02 May 2019

Why was our tour of the Painted Churches a "Pilgrimage"?


Medieval Pilgrims [Source: LINK]
The web site of the Greater Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce (LINK) refers to visits to the Painted Churches around Schulenburg as “tours,” whether contracted through the Chamber with one of their guides such as was ours [LINK], or “self-guided.” In contrast, I call what we undertook a “pilgrimage.” What is the difference?

Although some may dispute what follows and consider the distinction simply one of terminology or semantics, I believe the difference is more profound and signifies something fundamental to our Catholic Faith. On a certain level, to be sure, pilgrimage can indeed be equated with tourism. Both forms of travel arise from a natural human desire to visit places out of the personal ordinary, whether it be simply to see unique or unusual sights, or on a deeper level, to experience places where important events took place or which were associated with important individuals – to walk the land, to breathe the air. The latter (which includes the former, of course) I call the Power of Place. As I have written previously [LINK], that is something I truly realized only during and after my first real – and belated – excursion to England and Scotland in 2008 [LINK]. After well over a decade as a medieval historian specializing in those areas (during which time I “lived” there through the medium of the written word – but the Power of the Word is a separate essay…), physically walking the battlefield at Hastings or strolling atop Hadrian’s Wall (and I could multiply examples) gave me a sense of connection to events that hitherto had been, I realized, little more than stories. I suddenly felt a closeness to persons 1000 or 1500 years gone. That was true for the events and figures of English and Scottish history I’d long studied – but it was nothing compared to walking in or touching the places important in the history of my Faith as I did over the next decade or so: in 2014 on an explicitly-described “pilgrimage” to Rome and Italy sponsored by my Basilica parish [LINK]; again in 2016 when I traveled to the Shrine of Guadalupe in Mexico with the New Saint Thomas Institute [LINK; NSTI LINK]; and yet again in 2018, in the Holy Land itself, with a small group sponsored by Radio Maria [LINK; Radio Maria USA LINK]. At Guadalupe I gazed at the tilma bearing the miraculous image of Our Lady from almost five hundred years ago. In Nazareth I stood within feet of the place where the angel announced to the maiden that she would conceive and bear a son who would be God Himself. And in Jerusalem I touched the very peak of Calvary where He suffered and died for me (and I could multiply examples). In these places, I felt something more than just the Power of Place, something powerfully and profoundly religious.

That perception is, I believe, key to a fundamental difference between tourism and pilgrimage, based on purpose. In the case of tourism, the purpose is typically pleasure, even if educational or for personal enrichment. In the case of pilgrimage, the purpose is some kind of religious exercise – devotion, spiritual enrichment, what have you. As such a religious exercise, pilgrimage is an ancient concept, one intrinsic to many different religions through time – I would argue to virtually all religions through time. The desire to visit, sacrifice at, pray at, request favors at places associated with and important to heroes, holy men, and even gods appears with the ancient Greeks and Romans among many others. Old Testament Jews were commanded to go up to Jerusalem for the major “Pilgrimage Feasts” because only there, in the Temple, could sacrifices be made (Exod. 34: 18-23; Deut. 16: 1, 9-10, 13, 16-17). In the modern world Buddhists visit Benares where the Buddha claimed enlightenment, and Muslims are required as one of the Five Pillars of Islam to make the hajj to Mecca and worship at the Ka’aba at least once during their lifetime. Both of these are called “pilgrimages.” Pilgrimages, to the Holy Land and elsewhere – Rome, Santiago de Compostela – are attested from the very earliest days of Christianity. Even the Crusades were conceived as “armed pilgrimages” with a strong connection to the medieval practice of penitential pilgrimage. Pilgrimage of one sort or another seems to be a near universal impulse within religion. And yet, within western Christianity, the term seems to be confined to Catholics. This was brought home to me when, within months of my own pilgrimage to the Holy Land, my Southern Baptist brother and his wife “took a trip” to the Holy Land. I asked him, “Do y’all call it a ‘pilgrimage’?,” and received the answer, “No.” Examination of two articles on Wikipedia seems to confirm this impression; under neither “Pilgrimage” nor  “Christian pilgrimage” does the word “Protestant” appear, and besides the Holy Land, the sites mentioned as Christian pilgrimage destinations are distinctively Catholic – Rome, shrines associated with Catholic saints, with apparitions of the Virgin Mary, and so forth. Which brought me to a question I have pondered now for some time: Why, among western Christians, does one hear of “pilgrimage” only from the lips of Catholics? Even in visiting the Holy Land and doing those very same things I just described, and seeing themselves as engaged in a religious exercise (as I know my brother and his wife did), Protestants by and large refer to their journey simply as a “trip” or a “tour.” Why do Protestants avoid using the term “pilgrimage” even when walking in the footsteps of Jesus? Does that fact signify anything? And why do Catholics so readily use the term in that context – and many others besides, including my characterization of our tour of the Painted Churches as a “pilgrimage”?

