Merriam Webster defines a pilgrimage as “a journey of a pilgrim,” especially: “one (journey) to a shrine or a sacred place.” The first known use of the word ‘pilgrimage’ was in the 14th century, but the action of taking a pilgrimage had already existed for millennia at that point.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Abraham was one of the first recorded pilgrims. Called by God to leave his hometown, Abraham journeyed with his family to the land promised by the Lord. However, the concept of pilgrimage is not unique to any one religion but is evident in all modern world religions as well as ancient pagan religions, too.
Jesus pilgrimaged, also, for He was a faithful Jew and all Jewish men were proscribed to travel up to the temple in Jerusalem three times each year. In fact, it was during this annual pilgrimage for the feast of Passover that He entered into His Passion and died and rose again for us.
Sometimes a pilgrimage traces the footsteps of an important religious figure or other person, such as visiting the sites of Jesus’ life in the Holy Land, or traversing parts of Europe and Asia like St. Paul did on his missionary journeys. Other times it is to just one significant place, as in the healing baths at Lourdes, France.
Modern pilgrimages often use modern conveniences, such as flying to a nearby airport and taking an air-conditioned bus to the holy site. However, others still require or encourage some form of asceticism and physical hardship, including walking 100kms on the Camino de Santiago to reach the cathedral and the relics of St. James or climbing the Holy Stairs in Rome on one’s knees.
Likewise, there are different lengths of journeys to reach a pilgrimage destination – from hours by plane, train, bus, or foot halfway around the world to simply heading to your local parish church or nearby shrine. The devotion of praying the Stations of the Cross, which can be found in nearly every Catholic church, grew out of a desire to reflect upon the Passion of our Lord by those who were unable to make a greater pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
It is this devotion that helps to explain the most basic reason for a pilgrimage. Regardless of the duration, distance, level of asceticism, or any other distinguishing characteristics, all pilgrimages have the goal of drawing people closer to God.