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The Canonization Crowds: Why Pilgrims Packed Rome

Father Elias Mallon discusses pilgrims in the context of the recent canonization Mass at the Vatican.

News networks last weekend were filled with stories about the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. A commonly recurring theme was the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had come to witness this historic event in St. Peter’s Square. It seemed as if people from all over the world had converged on Rome.

But were they pilgrims or tourists? Anyone who has gone to Rome during the tourist season knows how crowded it can get with souvenir-hunting, camera-toting tourists, even in places like St. Peter’s Basilica.

However, that was not the case last weekend All of the many people interviewed were clear why they had come to Rome: the canonization of two popes. Tourism, if it played any role at all, was clearly secondary to the desire to witness and take part in a ceremony believers found holy. Rome was packed with pilgrims.

In a world of high speed transportation and tourism as a “mega-industry,” pilgrims and pilgrimages may seem quaint and a bit outmoded. Nevertheless, the draw of holy places is strong and ancient, going back thousands of years.

I wrote more about this phenomenon in a web-exclusive essay for the online edition of ONE:

Pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the religious imagination.

The desire to visit places — especially distant ones — that are seen as endowed with transcendence and spiritual power is evidenced in many of the world’s great religions. Since many faiths employ words denoting a journey — “road,” “walking,” “path” — to describe their religious practice, perhaps it is natural for the pilgrimage to provide a metaphor of that greater pilgrimage: the life of the believer. In fact, the notion of pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — but in very different ways.

To discover more about the importance of pilgrimage to these three religions, read Pilgrim People in the current online edition of ONE.

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