Rites of way
With more people becoming pilgrims today than ever before, Fred Hale surveys the wide variety of pilgrimages they are taking and the different reasons that send them out
Pilgrimage may be an ancient religious tradition, but it is also an increasingly modern one. In 2013, almost one person in 20 throughout the world made a pilgrimage – 330 million people altogether, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, and the figure is increasing by 10% a year. The pilgrims are Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, Shintoists and Jews, Buddhists and Daoists.
In the later 20th Century, social commentators predicted that as the world became better and better connected, the secular values of the modern west would spread around the world, making religious beliefs and practices less and less popular. In fact, what has happened is that people are using those connections for religious practices including pilgrimage.
The most popular sites are in India. The Maha Kumbh Mela of 2012 – a Hindu pilgrimage to the Ganges which is held every 144 years – was attended by between 60 and 100 million people, making it the largest gathering of any kind ever known. The Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, and the Hindu sites of Tirupati and Sabarimala, each claim 30 million pilgrims a year.
Christianity is not far behind. Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, where the native American peasant Juan Diego had an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1531, receives 20 million visitors a year. There are also millions visiting Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil, Jasna Gora monastery in Poland, Fatima in Portugal, Lourdes, the Vatican, Medjugorje in Bosnia, the Basilica de Esquipulas in Guatemala and the Wailing Wall…
This is an extract from the February 2015 edition of Reform.