Pope Benedict XVI departed for Brazil on Wednesday, embarking on his first trip to Latin America since starting his pontificate. The Vatican is calling it an "apostolic journey," but news reports have been referring to the trip as a "pilgrimage." Is every papal excursion a pilgrimage?
In the strict sense of the word, no. Most religious traditions consider a pilgrimage to be a journey to a holy site as an act of piety for personal sanctification. For example, Pope John Paul II's 2000 visit to Jerusalem, where he prayed at the Western Wall, was definitely a pilgrimage. His trips to Italian ski resorts were not. Pope Benedict XVI's itinerary in Brazil includes visits to holy sites, including the Shrine of Aparecida near São Paulo. He will also preside over the canonization of a Brazilian saint. But his main reason for traveling is more business than personal: He will attend a conference of Latin American bishops held every 10 years to discuss strengthening the church's role in the region. Of course, the word pilgrimage has been used to describe any sort of spiritual journey, whether to a recognized holy shrine or to Graceland. However, the Vatican has long referred to trips like Benedict's as "apostolic journeys." (See a list of them here.)
For Catholics, the most common pilgrimage destinations are sites where miracles supposedly occurred. For example, 5 million visitors head to Lourdes, France, every year, to visit the river in which a woman said she saw a figure of the Virgin Mary in 1858. (Many believe the river's water cures disease.) Pilgrimage sites don't need special Vatican approval, but the Official Catholic Directory does publish a guide to church-sanctioned pilgrimages. (The most recent edition doesn't include any sites in Brazil.) The church will sometimes intervene when it suspects people are traveling to visit the site of a false miracle. When visitors began to arrive in Clearwater, Fla., to see a Virgin Mary-shaped rainbow design on the side of a building, a local bishop tried to assure them it wasn't real.
Popes have always done a fair amount of traveling, though not every trip was a pilgrimage. In the Middle Ages, Pope Urban II went to Clermont, France, to announce the First Crusade. In the 14th century, the pope relocated to Avignon, France, for a 70-year period called the "Babylonian captivity." Papal travel, pilgrimage or otherwise, stopped altogether between 1870 and 1929, when Rome was ruled by the kingdom of Italy. (Pope Pius IX holed himself up in the Vatican in protest.) After 1963, Paul VI revived the papal pilgrimage, becoming the first pope ever to travel outside Europe. More recently, Pope John Paul II became the most jet-setting of all time, visiting 117 countries.
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Explainer thanks Frederic Baumgartner of Virginia Tech, Lawrence Cunningham of the University of Notre Dame, and Edith Turner of the University of Virginia.