Pilgrimages and Shrines: Still Relevant in a High-tech Age

Interview With Aide of Latin Bishops’ Council

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COPIAPO, Chile, SEPT. 7, 2003 (Zenit.org).- What is the role of shrines in the Christian faith and the challenges they face in an ever more secularized world?

That question, and others, were addressed by Bishop Gaspar Quintana Jorquera of Copiapo, director of the Shrines and Popular Religiosity Section of the Latin American bishops’ council, in this interview with ZENIT.

Q: How important are shrines in the proclamation of the Gospel?

Bishop Quintana: A shrine is certainly “a privileged place of evangelization,” as John Paul II has said. In this connection, there are two factors which favor this capacity to evangelize.

One is the force of attraction that shrines have on the faithful or pilgrims, for whom it is a place of encounter with God, with his mercy and his power.

The other is the combination of means it has for the proclamation of the Good News: the atmosphere of prayer, liturgical celebrations, festive encounters with brothers in the faith of the Church, the symbolic language — [that is,] songs, images … etc.

There is no doubt that popular piety is a special example of the inculturation of the Gospel, and because of this, we must discover in it the real spiritual values to enrich them with the elements of genuine Catholic doctrine, so that this religiosity will lead to a sincere commitment to conversion, and to a concrete experience of charity.

Q: From your experience, what is the believer seeking who joins a pilgrimage to a shrine?

Bishop Quintana: To go on pilgrimage is an experience that touches the human being profoundly.

This is why it is a popular religious practice in which there is a will to approach the Absolute in certain places that the believer sees as consecrated by his presence. In them, in a special way, the pilgrim experiences his condition as creature, acknowledging his dependence on the power and mercy of God and presenting his own fragility, in particular, when he finds himself in extremely painful situations, in sickness, failure, unemployment, or family problems.

Interesting research was done in the year 2002 in Chile’s shrines. More than 10,000 were surveyed. In regard to the motives for going on pilgrimage, they indicated: prayer in general, 26.9%; religious vows or promises, 20.8%; tourism, 9%; requests, 8%; thanksgiving for favors received, 5.1%; need for silence and peace, 1.4%; dance as religious dance, 1.2%; sacrament of confession, 0.1%.

Q: How do Catholic shrines receive atheists and the indifferent?

Bishop Quintana: Shrines are open to all, with no distinctions of religion or spiritual attitude. Anyone can go in and out; no one is asked about his origin or religious position. This is why it is said that the shrine, as a place of God, is home to all who wish to take shelter under its eaves.

Of course, what is desirable is that the nonbeliever, who comes to the shrine seeking, perhaps, direction for his life, finds it through all that the shrine can offer him as a gift of God.

Q: A pilgrimage implies effort, time, movement and prayer. At this time of new technologies, in which “virtual” and immediate experiences seem to exert more attraction than real ones, are shrines destined to disappear for lack of pilgrims?

Bishop Quintana: I think the question is interesting, given the times in which we live.

In fact, to prepare well for a pilgrimage implies a serious attempt to proclaim the Good News of Jesus, from a missionary Church, according to theological and pedagogical criteria proper to the pastoral care of multitudes placed in a specific culture.

But it is hard to imagine that the virtual dimension of the new technologies will be able to replace the real fact of being able to move, with one’s own spiritual and bodily condition, from one place to another. To walk, often with great sacrifice but with immense faith and love, accompanied by men and women believers of diverse places and social classes, is a unique and overwhelming experience.

This is why, despite some changes proper to the passage of time, the experience of great pilgrims like Abraham, Moses, the people of Israel, Jesus himself, continues to be lived by the millions of men and women who in our time “come and go” from the thousands of shrines that exist in the world.

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