In my opinion, the difference signifies much, arising from a fundamentally different worldview.[1] In what follows, I am limiting myself to the question of Catholic vs. Protestant usage, specifically to that of Catholic vs. modern “Evangelical” or “Bible Protestant,” which background I came from and have the most familiarity. Some Reformed and Liturgical Mainline Protestants may lay more stress on an incarnationally-based worldview closer to what I describe for Catholics. Nevertheless, there exists a great difference between what Catholics call a “sacramental worldview,” which Protestants largely do not possess, and a general tendency among Protestants to see sharp division between the material and the spiritual. Foundational to Catholic theology, grounded in the Mystery of the Incarnation, is a recognition of the goodness of – and even a potential divinity inherent to – the material world. God reveals Himself and comes to us through the material world. Consider the classic definition of a Sacrament, e.g., in the Baltimore Catechism (Q. 574): “A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” Fundamental to the “outward sign” of the Sacraments is, in almost every case, some kind of matter – water for baptism, bread and wine for the Eucharist, etc. Catholics envision a far closer relationship between the spiritual and the material than do Protestants, one that allows the spiritual (Grace) to infuse and be conveyed through the material (the matter of a Sacrament). The invisible, transcendent, spiritual God created the material world, and saw that it was good – and He further hallowed it by deigning to enter into it Himself, becoming incarnate as Man while remaining God – one Being Who is both. Protestants’ hesitance – most often refusal – to grant Our Lady her proper status as Mother of God betrays their incomprehension of this central fact of the Incarnation in all its consequence.

In the same fundamentally different – non-sacramental – worldview originates Protestants’ incomprehension of Catholics’ veneration of relics and saints. God’s holy ones – those who died in a state of grace and now reside with Him in heaven – will, we are told, one day be reunited with glorified bodies in the General Resurrection. These will not be new bodies; these will be their own glorified bodies, the same bodies they left behind at death, which will be raised up to reign with Christ in heaven. As such, there exists some mysterious connection between the soul of the saint in heaven and his body here on earth, forming a locus of intersection between heaven and earth here in this world. The inscription once adorning the tomb of the 4th-c. St. Martin of Tours attests to the antiquity of this belief: “Here lies Martin the bishop, of holy memory, whose soul is in the hand of God; but he is fully here, present and made plain in miracles of every kind.”[2] Touch a relic, and you touch heaven, just as in taking and eating the Consecrated Host you take and eat the Flesh of the Son of Man – the glorified Body of Christ. This is not to equate relics with the Blessed Sacrament, but it is to draw an analogy. Of course, Catholic teaching recognizes as relics not just the bodily remains of the saints (First Class Relics) but also objects they used or were associated with in life (Second Class Relics) or which can be associated with them even by simple physical contact after death (Third Class Relics) – and what “object” could be more closely associated with a saint than the place he lived, where he worked, where he taught, where he died? The Holy Land is holy not simply because of geography, but rather because it is the land Our Lord graced with His presence during His life, death, and Resurrection here on earth. And just so, the altar of every Catholic church is rendered holy by the awesome mystery that is enacted upon it in the Holy Mass, which is in fact the very same Sacrifice Our Lord made on Calvary. Every time a Catholic attends Holy Mass, indeed, every time a Catholic enters a Catholic church, he makes a pilgrimage to a Place hallowed by the presence of God Himself in the Flesh.

