A pilgrimage, quite simply, is starting in one place and ending in another place for spiritual reasons. Pilgrimages are as old as the Church; Saint James of Compostella in northwest Spain is the oldest continuous destination for a pilgrimage.
It is believed that in the Basilica of Saint James the relics of the apostle James are interred and venerated. There are famous routes that go through Spain and France and even to Italy that lead to this site. Today, modern pilgrims trace the roots of their forefathers by walking, biking, or driving these routes. Walking is the most traditional and penitential of methods. All along the pilgrim route are hostels for pilgrims, as well as places to eat and to refresh. At the end of the pilgrimage is the shrine itself. Upon completion of the spiritual act, a plenary indulgence may be received.
Other famous pilgrim destinations are the Four Major Basilicas—Saint Peter, Saint Mary Major, Saint John Lateran, and Saint Paul—outside the Wall in Rome. In addition, a pilgrim may also visit the catacombs and the Chapel of the Holy Stairs. Usually a Catholic would make this pilgrimage during the observance of the Holy Year. Every twenty-five years, the pope proclaims a Holy Year of Grace. With special spiritual practices and prayers, a pilgrim may receive a plenary indulgence. During the Holy Year, when in Rome a pilgrim should go to Saint Peter and enter through the Holy Doors. These doors are open only for the Holy Year and then sealed up by the Pontiff. Special prayers are said as you enter the basilica through these Holy Doors. The next Holy Year will be observed in 2025.
Another famous pilgrim destination is Lourdes, France. It is a site where the Blessed Mother appeared to Saint Bernadette in 1858. Many miraculous cures are made by God at this holy place. Fatima, Portugal is where Mary appeared to three little peasant children in 1917.
Every year, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the site of the largest number of pilgrims to visit a Catholic shrine anywhere on earth. This church is where the tilma of Saint Juan Diego resides; this peasant cape has an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (from 1531) miraculously emblazoned on it, without any dye, paint, or human origin. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Krakow, Poland and Our Lady of Knock, Ireland, are just a few of the numerous shrines in the world worth visiting. Finally, the Holy Land (Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee) has been a pilgrim’s destination since the early Church. It contains the most sacred places in which our Lord conducted His public ministry.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, is also a place of frequent pilgrimage. Located next to Catholic University of America and just a half a block from the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, the National Shrine is worth a visit by every Catholic in the USA. Each year, the night before the National March for Life, the basilica is filled to capacity with bishops, priests, deacons, nuns, and plenty of laity of all ages, including a huge contingency of youth from across the country. This rally takes place every year on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 1973, which legalized abortion. The Basilica of the National Shrine becomes the epicenter of prayer to energize and invigorate the marchers for the next day to have a peaceful, prayerful, and nonviolent protest march to the steps of the Supreme Court.
Another shrine in America worth visiting is the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama. It is the place where Mother Angelica and the Poor Clare nuns live in monastic life after moving from their original cramped quarters in Irondale, AL, location of the headquarters of Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). Sixty miles from the television studios and enormous satellite dishes, the Shrine in Hanceville is almost a replica of any Franciscan shrine found in Italy. An eight-foot monstrance contains the Blessed Sacrament where the sisters, brothers, and laity pray daily.
The Divine Mercy Shrine in Stockbridge, MA; Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, IL; the Blue Army Shrine in Washington, NJ; National Shrine of Blessed Junipero Serra in Carmel, CA; and the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, CO, are just some of the 135 shrines in the United States where pilgrims often visit.
In every country and every diocese there are usually pilgrimage destinations and holy places known as shrines. These places can be easily accessed and relatively inexpensive to get to; they are highly spiritual centers that should be used by every Catholic.