Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.
The Mission of Shrines
The Marian apparitions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at Paris, Lourdes, La Salette, Knock, Beauraing, Fatima, and other places created noted centers of prayer and renewal. Pilgrims came to find healing and spiritual courage, to experience for themselves the miraculous event which had occurred, and this devotion revitalized the spirit of pilgrimage in the Church.
In the Catholic world of today about eighty percent of all shrines are dedicated to Mary. Annually the vast majority of pilgrims are destined for Marian shrines. For example, about ten million go to Guadalupe in Mexico, six million to Lourdes in France, five million to Czestochowa in Poland, four million to Aparecida in Brazil.
Shrines are not intended to be a sightseeing stop on a vacation trip; they are places of pilgrimage. Though most need to travel considerable distances and use vacation time to reach the shrines, pilgrimage is not a vacation-time visit, but rather an action of spiritual renewal.
Pilgrimage is an effort of the great journey of human life toward God. The life of the Christian person is a pilgrimage. Ours is a pilgrim Church. Ordinarily pilgrims endured privations in joining with others en route to a common goal. They unite with pilgrims of the past in prayer and in gratitude for a hallowed place.
All the actions of a pilgrimage are meant to be symbolic and instructive and transforming: the preparation, joining together with other pilgrims, the welcome at the shrine, the visit to the sanctuary, the celebration of the Eucharist, the return home. The purpose of the pilgrimage is to guide the pilgrim "to the essential: Jesus Christ, the Savior, the end of every journey, and the source of all holiness."
Vatican Council II spoke of Mary's "pilgrimage of faith." She precedes and encourages us in our own pilgrimage of Faith. Marian shrines are one expression of Mary's presence among us, the Church. John Paul II in Mother of the Redeemer referred to a "geography" of faith and devotion to Mary which includes those special places of pilgrimage where the People of God find the one who first believed and a strengthening of their own faith.
In today's world with millions of refugees and displaced persons, shrines are becoming gathering places for people uprooted from their homes and churches. At the first World Congress on Shrines and Pilgrimages in 1992 sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People, John Paul II expressed the desire that "persons whom life has treated harshly, the poor, the people who are distant from the Church" may find a welcome at shrines.
Hospitality extended to migrants and to all pilgrims at Marian shrines is an expression of the Virgin Mary's welcoming of God's word. Her example reminds all people that we come together in the great pilgrimage of life on this earth to everlasting life in our permanent home with God.