Catholic and Orthodox Pilgrimages in Europe

Philip Jenkins

Catholic Pilgrimages

The continuing popularity of pilgrimages refutes simple claims that European Christianity is dead. Critics might question the kind of faith that such pilgrimages demonstrate, and both Protestants and many liberal Catholics are nervous about the theological content of a Marian healing shrine. But if we regard the pilgrimages to Mecca or Varanasi as symbols of the passionate faith of Muslims or Hindus, then we should treat Christian expressions with equal respect.

 The world’s largest Marian shrine is Guadalupe in Mexico, which attracts ten million visitors a year, while six million visit Brazil’s Church of Our Lady of Aparecida. But Europe is still home to several thriving centers that draw pilgrims on a near-Latino scale, and over the past half-century, those numbers have grown substantially. Lourdes drew a million each year in the 1950s. That number is now closer to six million annually, and 50,000 might pass through even on a quiet day.1 While estimates vary, Europe’s second most visited shrine is Poland’s Jana Góra in Czestochowa, which attracts four or five million, with heavy youth representation. Pilgrims come to see a miraculous picture of the Virgin, supposedly drawn from life by St. Luke the Evangelist. Each year, six million Poles, or 15 percent of the population, make pilgrimage to some site. Pope John Paul’s visit to Croatia in 1998 also helped restore the popularity of Marija Bistrica.2

 Some East European pilgrimage sites boomed under Communist regimes, when they offered a form of clandestine resistance to official repression. In the 19th century, Lithuanians began the custom of erecting crosses on the Hill of Crosses, KryžiuKalnas, near Vilnius. These symbols flourished under Soviet rule, and the harder authorities tried to sweep them away, the more devotedly people setup thousands of new crosses, until eventually, in the1980s, the government acknowledged failure. By now, the total of crosses, large and small, runs into the tens of thousands. Under the patronage of John Paul II, the Hill reinforced its position as a shrine of nationhood as well as Catholic devotion, and a center of pilgrimage. Other new shrines have also developed. Just since 1981, the village of Medugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina has enjoyed European celebrity for the apparitions of the Virgin and for the words of counsel that she reportedly addresses to the faithful. By some accounts, Medugorje has attracted 30 million visitors in this relatively short period.3

Orthodox Pilgrimages

Among Orthodox churches too, the revival of monasticism since the fall of Communism hassled to a reestablishment of ancient shrines that once more draw large numbers of pilgrims. Such once-great landmarks of Russian Christianity Posad and Valaam are flourishing anew, offering spiritual direction to seekers. So is Optina Pustyn, which in its day welcomed Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. In 2006, many thousands of Russians stood in line to visit the relic of the hand of John the Baptist, which had been removed from the country during the 1917 Revolution, but was once more on display in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Symbolizing the resurrection of Russian Christianity, the cathedral itself had been demolished in 1931, but was wholly rebuilt in the 1990s. Bulgaria’s national shrine is the ancient monastery of Rila, which amillion faithful now visit each year to engage in the distinctly unsecular pursuits of venerating relics and seeking healing. Also, across Russia and Eastern Europe, the end of Communism coincided with renewed interest in painting icons, a devotion that seems set for a potent revival.4

Editor’s Note: See also Boris Vukonic, “Catholic Pilgrimage: The Phenomenon of Medugorje,” East- West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Fall 1999): 1-3.


1 Mary Lee Nolan and Sidney Nolan, Christian Pilgrimage in Modern Western Europe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989); Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 203-30.

2 Ellen Badone, ed., Religious Orthodoxy and Popular Faith in European Society (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Ellen Badone and Sharon R. Roseman, eds., Intersecting Journeys(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Jill Dubisch and Michael Winkelman, eds., Pilgrimage and Healing (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005).

3 Donald Foley, Understanding Medjugorje(Nottingham, UK: Theotokos Books, 2006).

4 Benjamin Forest, Juliet Johnson, and Marietta Stepaniants, Religion and Identity in Modern Russia (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005).

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). F

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies, Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania.