Pilgrimages

At the age of 35 Dante joined other pilgrims by coming to Rome for the Jubilee Year of 1300, the first of twenty-five Jubilee Years that have brought believers to Rome down to 2000, a unique Jubilee in that it coincided with the end of the second millennium. Pilgrimages stretch back to the origins of the whole Jewish-Christian story. Abraham and Sarah left Ur of the Chaldees and became nomads for God. New Testament books such as the Letter to the Hebrews and the First Letter of Peter saw life as a journey to a heavenly homeland. By AD 250 the popular cult of Peter and Paul began to flourish in Rome and draw pilgrims to their tombs. Dante used the pilgrimage theme to open the Comedy ('In the middle of our life's road I found myself in a dark wood—the straight way ahead lost'); the spiritual transformation of the pilgrim takes him through hell and purgatory to heaven. Along with Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela (with its tomb of St James the Apostle), both before and after 1300 Rome attracted pilgrims at all times and especially during Jubilee years. For one of those early Holy Years (1350) the influential mystic St Bridget of Sweden had come on pilgrimage to Rome and stayed to be a reformer.

Not as exalted a poet as Dante, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) pictured in The Canterbury Tales a group of twenty-nine pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Thomas Becket (£1120-70) in Canterbury Cathedral. This assorted group of men and women allowed Chaucer to describe the saints and sinners who made up the Catholic Church of his day. Their virtues and vices exhibit the way in which the baptized of those days behaved or misbehaved themselves. At a time when the vast majority of men and women were still illiterate and when the mass entertainment of modern television, radio, and cinema was never imagined, the spiritual tourism of pilgrimages exercised a strong pull. Those shared journeys to the shrines of saints embodied a common faith and strengthened a common sensibility.34 One could argue that, at least in part, European consciousness arose through the pilgrimages of the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Germanic, Latin,

34 See Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimages in the Medieval West (London: Tauris, 1999).

Fig. 5. Young people holding high the cross on their annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Maipu, Chile. (Alonso Rojas/ Andes Press Agency.)

Fig. 5. Young people holding high the cross on their annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Maipu, Chile. (Alonso Rojas/ Andes Press Agency.)

and Slavic peoples.35 Stone crosses along the roads sacralized the journey, and at the journey's end the venerated sanctuary renewed the sense of communion with Christ and his saints. The ancient Celts named such shrines 'thin places'; time and again they experienced there close communication between God and themselves.

Such pilgrimages reinforced the consciousness of life as a spiritual journey, a preparation for death and eternal life. Everyman, an English morality play of the late fifteenth century, reflected that sense. The hero encounters the person of Death, who summons him to God and judgement. The changing seasons of Advent, Christmas, the Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost also played their part in sustaining a feeling of human life moving through sacred time to a final meeting with God. Along with the impact of this liturgical cycle, feasts of saints recurred year by passing year and fostered the devotion of towns, guilds, and other groups who cherished their heavenly patron.36 Movements that practise forms of neighbourly love continue in such organizations as the St Vincent de Paul Society, founded in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century for laypersons to serve the poor, and the San Egidio Community, founded in Rome in 1968 for common prayer and service of others.

We leave now the world of Dante and Chaucer and the lives of laymen and laywomen. We need to examine the roles of bishops and popes, and not least in their relationships with rulers.

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