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Apr 10 Bishop James: Pilgrimage

I recently spent several days in Rome on a course devoted to relationships between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. As well as meeting the Pope and attending various lectures we visited one or two ‘significant sites’, including the Lateran basilica which serves as Rome’s Cathedral. Nearby is the so-called ‘Scala Santa’ which is said to be the staircase from the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, where Jesus was condemned to death. For many centuries, devout pilgrims have ascended this staircase on their knees; and I was amused to discover that when Martin Luther joined them in 1510, he packed it in half way up!

That story also prompted me to reflect on why it is that so many people go on ‘pilgrimage’. As we know from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there is nothing new about the desire to visit special places. In fact, as long ago as the early fourth century A.D. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, went on a pilgrimage to get hold of some holy relics, among them an alleged piece of the true cross. And today pilgrimage is as popular as ever. In England, pilgrims gather at shrines such as Walsingham. In Spain they trudge along the dusty road to Santiago de Compostela. Muslims have to make at least one pilgrimage during their lifetime to Mecca; and Hindus flock to their sacred River Ganges in Varanasi. Even the non-religious make their own little pilgrimages – for instance to the house where John Lennon was born and brought up in Liverpool. It is a universal phenomenon. But why? In the past there were three main reasons. One was the desire to obtain some sort of supernatural help or healing – usually from a place where the relics of saints were believed to reside, or where visions (often of the Virgin Mary) had been seen. That accounts, even in our own day, for the popularity of Lourdes and Medjugorje. When the relics of St Th©r¨se of Lisieux were brought recently to York I was struck by the thousands of Roman Catholics who queued to touch the casket – many of them hoping for strength or even cures for illnesses of various kinds. A second reason was thanksgiving, which is mirrored nowadays in the practice of visiting a deceased relative’s grave. The third was penance. From the eight century onwards a pilgrimage was often imposed in place of a public penance, and these pilgrimages were organised on a grand scale. Somewhat inevitably, abuses (notably rip-offs of various kinds and extreme superstition – plus §a change?) were rife, and the whole business was satirised by Erasmus in his treatise ‘Religious Pilgrimage’. But for Christians, the theme of pilgrimage has always been important. The letter to the Hebrews talks of our journey through life in search of the heavenly city – and John Bunyan picked up that notion in his classic ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. What’s more, our understanding of Incarnation makes the Holy Land a very special place, ‘consecrated’ as it was by the presence of God in Christ. Visiting the Holy Land is also a wonderful way of bringing Bible stories to life, and for many a trip to Galilee and Jerusalem has proved literally a life-changing experience. That is why we are arranging an ecumenical pilgrimage from Cumbria to the Holy Land in May (16 – 26) 2011. More details will be available from Canon Brian McConnell at the Cathedral in the very near future. Meanwhile, as one of the pilgrims who will be taking part, I recommend it very warmly indeed. James Newcome

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