The Mission of Shrines
by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
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
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 had
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, the Church has
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
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.
CANON LAW ON SHRINES
|| The term shrine means a church or other sacred
which, with the approval of the local Ordinary, is by reason of special devotion frequented by the
faithful as pilgrims. The distinguishing characteristic of a shrine is that it is a place of
|| For a shrine to be described as national, the approval
of the Bishops' Conference is necessary. For it to be described as international, the approval of
Holy See is required.|
- The local Ordinary is competent to approve
the statutes of a diocesan shrine; the Bishops' Conference,
those of a national shrine; the Holy See alone, those
of an international shrine.
- The statutes of a shrine are to determine principally its purpose, the authority of the rector,
and the ownership and administration of its property.
|| Certain privileges may be granted to shrines when
local circumstances, the number of pilgrims, and especially the good of the faithful would seem
make this advisable.|
- At shrines, the means of salvation are to be more abundantly made available to the
faithful: by sedulous proclamation of the Word of God, by suitable encouragement of liturgical
life, especially by the celebration of the Eucharist and penance, and by the fostering of approved
forms of devotion.
- In shrines or in places adjacent to them, votive offerings of popular art and
devotion are to be displayed and carefully safeguarded.
--The Canon Law: Letter & Spirit The Canon Law Society of Great Britain and
Ireland, Collegeville, Minnestota, The Liturgical Press, 1995, paqes 692-694. [Book IV
Sanctifying Office of the Church", Part III; "Sacred Places and Times", Chapter III
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