Westminster Interfaith: Promoting Dialogue Between People of Faith

The agency of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster for Interreligious Dialogue

Westminster Interfaith Newsletter

Issue 62 – July 2009

On pilgrimage and pilgrimages

First of all, I would like to thank all those who helped make this year's multi-faith Pilgrimage for Peace an enjoyable, spiritually uplifting experience and a great success: our wonderful hosts, who really put themselves out to welcome us and make us all feel very much at home; the pilgrims, who came in large numbers to make this an unforgettable occasion; all those who contributed financially to the costs of the pilgrimage; the team of organisers, who made it all possible. Thank you.

Inevitably, much of this edition of the Newsletter is devoted to the theme of pilgrimage: our own pilgrimage on June 6 with contributions from those who took part; Pope Benedict XVI's tour of the Holy Land in May and President Obama's trip in June from Cairo to Caen via Dresden and Buchenwald. All three were pilgrimages inasmuch as they were journeys in search of peace and reconciliation, which involved a certain amount of prayer and worship.

Pilgrimage has been the practice of most religions for centuries. In the past, believers would travel to a place consecrated by some manifestation of the divine or by the activity of some religious figure in order to offer prayers and worship there. Recently, with easier travel connections, there has been a tendency to include many holy sites in one single trip, so that the pilgrimage becomes a sort of religious tour. Whatever the format, what makes the journey a pilgrimage, in my opinion, is the spiritual aspect. Pilgrimages have been described as a quest for God and an encounter with God in the context of worship. This quest for God or the Ultimate Reality is an important aspect of most religious traditions and is expressed in different ways which usually involve travel. Every year millions of people visit particular locations associated with a manifestation of the divine.

Nowadays, the term pilgrimage has also acquired a secular usage such as visits to the place of birth, home or resting place of a popular figure: Karl Marx; Elvis Presley; Princess Diana and so on. Thousands of 'pilgrims' are already making their way to Neverland and other places connected to Michael Jackson to pay their respects and maybe even pray there. Are these visits strictly speaking pilgrimages?

The annual multi-faith Pilgrimage for Peace includes many of the elements that constitute a traditional pilgrimage. It certainly involves a journey and a fair amount of travel, sometimes quite demanding. We visit a number of places of worship, which usually requires quite a lot of walking together as a multi-faith group – a powerful reminder that we all belong to the same human family, whatever our faith tradition. There is great camaraderie and sharing. It is usually fun. But most importantly, there is always a spiritual reality, usually expressed in meditation, prayer or worship. Fundamentally, we all recognise that we are on a journey together in search of the Ultimate reality.

On a superficial level, the pilgrimage can be considered as a form of religious tourism, which, hopefully, also involves a certain amount of contemplation. The Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travellers recently noted: Tourism can be "an occasion for dialogue and listening, inasmuch as it puts people in contact with other ways of living, other religions, other ways of seeing the world and its history". The message adds: "Mutual knowledge will help in building a more just supportive and fraternal society" and "for the believer, differences as a whole open ways by which one can draw near the infinite greatness of God". On a deeper level, pilgrimages can be described as gatherings, which offer an opportunity to the faithful to show their fellowship in faith and prayer and remind them that they are all on a journey toward their Lord under his leadership (Xavier Léon Dufour: Dictionary of Biblical Theology).

So life itself is the journey. An idea that is also clearly expressed by the Sikh Guru Nanak Dev: "God's name is the real pilgrimage place which consists of contemplation of the word of God, and the cultivation of inner knowledge".


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