Jesus lost in the Temple. Jaroslav/AdobeStock

The Way: Pilgrimages in Biblical Perspective

A means, through the ages, to offer thanks and commune with God

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During my 14-year sojourn in France, I was impressed with the number of individuals who passed through our Sulpician house in central Paris to undertake, or continue, their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. This is one of the most celebrated pilgrimages, well-trod since the Middle Ages. Part of the main road (El Camino), in fact, still passes through what is now central Paris. High on the hill where the Pantheon stands is rue Saint-Jacques, where pilgrims often begin their journey on foot toward Compostela. Referring to James the Greater, the name variously occurs as Jacques, James and Santiago (see sidebar).

Although we are most concerned here with the biblical foundations of pilgrimages, we should acknowledge that the practice is not restricted to the Judeo-Christian tradition. In antiquity, many pilgrimages were famous. Egyptians would undertake pilgrimages to various temples to seek advice from the gods or to fulfill a vow. In ancient Greece, several pilgrimage sites were known, the most famous of which was to Delphi. Pious individuals went there to consult the “oracle” — often resulting in very vague predictions — to perceive the future. Other Greek sites, such as Epidaurus or Olympas, were associated with requests for healing or seeking wisdom from the gods. Most organized religions, in fact, foster pilgrimages of some sort. Even today, devout Muslims undertake the annual Hajj to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, if they are able. In short, there seems to be something universally human about pilgrimages.

Biblical Roots

But what about its biblical roots? The Bible mentions pilgrimages many times. The earliest are journeys to revered shrines associated with God (Yahweh/Elohim) or special revelatory events. Thus there are pilgrimages to Bethel (cf. Gn 35:1), Shiloh (1 Sm 1:3), Gilgal (Jos 4:20-22), and the “high place[s],” considered the dwelling place of divine beings (1 Sm 9:12-19). The latter, of course, were ultimately condemned because of its ties to paganism (2 Kgs 23:5).

Over time, once monotheism became firmly established, the focus for pilgrimages shifted. Once Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, it became the centerpiece of Judaism’s sacrificial religion. The Temple, especially the Holy of Holies, was considered God’s permanent dwelling place. God’s presence (Shekinah) was affirmed there. Much later, Jewish tradition even considered the Temple Mount “the navel of the universe,” reinforcing it as a place of pilgrimage. Of course, after the total destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, such an exact pilgrimage was no longer possible. For centuries, though, pious Jews would still visit Jerusalem and walk around its perimeter, praying and singing psalms. Today, a vestige of this ancient practice might be seen in prayerful visits to all that remains of the Temple, the Wailing (or Western) Wall, where many observant Jews still gather to pray.

Connection to Feasts

The Old Testament connects three main pilgrimages to Jerusalem with specific religious feasts that revolved around the agricultural cycle. The most important was Passover (Pesach or Unleavened Bread), which took place in the spring and was associated with the barley harvest. Then there was Pentecost (Shavuot or Weeks), which took place in early summer and celebrated the wheat harvest. Finally, there was the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot or Booths), which occurred in the autumn at the time of the fruit harvest, especially grapes and olives.

Each of these feasts called for pilgrimages by pious Jews to “go up” to Jerusalem — situated high on a mountain — to offer thanksgiving to God who provided the good things of the earth for the benefit of the Chosen People. These three festive pilgrimages became the norm for Israelite men (cf. Ex 23:17), who were expected to participate, if possible, to worthily celebrate the Temple’s cultic rituals. As it can be seen in the New Testament, however, sometimes, families went on pilgrimage together, such as Jesus, Mary and Joseph (Lk 2:41-45). Even Jews from the Diaspora outside Palestine would journey to Jerusalem for the major feasts, such as at Pentecost (Acts 2:5-11), or outsiders might arrive, as in the case of the Greeks who wanted to see Jesus during a feast (Jn 12:20). The abundance of visitors to the holy city often meant a dearth of temporary residences — there being no hotels — which made the precariousness of a pilgrimage all the more challenging.

In other words, pilgrimages were a dutiful part of Judaism, which also formed the foundations of later Christian practices.

Psalms of Ascent

Most evident of the feelings that accompanied people on pilgrimage are the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). This remarkable collection within the Psalter exhibits both the joy and intense ardor that accompanied pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The psalms are both individual and communal. Indeed, pilgrimages were often undertaken for personal reasons but in the company of others. Two examples from these psalms provide a sense of the emotional feeling that accompanied pilgrimage.

Psalm 122, for instance, proclaims: “I rejoiced when they said to me, / ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’ / And now our feet are standing / within your gates, Jerusalem” (vv. 1-2). Psalm 125 voices utter confidence the faithful had in God as they went up to Jerusalem: “Those trusting in the LORD are like Mount Zion, / unshakeable, forever enduring. / As mountains surround Jerusalem, / so the LORD surrounds his people / both now and forever” (vv. 1-2). The psalm exudes confidence.

The deep expression of thanksgiving is also evident in these psalms, giving voice to joy and gratitude for God saving the Israelites from exile, guarding them from harm and rescuing them from their enemies. We can imagine these hymns being sung as they traversed the path up to the holy city, crying out (and likely dancing) in joy when they entered the impressive gates. They were coming home. They were returning to their mother, Mount Zion, the dwelling place of God the Most High. Singing on the journey, no doubt, made the time go by more quickly, but also promoted a sense of solidarity. These psalms reinforced the focus: Pilgrimage was about thanking God.

