Catholics worldwide find strength in popular pilgrimages, devotions

By Barbara Fraser | Catholic News Service
Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Thousands of pilgrims walk in the 33-mile procession from Chicago to the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Merriville, Indiana, on Aug. 14, 2016. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Three times during October, tens of thousands of people pour into the narrow downtown streets of Lima, Peru, accompanying the figure of the Lord of the Miracles in a procession around the city. The devotion, one of the largest in Latin America, is also celebrated in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago.

“In Latin America, popular piety is part of the culture,” says Rafael Luciani, a Venezuelan lay theologian at Boston College. “There is a personal relationship between the person and God through the image that is carried in a procession or is in the church or the home.”
Although the relationship is personal, it is celebrated in community often in pilgrimages large and small.

“It’s not something that’s done in private,” Luciani says, “because people don’t understand religion as being separate from the rest of their lives.”
The Lord of the Miracles devotion dates to the mid-1600s, when an African slave painted a crucifixion scene on a wall in Lima. The archbishop sent workers to destroy, erase or paint over the image, but each effort was miraculously frustrated.

In 1687, a violent earthquake leveled the city but left the wall with the image unscathed. The devotion received official approval, and for centuries, a replica of the original image has been carried in procession every October. The devotion is organized by a lay confraternity — another characteristic of popular religious devotions, Luciani says.

Other countries have their own devotions. In Poland, people walk from towns across the country to the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa. For more than 20 years, Polish Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago have replicated that pilgrimage each August walking 33 miles from Chicago to the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Merriville, Indiana.

Processions, whether around the neighborhood or to a distant pilgrimage site, are a mainstay of popular devotions. 

“The person goes along, telling God about their problems or their joys, and they join their everyday life to that relationship with God,” Luciani says.

In Africa, religious celebrations often are accompanied by music and dancing, says Liz Mach, who has worked in Tanzania for most of her 41 years as a Mary-knoll lay missioner.

The Sunday liturgy may last several hours, with singing, clapping and the trilling sound that women make with their tongues to express joy. 
Pilgrimages are the more serious side of celebration, she says. 

A pilgrimage site more than six kilometers from her home in Musoma commemorates the arrival of the first missionaries to the diocese more than a century ago.

Pastors in U.S. parishes where immigrants settle must recognize that religious traditions vary from country to country, even in the same part of the world, Luciani says. Although Guadalupe is well-known, for example, it is mainly a Mexican devotion.

“Pastors must understand that this is part of (people’s) culture,” Luciani says of popular devotions. “That’s a challenge for the church in places that are multicultural.”


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