Popularity of pilgrimage booming

Record numbers are undertaking pilgrimages this year, even as religious belief is in decline. International correspondent Daniel Harkins finds out why.

The Way of St James is attracting a record number of pilgrims, new data shows – and almost a quarter of those taking part are non-religious.

In April of this year, 34,283 people arrived at the tomb of St James in northwestern Spain, according to statistics from the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago de Compostela.

This was a record number for the month, the figures which date back to 2004 show.

Pilgrims completing the world famous Camino travel for weeks to reach Santiago de Compostela, with most setting off from France or Portugal. Numbers spike over the summer and if the April boom continues into May-August it would see an extraordinary year for pilgrimage.

The pandemic is the obvious explanation for the spike. We spent so much of the last two years under unprecedented legal restrictions, forbidden from exploring the world. Now the handcuffs are off people are flocking to the beauty of the outdoors – and the well-trodden pilgrimage paths offer a ready-made route to those attractions.

Ian Bradley, Divinity emeritus professor at the University of St Andrews, is one of those hoping to fulfil pandemic-delayed plans to complete the Way. The lockdown scuppered his plans to walk the Portuguese route in 2020 and a bad ankle has prevented a 2022 trip.

He said while the Covid-19 pandemic has played a role in the boom in pilgrimage, there are other reasons.

“The interest in pilgrimage, not least here in Scotland, continues to mushroom,” he said.

“We are seeing more and more new pilgrim ways being set up by local groups under the over all umbrella of the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum (SPRF), the most recent being the Kentigern Way from Annan to Glasgow.”

A trustee of SPRF, Prof Bradley said they are currently trialing the Scandinavian Lutheran model of full-time pilgrim pastors – that is, someone to promote a particular pilgrimage and raise awareness. The Fife Pilgrim Way will be the test case.

The Way of St James at least needs no such promoting. April pilgrims on the Camino came from as far as Korea and Argentina. More than a thousand of them cycled, 57 came on horseback and five – incredibly were in wheelchairs.

Pilgrims of all ages made the journey, more than 10,000 of them under 30.

Most telling of all, more than 8,000 pilgrims said religion played no role in their decision to walk the route.

That is 23.7 per cent of the total and a massive jump in the number of non-religious taking part in previous Aprils.

In that month in 2019, that same percent age was just 11.5. The figures for other years are equally small: 8.7 (2018), 10.4 (2017) and 7.5 (2016).

Prof Bradley said he wasn’t surprised at the figures and that his research suggests pilgrimage appeals not only to those of all faiths and none, but particularly to those ‘on the margins’.

He said pilgrims who are not conventionally religious often say they are ‘seeking spiritual refreshment, re-orienting their lives away from business and selfishness and searching for a deeper connection with themselves, others, the natural world and also perhaps something or someone beyond all these’.

He added: “We have a huge opportunity in the churches to help turn tourists into pilgrims, I think – the boundary between the two is very thin and very porous.”

As a Catholic journalist I’ve lost count of the many young pilgrims I’ve spoken to who had been inspired to maintain their faith by World Youth Day, or visits to Lourdes, particularly those on the admirable HCPT trips which help the sick and disabled.

When I worked at the Scottish Catholic Observer, I would pull together a feature every year on the diocesan Lourdes pilgrimages. Each summer I’d make my own pilgrimage out to Edinburgh, to St Cuthbert’s in the city centre.

There, the late, great Mgr Tony Duffy would graciously spare his time, and on occasion some tea and biscuits, as he filled me in on that year’s archdiocesan Lourdes pilgrimage.

Afterwards, this being August and the Fringe festival in full swing, I’d walk up to the Royal Mile and I couldn’t help but compare the festival with Mgr Duffy’s stories of Lourdes, of the struggles of the sick to make the journey and the sacrifice of their helpers.

We can travel across the world for arts events, for football matches and to see exotic locations. These are all a pilgrimage of sorts. But it is the religious pilgrimages – the challenge, the company, the generosity, the prayer (however you do it) – that refresh the soul.

Perhaps the spike in pilgrim numbers, in non-religious numbers in particular, suggests the secular west is not quite ready to give up on religion just yet. Turning tourists into pilgrims, as Prof Bradley suggests, would be a challenge for the Churches, but it could be a very fruitful one.

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