Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help in the Church of St. Anne (formerly Byzantine Church of St. Michael the Archangel). Adam Ján Figel’/AdobeStock

Mary and Our Pilgrimage to Heaven

Looking to Mary to lead us to the fruit of her womb

Comments Off on Mary and Our Pilgrimage to Heaven

The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) describes the life of faith as a pilgrimage toward heaven. The Church on earth is a “pilgrim Church” (Lumen Gentium, Nos. 48 and 50) as she travels through time to eternal life in the heavenly kingdom. The council teaches that those

“who have died with him and risen with him, are taken up into the mysteries of his life, until we will reign together with him (cf. Phil 3:21; 2 Tm 2:11; Eph 2:6; Col 2:12, etc.). On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths he trod, we are made one with his sufferings like the body is one with the head, suffering with him, that with him we may be glorified (cf. Rom 8:17)” (Lumen Gentium, No. 7).

The image of being “pilgrims in a strange land” is not original to Vatican II. It is found in one of the best-known Marian antiphons of the Middle Ages, the Salve Regina. In this Marian hymn, we cry out to Mary, the “Mother of Mercy,” as “poor banished children of Eve,” and ask that, “after this our exile” she will “show unto us the blessed fruit” of her womb, Jesus.

Some Catholics of today might not consider life on earth as “an exile,” but Vatican II teaches that, “as deformed by sin, the shape of this world will pass away,” and “God is preparing a new dwelling place and a new earth where justice will abide” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 39).

In our journey through time to eternity, we should look to Mary as a sure guide to lead us to the fruit of her womb, Jesus. In many Byzantine icons — including Our Lady of Perpetual Help — the Virgin Mary is shown holding Jesus on her lap and gently pointing or motioning to him. In these icons, Mary is identified as the Hodegetria, the one who shows the way (hodos).

In his Marian meditation of Oct. 8, 2016, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of the Rosary, and he described Mary as the Hodegetria: “Mary accompanies us along this journey, pointing to her Son who radiates the very mercy of the Father. She is truly Hodegetria, the Mother who points to the path we are called to take in order to be true disciples of Jesus. In each mystery of the Rosary, we feel her closeness, and we contemplate her as the first disciple of her son, for she does the Father’s will (cf. Lk 8:19-21).”

Purpose of Pilgrimages

While our entire life can be understood as a pilgrimage, there is often a felt need to make periodic pilgrimages to shrines or sacred places. In the Old Testament, there were three pilgrim festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths, which is also called Tabernacles (cf. Ex 23:14-17 and Dt 16:16). The New Testament also testifies to these pilgrim festivals (cf. Lk 2:41-42; Jn 2:13; 5:1; 7:; and Acts 2:1).

Pilgrimages are also prominent in non-Christian religions. Hindus make pilgrimages to various sacred rivers, the best known of which is the Ganges. Four times over the course of 12 years, millions of Hindus engage in the pilgrimage festival known as the Kumbh Mela in which they bathe in sacred rivers for spiritual cleansing. In South Asia, Buddhists make pilgrimages to shrines believed to contain relics of the Buddha. In East Asia, Buddhists also make pilgrimages to sacred mountains. For Muslims, the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj, is one of the five pillars of faith. This pilgrimage is considered a sacred duty for all Muslims to fulfill if circumstances allow.

From an anthropological perspective, pilgrimages serve as journeys of spiritual renewal and communal bonding. For Catholics, these human elements are also present, but the deeper goal is union with God through Christ. The Virgin Mary, as “our mother in the order of grace” (Lumen Gentium, No. 61), serves as our preeminent guide in the pilgrimage of faith. She is our Hodegetria, who points the way to her divine Son and our eternal home.

Mary, Model of Pilgrims

The Virgin Mary is also a model for us on our pilgrimage toward heaven. Vatican II, again in Lumen Gentium tells us that “the Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her son unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan (cf. Jn 19:25), grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with his sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim, which she herself had brought forth.” (No. 58).

Mary provides the model for all of us to follow in the pilgrimage of faith. She advanced in her pilgrimage of faith up to the cross where she united herself to her son’s sacrifice. We are all called, in our own way, to unite ourselves to the passion of Christ. In doing so, we become “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17).

The Virgin Mary was also the first Christian pilgrim after the Annunciation. In an address given at Fatima on Aug. 5, 2023, Pope Francis said: “We are here [as pilgrims], under Mary’s maternal gaze; we are here as the Church, Mother Church. Pilgrimage is a particularly Marian trait, because the first one to go on pilgrimage after the annunciation of Jesus was Mary. As soon as she heard that her elderly relative — although already advanced in years — was pregnant, Mary ran out. That is a somewhat free translation, for the Gospel says she ‘went with haste’; yet we could say she ran out, ran eagerly to help, to be present.”

