"The sacred always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from 'natural' realities," wrote Mircea Eliade, renowned anthropologist and author. Sacred places for Catholics are distinguished by their proximity to the divine. Unlike a Navajo butte or a Druid grove, destinations of grace and veneration for Catholics tend to be built environments: shrines, grottoes, churches, tombs. They are the former haunts of saints, the sites of miracles, the birth or death places of martyrs, the repositories of relics.
The practice of pilgrimage to a sacred site pre-dates christianity but seems to have been a feature of Catholicism almost from the beginning. Pilgrims journeyed to the place where Jesus was born and died and to scenes of ecstatic revelation, extraordinary suffering or miraculous manifestations related to the saints. There were many reasons for the trips, ranging from strong devotion and the desire for blessings to fulfillment of a penance meted out for some transgression against the Ten Commandments or the rules of the Church. The more difficult the journey, the greater the merit. The Crusaders of Europe made the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Holy Land to defend and venerate the sites where Jesus lived and died. The Way of St. James is an arduous walk, taken by pilgrims to visit the relics of one of the apostles who were charged by Christ with spreading his teachings. The martyred remains of James, Sant Iago, are preserved in the cathedral in Compostela, Spain and Santiago de Compostela has been a well-traveled path to the sacred since the Middle Ages.
The Holy Land
The Holy Land has the most venerated sacred places in Christendom. Tourists and religious travelers flock to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to see the site of both the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus. Archaeologists think those claims to be probable but the location has always been contentious. A number of christian sects claim it as part of their sacred heritage and the church is divided into 'territories' maintained by the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, Coptics, the Armenian Apostolic, the Syrian Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox. The doorkeeper who unlocks the church every morning is Muslim and order is supplied by an Israeli security force. This does not diminish its appeal as a sacred destination for Catholics who flock to the church and to the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked to his crucifixion, the Chapel of the Ascension, where he is said to have ascended into heaven three days after his death, and the nearby church built over the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went to pray before he was betrayed and crucified.
Devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, is a powerful lure for some of the most famous pilgrimage sites in Catholicism. Lourdes, in France, is the setting for visions of Mary seen by Bernadette, a peasant child. Bernadette scraped away the earth in a grotto at the instruction of the apparition and uncovered a spring whose healing waters are considered miraculous by the crowds of Catholics who visit Lourdes in search of cures. The popular pilgrimage destination of Fatima, in Portugal, was the site of numerous apparitions of the Virgin Mary to three local children. She told them to build a chapel for devotion to the prayers of the Rosary and worked natural marvels, witnessed by the villagers, so the children would be believed. Guadelupe, near Mexico City, is a shrine and churches built around the site where Mary appeared to a Catholic named Juan Diego with the command to have a church built there for her worship. She provided a miraculous sign to convince the bishop -- a cape full of roses in winter and her image glowing on the cape. The miraculous image is still venerated at the site.
Chapels and Cathedrals
Many sacred sites for Catholics are churches where miracles happened, martyrs were buried -- or murdered -- or relics are preserved. The Cathedral at Canterbury, in England, holds the bones of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered on the steps of the altar for standing against Henry II when the king tried to seize power from the Church. Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican in Rome holds the relics of the apostle Peter and many other saints and is the heart of he Catholic Church. The Sistine Chapel, in Vatican City, is visited for its extraordinary painted ceiling, the work of Michelangelo, who was also one of the architects of the larger basilica. Chartres Cathedral, in France, holds a relic of the veil of the Virgin Mary and has been a pilgrimage destination since the time of the Druids who placed a blessed statue of a woman there. When Catholics built over the site, the veil and the magnificent architecture ensured its position as holy ground for the faithful. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, in Italy, holds the remains of the saint who founded the Franciscan Order of Friars and created an exemplary life of simplicity. The nearby quarters where he lived and prayed is also a popular pilgrimage site.
- BBC History: Thomas Becket
- Catholicism.org: Catholic Pilgrimage, a Spiritual Journey
- Santuario de Fatima: History
- Assisi Online: The Basilica of St Francis and the Sacro Convento
- New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: Pilgrimages
- "The Sacred and the Profane"; Mircea Eliade
- U.S. News & World Report: A Modus Vivendi at a Holy Site
- Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News/Getty Images