Since the earliest Christian centuries many have esteemed the fundamentals of the pilgrimage—that a journey to a sacred spot could bring the pilgrim some supernatural grace. That sentiment holds just as much today: The pilgrimage remains a spiritual journey, one that it is hoped will bring the pilgrim not just the pleasure of an adventure or a vacation, but spiritual rewards as well. There are literally thousands of pilgrimage destinations, throughout Christendom. Many, like Fatima and Guadalupe, honor the earthly appearances of Our Lady throughout history. Others mark some place of historical significance, such as the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Some shrines are popular because of what can be found there: relics such as the Shroud of Turin or tombs of saints as with the Shrine of St. Padre Pio.
In the following paragraphs I have prepared some suggestions for possible pilgrimage destinations for the new year. With the exception of the first two, the list is comprised of lesser known pilgrimage destinations that are nonetheless intriguing and unique.
Shrine of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception: Lourdes, France
Lourdes, located in the foothills of the Pyrenees near the Spanish border, has long been one of the most popular Marian shrines in Christendom. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception to Bernadette Soubirous. Bishop Jacques Pierre opened the year-long Jubilee celebration on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The bishop has designated a special “Jubilee Path” for pilgrims to follow in four steps this year: the baptismal font where St. Bernadette was baptized, the “cachot” where she lived with her family throughout the apparitions, the grotto where the saw the Blessed Virgin 18 times, and the chapel where St. Bernadette made her first Communion. The pilgrimage to Lourdes has traditionally been made by those seeking assistance in physical or spiritual healing. Hundreds of miraculous healings have been scientifically documented – 68 of them officially recognized by the Church — at the site since 1858, when Bernadette, a 14-year-old peasant girl, discovered the famous Lourdes spring water with its miraculous healing properties in the Grotto of Massabielle. Benedict XVI has authorized a special plenary indulgence for all pilgrims visiting Lourdes during the Jubilee year.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Jerusalem
The Holy Sepulchre, a witness of 2000 years of Christianity in the Holy Land, marks the site of Christ’s burial and resurrection, where Jesus was laid after His death upon the Cross. It was one of the first Christian pilgrimage sites and continues to be very popular with Christians from all over the world for obvious reasons. Over the past two millennia the shrine marking the Holy Sepulchre has four times been demolished and rebuilt. It has suffered through more than fifty earthquakes and continues to be the subject of endless conflicts between the six Christian communities that serve as guardian of the church: Greek Orthodox, and Armenian, Roman, Coptic, Syrian, and Abyssinian Catholics. All of these use the Church for their Sunday liturgical services and all services during Holy Week, a particularly apt time to visit.
St. Mary Frances “Miracle Chair”: Naples, Italy
Childless women from all over the world have long been flocking to an old armchair in a three-room apartment in the picturesque Spanish Quarter of Naples. There they ask St. Mary Frances of the Five Wounds of Jesus for a fertility miracle: These women are praying to get pregnant. The popular shrine marks the place where the saint, born Anna Maria Rosa Nicoletta Gallo, spent half her life in chastity and mystical suffering until her death in 1791 at the age of 76. Hair shirts and a whip hanging from the walls remind pilgrims of the grim self-inflicted penance the saint adopted after joining the strict order of Saint Peter of Alcantara. Evidence of Saint Mary Frances’ fertility miracles comes regularly by way of birth announcements and letters of thanks from those who sought the assistance of the “saint of the family.”
Cathedral of St. Peter and the Blessed Virgin Mary: Cologne, Germany
Probably the most striking of all churches and architectural monuments in all Germany, the Cologne cathedral is also notably home to the relics of the three Magi. These relics were discovered in Persia, brought to Constantinople by St. Helena, transferred to Milan in the 5th century and finally to Cologne in 1163, where they have remained ever since. The Church honors Saints Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.
Sanctuary of the Holy Face: Manopello, Italy
Several years ago an Italian priest rediscovered one of Christendom’s most intriguing relics: the veil of Veronica, the cloth with which Jesus wiped his face on the road to Calvary. Fr. Heinrich Pfeiffer, a Professor of Art History in Rome, found the relic at the Capuchin friary called the Sanctuary of the Holy Face in Manoppello, about 150 miles east of Rome in the Apennine mountains. A piece of blood-stained pale cloth kept in this tiny village has long been regarded by the Capuchin monks there as a sacred icon with wondrous properties. The veil bears dark red features of a bearded man with long hair and open eyes. The image becomes invisible depending on the angle from which the cloth is viewed, something that was considered a miracle in itself in medieval times. The image pictures a serene man enduring his suffering with patience. Bruises and other scars are apparent on his forehead. Clotted blood is on his nose, and one pupil is slightly dilated. Photographs taken of the veil mage have been used to compare it with the face on the Shroud of Turin. Striking similarities were apparent: The faces are the same shape and size, both have shoulder-length hair with a tuft on the forehead.
Monastery of St. John: Patmos, Greece
The tiny Greek island of Patmos is one of the 12 islands of the Dodecanese. Atop the largest hill of the island sits the Monastery of St. John. Its crenellations make it appear more like a castle than a religious retreat. Nevertheless it is one of the most celebrated monasteries in Greece. This is where St. John the Apostle had his prophetic vision which was written down as the Book of Revelation. The rock that St. John used as his writing desk still remains there, fractured by three fissures, said to be cracked by the voice of God. St. John’s also houses remarkable religious artifacts. Some of the monastery’s oldest books and manuscripts date back to its foundation in the 11th century. One of the earliest illuminated manuscripts in the library is a copy of the Book of Job that predates the founding of the monastery and is written entirely in uncial letters, which was the norm in the fourth to eighth century manuscripts. There are also 33 leaves of St. Mark’s Gospel. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful pilgrimage spots in Christendom.
The Holy Grail: Valencia, Spain
So many are the literary legends of the Holy Grail that most Catholics are unaware of the actual existence of the sacred chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Since March 18, 1437, the so-called Holy Grail has been kept in the Valencia cathedral, according to an ancient document which refers to it as “the Chalice in which Jesus Christ consecrated the Blood on the Thursday of the Supper.” In 1992, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at the cathedral using the sacred chalice, known the world over as the Holy Grail.
Al-Aqiser Church: Ain Tamur, Iraq
2008 may not be the year you’ll want to make a pilgrimage to the windswept Iraqi desert, but when more peaceful times descend upon the nation, there’s at least one unique Christian archeological site that will be worth the pilgrimage. Ain Tamur, located about 40 miles southwest of the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, is the home to Al-Aqiser, considered to be the oldest existing eastern church. According to studies, it was built in the middle of the fifth century, 120 years before the advent of Islam. In the past, Chaldean Catholics, the largest single Christian denomination in Iraq, used to pray in Al-Aqiser on Christmas Day, but the faithful have not returned in a long time. As it stands now, armed bandits and looters rule the region and no one can visit the southern Iraqi desert around Ain Tamur unescorted.