The Basilica is designated as a pilgrimage church by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. During the autumn months, pilgrimages to the Basilica originate from various dioceses and ethnic communities across the United States and provide opportunities for pilgrims to discover and deepen their faith through the different manifestations of Mary from all over the world.
To help readers better understand pilgrimages and what makes the Basilica unique as a place of pilgrimage, Director of Pilgrimages Reverend Monsignor Vito A. Buonanno shares his insight. Today, he answers some essential questions about pilgrimages, and how they have changed throughout history.
This post is Part II in a series. View Part I.
What is the history of the pilgrimage, and how have pilgrimages changed over time?
The history and cultural tradition of the pilgrimage is very ancient, dating back into a shared Judeo-Christian heritage. In the New Testament especially, the Holy Family and the Apostles journeyed to observe sacred times. And that’s exactly what this is: a sacred time.
In the past, people would journey on a donkey or by foot. Now we’re going by car, bus, train, or plane, and transportation is so much faster and easier. What’s also different is what is made possible with the internet and social media: people can look at something before they even come here. Many people who journeyed in the past didn’t even know what the place was and maybe only had a connection because of their national heritage.
What makes a pilgrimage different from an ordinary trip?
You’re not going on a tour or a vacation. It’s not a travel agent’s arrangement, and there will be sacrifices that are made. Many times, depending on the origin of the pilgrimage, people gather very early and are on a bus for a very long time. You may not have all the same comforts you enjoy when taking a vacation tour or cruise – but that’s exactly what a pilgrimage is about. And that is why it makes us better people.
Do I have to come with a group?
People will contact me relating that they would like to go on a pilgrimage. And a perennial question I get is: Do I have to go with a group of people?
The answer is: not at all! We can be called individually as we’re open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. There are many individuals who come on pilgrimage here. While they may not know about all the offerings of the Basilica, I will help familiarize them with our offerings. Many times, an individual has devotion to a particular image of the Blessed Mother, and I can help give direction in that aspect.
What are some potential challenges of pilgrimages?
With 60 buses coming to the Basilica over a period of hours, there can be last minute mechanical failures – sometimes buses break down. But I always acknowledge that that’s exactly the nature of a pilgrimage.
At times it’s not always easy dealing with so many people. On one occasion, an elderly woman who came on a diocesan pilgrimage ended up falling while touring the Basilica. Thankfully during her time riding the bus to the Shrine, she befriended someone sitting next to her for the five-hour trip. It was that woman who went to the hospital and stayed with her until her family was contacted. This was a person that she had never met before, just travelling with her to the Shrine as a fellow pilgrim! That dedication is inspiring to me as a priest.
Sometimes the challenges are actually what bring us together. I remember one of the first pilgrimages I went on, we arrived at our hotel at midnight and had to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to leave. But that same night we were awakened by a false fire alarm. My parishioners were saying, “Oh my goodness, what are we going to do?” It was a sacrifice of sleep, to be sure, but it also drew us together.
How can a pilgrim best prepare for a pilgrimage?
I urge those considering making a pilgrimage here to be open to the Holy Spirit guiding them. It is also important to be practical: figure out when and how you are going to come, and what you will do during your visit. Think about what we’re doing here at the National Shrine that you would be able to join. Maybe you would want to come at a time that has a special meaning for you, whether it’s a special feast day or some other event.
Reverend Monsignor Vito A. Buonanno is Director of Pilgrimages at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. View his full bio.
Interested in learning more about pilgrimages at the Basilica? Discover the history of pilgrimages, sample pilgrimage itineraries, how to schedule a visit, and more at our Pilgrimages page!