New Testament and Beyond

If the roots of pilgrimage are deep in the Old Testament, they are also present in the New. Jesus and his disciples, as faithful and pious Jews, are portrayed as participating fully in the tradition of pilgrimages. John’s Gospel, in particular, recounts Jesus going up to Jerusalem several times for festivals (cf. 2:23; 5:1), even though the synoptic Gospels seemingly indicate he did so only once, to celebrate Passover and accept his death. Yet, over time, a less literal and more metaphorical understanding of pilgrimages developed, as we shall see.

One interesting aspect of the biblical data on pilgrimages is the vocabulary. The biblical word for pilgrim is actually “stranger” or “sojourner” (Hebrew gēr; Greek xenos or paroikos; and Latin peregrinus). This reminds us that undertaking a pilgrimage leads us afar, takes us out of our familiar environment and places us “on the road.” It is not accidental that an early Christian self-designation was “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9). Early Christian self-perception emphasized the notion of being on a journey. As St. Paul asserted, our citizenship is not here below but “in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Life itself, then, is ultimately a pilgrimage, a consistent journey to return home, to go back to our roots, and to rejoin our Maker.


Psalm 119:17-24, III Ghimel

“Bless your servant and I shall live / and obey your word. / Open my eyes that I may see / the wonders of your law. / I am a pilgrim on the earth; / show me your commands. / My soul is ever consumed / as I long for your decrees. / You threaten the proud, the accursed, / who turn from your commands. / Relieve me from scorn and contempt / for I do your will. / Though princes sit plotting against me / I ponder on your rulings. / Your will is my delight; / your statutes are my counsellors.”

— Divine Office


As Christian theology evolved, the reality of pilgrimages became even more symbolic. The Christian life itself began to be seen figuratively as a spiritual pilgrimage that leads to heaven and true happiness (cf. Heb 11:13-16; 1 Pt 2:11-12). More recently, the re-emphasis by Pope Francis on synodality is tied to the very nature of the Church as an assembly of faithful marching together toward the kingdom of God. The Second Vatican Council’s rediscovery of the notion of the Church as a “pilgrim” people (cf. Lumen Gentium, Nos. 48, 50) is part of this development, as well.

Why do people undertake pilgrimages, which can be arduous, costly and even dangerous? As noted above, the original pilgrimages in the Bible are associated with some form of communing with God. Pilgrimages were occasions to show one’s devotion to God and to take the trouble to honor God with sacrifices and gestures of thanksgiving. In reality, though, people through the ages have participated in pilgrimages for multiple reasons, as can be seen in the proliferation of pilgrimages from the Middle Ages down to today. One of the most apparent aspects of pilgrimages is that they are not merely vacations. Going on a pilgrimage was never simply a way of seeing the world or touring. There were always more profound reasons for them. People did not initiate them casually.

Primary reasons to initiate a pilgrimage include fulfillment of an oath or a vow, obedience to a perceived divine command, doing penance for some fault or sin, seeking healing from some sort of suffering or illness, offering thanksgiving for some wish granted, or out of a desire to experience in person some sacred site associated with God. Many Catholics today associate pilgrimages with famous Marian shrines, such as Lourdes or Fatima. But there are also many other local shrines that garner attention in various countries (such as the Marian shrine at Czestochowa in Poland). Even bishops undertake a type of pilgrimage when, about every five years, they go to Rome for their ad limina apostolorum (“to the thresholds of the apostles”) visit to report to the pope about the state of their diocese. Such a visit always includes celebrating Mass at the tomb of St. Peter as a concrete means of showing the continuity with the past in the apostolic college.

But what if someone is not able to undertake physically a pilgrimage to a far-off place? This is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle. (Think of the remarkable pilgrimages of sick people to Lourdes sponsored annually by the Knights and Dames of Malta!) Thanks to the Internet and modern media, it is possible to experience armchair pilgrimages that can inspire devotion or answer spiritual needs. Even watching a movie such as Emilio Estevez’s “The Way” (2010), which recounts one such pilgrimage to Compostela, might afford someone a chance to reflect vicariously. Other resources exist, for example on YouTube, which describe visits to the Holy Land, or tours to Greece and Turkey “in the footsteps of St. Paul,” or to Rome and its multiple religious sites. These may not be glamorous options, but they still enable broader participation in a fundamental human desire to seek beyond ourselves and to enter some sort of sacred space where we can encounter God.

SULPICIAN FATHER RONALD WITHERUP is former superior general of the Society of St. Sulpice and author of many books on biblical and theological themes.


Santiago and the Spanish Connection

How did Santiago de Compostela become associated with St. James? The answer goes back to legends that developed when he became one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. The name “James” — deriving from Latin Iacobus (Latin having no “J”), corrupted to Iago, and thence Santiago — occurs frequently in the New Testament. But they are not all one person. Santiago is actually St. James the Greater, one of the Twelve Apostles, the brother of John, whose father was the fisherman Zebedee (cf. Mt 4:21; 10:2). The brothers are named as part of Jesus’ inner circle who experienced the Transfiguration (Mt 17:1).

Santiago de Compostela
The yellow scallop shell identifying the way to Santiago de Compostela on the St. James pilgrimage route. AdobeStock

According to traditions dating from at least the 10th century, James was said to have evangelized northwest Spain, known as Galicia. His martyrdom, however, which is recorded in Acts 12:2 and took place in A.D. 44, makes this tradition unlikely. His emblem, appropriate enough for a fisherman, is the scallop shell, which pilgrims to Compostela still wear as a symbol of their pilgrimage.


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