Pope Francis observes that Mary’s pilgrimage was one of assistance to her relative, Elizabeth. Mary is pregnant with Jesus during her pilgrimage to Elizabeth. As the Ark of the New Covenant, Mary carries Jesus in her womb. She mediates the presence of Christ to Elizabeth, whose child John the Baptist leaps for joy in the womb (cf. Lk 1:44) just as David danced for joy before the Ark of the Covenant (cf. 2 Sm 6:14).

When priests accompany the faithful on pilgrimages, they also mediate the presence of Christ, especially through the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

Marian Shrines

Mary is not only the guide of pilgrims and the model for pilgrims. She also serves as a magnet for pilgrims who seek her maternal love. Over the centuries, Catholics have made pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to Rome, and to shrines of martyrs and saints. In the last several centuries, Marian shrines — especially those associated with Marian apparitions — have become favored sites for pilgrimages. Brother John M. Samaha, SM, has noted: “In the Catholic world of today about eighty percent of all shrines are dedicated to Mary. Annually the vast majority of pilgrims are destined for Marian shrines” (“The Vocation of Shrines,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Ignatius Press [August-September 1998]: pp. 70–73).

Dr. William A. Thomas, an Irish Mariologist, has been gathering information about Marian shrines throughout the world for the last decade. These numerous shrines are presented with short histories and images in his four-volume work, “Compendium of Authentic Marian Shrines of the World.”

The number of pilgrims visiting Marian shrines testifies to the great love the faithful have for the Virgin Mary. About 20 million pilgrims visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe annually; about 6 million go to Lourdes; 6 million to 8 million to Fatima; 5 million to Czestochowa in Poland; 5 million to Aparecida in Brazil. In India, the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Vailankanni — or Velankanni — is visited by about 20 million pilgrims a year, many of whom are Hindus and Muslims. Called “the Lourdes of the East” by Pope John Paul II (Angelus address, July 31, 1988), the shrine of Vailankanni is a place of healing and consolation. It commemorates several Marian apparitions and miracles of the 16th century (see Anto Anakkara, “Marian Shrine of Vailankanni in India: the ‘Lourdes of the East,’” National Catholic Register, March 6, 2023).

Coronation of the Virgin Mary at the Chapel of Mary Queen of Heaven in Josipovo, Croatia. AdobeStock

We might wonder why Marian shrines have become such popular destinations for Catholic pilgrims. I think it’s because Catholics know that Mary was given by Christ from the cross to be their mother (cf. Jn 19:26-27). In his 1895 encyclical Adiutricem, Pope Leo XIII sees the gift of Mary as a sign of Christ’s great love for us: “The mystery of Christ’s immense love for us is revealed with dazzling brilliance in the fact that the dying Savior bequeathed his mother to his disciple John in the memorable testament: ‘Behold thy son.’ Now in John, as the Church has constantly taught, Christ designated the whole human race, and in the first rank are they who are joined with him by faith” (No. 6).

Our Lord Jesus knew that we needed his mother as our own to help lead us to him and our heavenly home. The apparitions of Mary at Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima and elsewhere can be seen as manifestations of the ongoing love and intercession of the Blessed Mother for her spiritual children on earth. Vatican II teaches that when Mary was taken up to heaven she did not lay aside her “salvific duty.” Instead, “by her constant intercession [she] continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into the happiness of their true home” (Lumen Gentium, No. 62).


Mary Shows Us the Way

“We would like to present the Mother of the Lord as a pilgrim in faith. As the Daughter of Zion, she walks in the footsteps of Abraham, the one who obeyed by faith, ‘[going] out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go’ (Heb 11: 8). This symbol of the pilgrimage in faith sheds light on the interior history of Mary, the believer par excellence” (No. 1). — Pope John Paul II, General Audience, March 21, 2001


Pilgrimages to Marian shrines express this deep sense of Our Lady’s maternal care, especially for those who are experiencing illness and difficulty.

In his 1957 encyclical Le Pèlerinage de Lourdes, Pius XII recalls his own 1935 pilgrimage to that famous Marian shrine: “There is the moving procession of the lowly, the sick and the afflicted. There is the impressive pilgrimage of thousands of the faithful from a particular diocese or country. There is the quiet visit of a troubled soul seeking truth. ‘No one,’ we once said, ‘has ever seen such a procession of suffering in one spot on earth, never such radiance of peace, serenity and joy!’” (No. 13).

At Marian shrines, pilgrims come who are lowly, sick and afflicted. Amid this suffering, a maternal presence radiates “peace, serenity and joy.” When pilgrims come to Marian shrines, they know their mother is present — even if she never says a word, such as at Knock in Ireland. The words spoken by Our Lady of Guadalupe ring true for all Marian pilgrims: “Am I not here, I, who am your mother?” Our Lord gave us his mother to help guide us on the pilgrimage of life. That is why we ask for her prayers “now and at the hour of our death.” 

ROBERT FASTIGGI, Ph.D., is a professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He is former president of the Mariological Society of America.

Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe now.
Send feedback to us at PriestFeedback@osv.com