Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Vocation of Shrines

by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.


A brief explanation of the role and purpose of shrines in Catholic life.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, August-September 1998

Shrines have a special vocation in salvation history. Just as God calls each of his creatures to a specific mission in this life, so does he designate shrines through his Church for a particular purpose.

The lives of many saints and great servants of the Lord both known and unknown were renewed and re-directed by pilgrimages to shrines both known and unknown.

From time immemorial all cultures and religions have revered significant places as shrines. The three great monotheistic religions hold their shrines in high regard, and their faithful visit them regularly.

The meaning of shrine

A shrine is a church or other sacred place visited by the faithful as pilgrims for special devotion. A pilgrimage is a journey by the faithful to a shrine, a place made sacred. The concept of pilgrimage is gaining ascendancy in this postconciliar time. We have a heightened awareness that we are a pilgrim people en route to our eternal destiny. Vatican Council II reminded us that we are a pilgrim Church.

Only in the postconciliar period has any thought been given to defining the concept of shrine or to developing official criteria about shrines. We find no reference to shrines in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, in the writings of Vatican II, or in Pope Paul VI's instruction on proper devotion to Mary, Marialis Cultus.

Paul VI's initiative

Pope Paul VI remedied this situation emphatically, and called for serious reflection on the role of shrines in the life of the Church. At the first meeting of rectors of Marian shrines in Italy, Paul VI urged them to "lift their voices and let their existence be known in the Church." In the annual addresses to the rectors of Marian shrines, meetings which he initiated, Paul VI was concerned with the meaning of shrines and their place in the liturgical and pastoral life of the Church. He described shrines as "spiritual clinics" (1965), "testimonies of miraculous deeds and of a continual wave of devotion" (1966), luminous stars in the Church's sky . . . centers of devotion, of prayer, of recollection, of spiritual refreshment" (1970). He recommended that shrines have a full program of sacramental and pastoral activity, and that they be centers of genuine religious intensity. He made it clear that devotion is an extension of liturgy and a preparation for it, that all Christian worship leads to Christ.

Previously, academic theology gave no consideration to shrines. The former Code of Canon Law, Vatican Council II, and papal instructions did not mention shrines. Shrines have no formal or canonical Church recognition.

Then Paul VI rose to the occasion and instigated the legislation on shrines contained in the 1983 Code of Canon Law which now guides the Church. Canons 1230-1234 define shrines as sacred places of pilgrimage, animated centers of intense Christian life which foster liturgical and sacramental practice and cultivate sound devotion.

John Paul II and the Marian Year

In his Marian Year encyclical Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer, 1987), Pope John Paul II spoke of the "geography of faith" and Marian devotion in regard to shrines. He asked for a qualitative approach to liturgical and devotional practice.

The Central Committee for the 1987-1988 Marian Year issued an instructional letter on the mission of Marian shrines. Among its directives the instruction encouraged shrines to present in the Eucharistic celebrations "a genuine image of the nature of the Church and of the Eucharist" and "reveal the fullness of the paschal mystery, communion with the universal Church, and the presence of Mary in word and symbol." Further, it encouraged shrines:

• to cultivate the via pulchritudinis, that is, a sense of God's beauty revealed in Mary;

• to provide an atmosphere for discerning and responding to vocation as a gift of God; for, a shrine is a sign of this mysterious relationship between God's call and the person's response;

• to be associated with or to sponsor a work of charity, such as a home for the sick, a school for the disadvantaged, a retirement center;

• to foster ecumenical prayer, encounters, dialogues,


Marian shrines are a particular expression of devotion to Mary. In the last quarter-century especially, they have made enormous strides in promoting the liturgical and pastoral life of the Church. It was this concern for a richer liturgical life that spawned the composition of the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Many shrines and religious congregations had proper Masses particular to their respective shrine and religious family histories. The rectors of shrines petitioned the Holy See to gather the best of these Masses and to compose new Masses in honor of our Blessed Mother. The result was the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary published in 1986 in two volumes, a Sacramentary and a Lectionary. This collection of forty-six votive Masses is wonderfully crafted in the spirit of the conciliar liturgical renewal, and contains an abundant tradition of Marian veneration, with texts drawn from numerous historic and contemporary sources. The CMBVM may be used almost any day by those on pilgrimage. This initiative by the shrines has enriched the liturgy of the whole Church, for the use of these special Marian Masses is extended to all parishes and communities seeking various votive Masses for a Saturday commemoration of Our Lady or for a special occasion.

The meaning of pilgrimage

A pilgrimage or visit to a sacred place honoring a significant event is intended to be an action both profoundly human and religious. Millions each year frequent the great historical locations where their country's grand events were forged. The concept of pilgrimage is prominent in all of the world's major religions: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist.

The spirit of the early and medieval Church inspired pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, to the tombs of the apostles and martyrs, to the holy places of Rome, and to churches and shrines holding relics of saints. Internationally famous for pilgrimage in the Middle Ages were Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain and Canterbury in England.

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.

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