The spiritualized Christianity of Protestantism admits none of this. All-important is what they characterize as a “personal relationship” with Christ as God, unmediated through the material in any sense. Everything is rather immaterial, effectively symbolic – the “Invisible Church” established by Christ is at best symbolized by individual congregations; Baptism is a symbolic act of obedience effecting no change in the believer; “The Lord’s Supper” is a mere symbol for the Body and Blood of Christ, effective only as a remembrance of Him; As central as it is to their identity, even the Bible in and of itself has meaning more in the words that are contained therein than in the Word they signify. Protestants thus see nothing inherently religious Holy Land as a place. For them, it is just a place – a place, yes, where the Savior was born, lived, died, and rose again – but just a place nonetheless. There is no spiritual power inherent in that place as a place. For Protestants, it is truly the journey that counts, not the destination, which merely serves for them as a memorial, a reminder, something that turns their hearts and minds toward God. For Catholics it is so much more.

There are, admittedly, other possible explanations for Protestants’ avoidance of the term “pilgrimage.” The association of “pilgrimage” with visiting the shrines dedicated to Roman Catholic saints, such as is the context for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales everyone learns about in High School, perhaps sets up a conscious avoidance of the term as simply too “Catholic.”   Or, what I consider to be a prominent and unfortunate use of the term “Pilgrims” to identify the radical Puritan Separatist passengers on the Mayflower who landed at Plymouth in 1620. These did not call themselves “pilgrims,” nor would they be called such for over 170 years, until a manuscript by William Bradford was discovered in which he referred to the group as “saints” and “pilgrims,” invoking the imagery of Hebrews 11: 13-16. The term “Pilgrim Fathers” is first attested in a speech by famed orator Daniel Webster during the 1820 bicentennial of the founding of the Plymouth Colony,[3] but quickly took hold in the popular consciousness. In reality, however, they were religious refugees from the Established Church of England seeking a new home where they could live and worship in freedom. That reality, I would suggest, creates a subconscious association in the American Protestant mind between “pilgrim” and “refugee” that, without the Catholic tradition of pilgrimage, dissuades their usage of the term.

So, to review, beyond the power of place as an accident of geography, a coincident of event and location, in the Catholic sacramental worldview Place gains power through the presence of the holy – the eventually-to-be-glorified bodies of the saints, the presence of those bodies in life and in death; the presence of Our Lord in His Incarnation – and in His Blessed Sacrament. In the Catholic mind, going to such a Place with religious intention – to venerate or to worship as the case may be – makes such a journey far more than a “trip.” It makes it a pilgrimage.

With regard to the specific question, Why call a “tour” of the Painted Churches a “pilgrimage”?, my answer would be, first of all, that for the Greater Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce to do so would be quite wrong, that they are quite right to use the former term. It is a secular civic organization, promoting the tourism facet of these artistic treasures to a clientele of all different backgrounds. Anyone appreciating history and beauty is a potential visitor who should be and is welcome. But for ourselves – for Catholics, the answer is different. Indeed, it is “all of the above.” Whether we are of the same ethnicity or not, as fellow Catholics the simple immigrants of a century and more past, who sacrificed much to build suitable places for worship in their new homes recalling those they had left behind in their old countries, are our brothers in the Faith. These are, moreover, Catholic churches, where Our Lord is present in the Sacrament and where the Sacrifice of Calvary is made present in every Holy Mass. We went there with the intention not just  of seeing beautiful art – and learning about an important but generally overlooked aspect of the 19th-c. immigration experience, as well as a just-as-important but just-as-generally overlooked aspect of the Catholic Church in America – but of honoring those simple immigrants in their deep faith and to pray there in the churches they built to Our Lord, living and present in a way that non-Catholics cannot possibly comprehend. Not by planning but rather by providence, we had a wonderful Catholic docent who understood this. For all those reasons, ours was indeed a Pilgrimage to the Painted Churches.

Thanks to Rev. Ryan Humphries of the Catholic Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana, for theological advice as I considered the issues raised in this essay.



[1]  Although I did not make specific use of it in composing this essay, Fish Eaters hosts an excellent overview of “Fundamental Differences Between Catholics' and Other Christians' Worldviews” (https://www.fisheaters.com/differences.html), Accessed 1 May 2019.
[2]  E. Le Blant, Les inscriptions chr├ętienne de la Gaule (Paris, 1856), 1: 240, quoted by P. Brown, The Cult of the Saints (Chicago, 1981), p. 4.
[3]  History.com Editors, “The Pilgrims,” History (https://www.history.com/topics/colonial-america/pilgrims). Accessed 1 May 2019.

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