleared of the criticisms made against them during the Middle Ages? Are today’s pilgrimages an expression of true faith?
Some Pilgrimage Sites
Many of the sites to which pilgrimages are made have traditional or legendary associations. Consider a few examples:
Loreto, Italy, has become a notable pilgrimage site because of its association with air travel. Legend has it that in the year 1295 the house once inhabited by Mary the mother of Jesus flew from Nazareth and then landed in Loreto. This legend provided a basis for the papal proclamation that made the Madonna of Loreto the protectress of aviators. In 1970, on the fiftieth anniversary of that papal proclamation, about 50,000 pilgrims poured into the town (of about 9,500 population) to celebrate that event.
Untergrombach, Germany, gained prominence when a chapel was built on Michael’s Mountain upon the ruins of a temple dedicated to the false god Mars. There in a cave, according to legend, lived a fire-breathing dragon. This dragon supposedly did great damage to the surrounding fields and devoured someone every week. To protect themselves from the dragon, the people vowed to build a chapel in honor of the archangel Michael. Soon thereafter this chapel on Michael’s Mountain became a site to which pilgrims came.
The city of Trier in Germany is known to devout Catholics the world over for its relics. The most famous of these is unquestionably the “holy tunic.” According to Church tradition, this tunic, supposedly worn by Christ, was found by Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Helena later presented it to the church in Trier. During 1959, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1,700,000 pilgrims came to view the “holy tunic.” Pope John XXIII manifested great interest in these pilgrimages, mentioning them in connection with his announcement of the Ecumenical Council. He viewed the seamless tunic as representing the unity of the Church.
Regarding this garment, the New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges: “Trier’s claim to have the seamless robe of Christ (Jn 19.23), supposedly woven by the Blessed Virgin and discovered by St. Helena, is favored over about 20 other such claims because of the city’s late Roman and early Christian importance. . . . Even though recent excavations (1943-54) point to the existence of an early Christian relic of the Savior in Trier, the authenticity of the Holy Garment cannot be scientifically proved. . . . The propriety of the veneration, however, is independent of the question of authenticity. The cult is justifiable because veneration is shown to Christ through the symbol.”
How do you view a pilgrimage to see a relic that simply cannot be proved as authentic? Even if it were the authentic garment, would it really be right to venerate it? Would God and his Son approve of such veneration? Are pilgrimages to sites linked with legend and unprovable tradition really an expression of faith, of faith that is approved by God?
Regarding acceptable worship, Jesus Christ told a Samaritan woman: “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem. . . . But the hour will come—in fact it is here already—when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.”—John 4:21-24, the Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
Note that the manner of worship is not a matter of personal choice or preference. Persons who want their worship to be acceptable “must worship in spirit and truth.” Hence, it might be asked, Does the person who bases his worship on the presence or use of visible things and geographical locations really worship God “in spirit”? Can a person say that he is worshiping God in “truth” when going to a site that is associated with legendary happenings? So, then, do the devotions associated with religious pilgrimages fit the manner in which God wants to be worshiped? Or, are they not, rather, associated with practices that are contrary to worshiping God “in spirit and truth”?
What About Self-Chastisement?
One of the reasons pilgrimages were criticized in the Middle Ages was the manner in which pilgrims submitted themselves to self-chastisement. Is this still a feature of religious pilgrimages today? Yes, this practice may still be observed in various parts of the earth.
In Altoetting, Germany, for example, pilgrims are sometimes seen placing dried peas in their stockings and then crawling around on their knees. In the process they bloody their knees, causing great pain to themselves.
How do you think God views such self-chastisement? Does he approve of it as an expression of faith?
In his letter to the Colossians, the inspired Paul commented on a number of practices that were contrary to faith. As rendered in the Jerusalem Bible, he said: “If you have really died with Christ to the principles of this world, why do you still let rules dictate to you, as though you were still living in the world? ‘It is forbidden to pick up this, it is forbidden to taste that, it is forbidden to touch something else’; all these prohibitions are only concerned with things that perish by their very use—an example of human doctrines and regulations! It may be argued that true wisdom is to be found in these, with their self-imposed devotions, their self-abasement, and their severe treatment of the body; but once the flesh starts to protest, they are no use at all.”—Col. 2:20-23.
In connection with the last verse of this passage, a footnote of the Jerusalem Bible reads: “Lit[erally] these things ‘are not in any honour for satisfaction of the flesh’: this may mean either that they are of no real value in subduing ‘the flesh’, or else ‘they are of no value and only help to satisfy the flesh’.”
Note that “self-imposed devotions,” “self-abasement” and “severe treatment of the body” are really of no value. True, some may be sincere in what they do. Yet are not many thereby trying to call attention to their piety? And are not all of them making a public display of a religious act, one that often causes observers to be repelled?
This does not comport with Jesus’ admonition: “Be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see. Otherwise expect no recompense [from] your heavenly Father.” (Matt. 6:1, New American Bible) Then, too, a public display of religious acts can be an evidence of pride. This is the thought conveyed by the way the Catholic New American Bible renders Colossians 2:23: “While these make a certain show of wisdom in their affected piety, humility, and bodily austerity, their chief effect is that they indulge men’s pride.”
Is Idolatry Involved?
It is also noteworthy that certain images are the chief attraction of numerous pilgrimage sites. In Altoetting, a small statue of Mary (about two feet, three inches high), holding the babe Jesus, is given the veneration. A multitude of miraculous healings are attributed to Mary at this pilgrimage site. But it may be asked, If Mary herself performed these healings, why have not such healings been performed in connection with every other image of Mary? Does this not indicate that special powers are attributed to the image itself? Can this be harmonized with the apostle John’s admonition, “My little children, be on your guard against idols”?—1 John 5:21, New American Bible.
Today, just as in the Middle Ages, pilgrims still frequent various sites in the hope of getting healed. One of such sites is Lourdes, France. Regarding many of the alleged miracles, Medical World News reports that they are “premeditated fakes. Sometimes they are motivated by vanity, by the hope of gaining fame or money, or by the desire to show that the medical committee is unable to detect a fraud.”
Can it therefore not be said that the criticisms made respecting religious pilgrimages are just as valid today as respects these planned for 1975 to Rome as they were in the Middle Ages? But, more importantly, are the venerations associated with pilgrimages not contrary to what is said of true Christians at 2 Corinthians 5:7, “We walk by faith, not by sight”? (New American Bible) Accordingly, as in the past, also today pilgrimages are not an expression of true faith.2