When all roads lead to a sense of the sacred

London, UK - In Holy Week, the time when Christians engage in prayers that focus on Christ’s journey to the Cross, it seems apt to reflect on the revival of pilgrimages, one of the most surprising recent developments in Western Christianity. As church attendance has plummeted, more people are travelling the old medieval pilgrim routes across Europe or visiting shrines old and new.

The number of those walking or cycling the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain has quadrupled over the past 20 years. A series of apparitions of the Virgin at Medjugorje in the Balkans since 1981 has created a major new pilgrim destination alongside established Marian shrines such as Czestochowa in Poland, Fatima in Portugal and Lourdes in France which draw ever larger crowds of the faithful.

New long-distance pilgrim trails have also been established, such as St Cuthbert’s Way through the Scottish and English Border country from Melrose to Lindisfarne, and the Pilgrim Way from Oslo to Trondheim in Norway, which is based on a medieval pilgrim route to the shrine of Norway’s patron saint, Olav. Both routes opened in 1997.

The practice of pilgrimage, understood as a departure from daily life on a journey in search of spiritual wellbeing, is a central feature of all the world’s major faiths. For Muslims, the requirement to travel to Mecca once in a lifetime is one of the five pillars of Islam. Although not obligatory for Christians, pilgrimage has long been a significant aspect of Christian life and devotion. Its biblical origins lie in the Exodus experience of the Israelites, who felt closer to God when they were wandering through the desert than when they settled in the promised land, and in the peripatetic lifestyle of Jesus who said of Himself: “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”

The desire to walk in Jesus’s footsteps led many early Christians to journey to the Holy Land. As the cult of saints developed and certain places came to be seen as sacred, Christian pilgrimage reached its zenith in the Middle Ages with thousands travelling for many months to Rome, Santiago de Compostela, St Andrews and other shrines thought to house the relics of Apostles and martyrs.

Although the Reformation effectively killed pilgrimage in Protestant countries, its recent revival has not been confined to Roman Catholics. Protestant-inspired ecumenical communities at Taizé in Burgundy and Iona off the West Coast of Scotland attract thousands of young pilgrims every year. Across Scandinavia dedicated pilgrim pastors appointed by the Lutheran churches welcome people to shrines and lead pilgrimages. Last summer a new 280km pilgrim way was opened across Jutland in Denmark, and a 950km footpath tracing the escape route to Germany taken by exiled French Protestants in the 17th century.

Pilgrimages are often undertaken to mark a significant landmark in life. They also reflect the recovery of a sense of the sacredness of place and landscape in a fragile world and the widespread desire to connect with roots and traditions. Many people find it easier to walk rather than talk their faith and derive encouragement through treading in the footsteps of countless pilgrims before them.