Magazine article The Christian Century

Pilgrims of Our Time

Magazine article The Christian Century

Pilgrims of Our Time

Article excerpt

Once upon a time, I Europe lived in an age of faith, which found buoyant expression in the massive popularity of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage shrines flourished across Europe, some drawing millions of followers each year, and new pilgrimage destinations emerged regularly to meet the demand. Protestants and liberal Catholics might look askance at the piety practiced at such places (the veneration of mysterious Black Virgins and the ubiquitous healing miracles), but there was no doubt of the faith of the pilgrims.

Current believers might look back enviously at Europe's golden age of pilgrimage. But in fact the golden age is now.

The sheer scale of modern European pilgrimage is startling. The world's largest Marian shrine is Guadalupe in Mexico, which attracts 10 million visitors a year, but several European centers draw pilgrims on nearly that scale. And just since the 1970s, those numbers have grown substantially. Lourdes, which drew about a million visitors each year in the 1950s, now records closer to 6 million annually (50,000 might pass through on a quiet day). Each year, Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, Poland, attracts 4 or 5 million to see a picture of the Virgin Mary supposedly drawn from life by St. Luke the Evangelist. Each year, around 15 percent of Poles make a pilgrimage to some site. Four million believers visit the site of Mary's apparition at Fatima in Portugal. Europe as a whole has probably 500 images of the Black Virgin, and many are venerated at pilgrimage sites like Altotting in Bavaria and Montserrat in Spain.

Besides the Virgin Mary, many other saints attract the faithful. Just since the late 1980s, pilgrimage has enjoyed a breathtaking revival at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which now attracts some half a million pilgrims a year (and closer to a million in special holy years). Shrine-rich Italy offers Rome or Assisi, Padua and Turin. So popular are such huge centers that few observers even note the tens of thousands who attend healing shrines that are of merely local significance. At Sarsina, pilgrims seek healing for illnesses of the neck or throat by having the iron collar of St. Vicinus clamped around their necks. Even in Europe's supposedly secular heart, on the German-Dutch frontier, Mary's shrine at Kevelaer draws 800,000 visitors a year.

While we might see such sites as representing a medieval mind-set, a striking number are either newly founded or recently revived (many under the papacy of Pope John Paul II). …

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