I’ve been thinking about the difference between a journey and a pilgrimage. We are all on a journey. (The French root, jour, means “day.”) Every day of our lives is a journey, which we can undertake well or badly. `
But a pilgrimage is different from a journey in that it’s a journey with a destination—one or many. And the destination is sacred in some way. Pilgrimage often seems to involve some hardship or sacrifice, and it’s undertaken with thought and purpose. Not that a journey doesn’t have a spiritual dimension, or thought and purpose—it surely does. But maybe a journey is more open-ended and less focused.
Recently, I became a sort of accidental pilgrim, and I got to see how modern pilgrimage is undertaken these days.
Ste. Anne de Beaupré is a huge shrine and a destination for people from all over North America and probably the world. I’ve known about it since childhood, because, as I found out, a lot of people from Michigan visit the shrine. French classes in Catholic schools all over the state journey to Quebec City and then to Ste. Anne de Beaupré slightly in one fell swoop. From joie de vivre to the confessional. Handy.
Since I was so close (Quebec City), and since I am Catholic bred in the bone, of course I had to see the shrine.
I pulled into the parking lot, thinking this would take a few hours and we’d be off. Then I saw the large and inviting campground across the street—for the pilgrims. For me! A few hours became two full days. (Sorry, Julia.)
(I’d been paying up to $40/night for a campsite. This one was free–no questions asked; donation only. Come sunset, lots of campers pulled in for the night.)
After my first few hours at the shrine, I was wrestling with some quandaries:
- Among the many Ste. Annes on the books, this one is dedicated to the mother of Mary (grandmother of Jesus). Now, common sense would tell us that Mary had a mother (and, a father), but this person is totally unknown. She’s never mentioned in the Bible, so all the stories about her, including her name, are myth and tradition.
- Every day about mid-morning, the tour buses pulled in and controlled pandemonium broke loose. By noon, the place was crawling, mostly with kids who raced around the shrine, sometimes more, and often less, reverently before mobbing the McDonald’s
across the street. By 4pm, the buses were gone, and the parking lot was empty. The few attendees at mass in the evening were swallowed up in the huge space around them. I can only imagine that attendance at morning mass was equally sparse.
During the week of Ste. Anne’s feastday, about 87,000 people visit the shrine.
I met a group at mass one evening who had come from Newfoundland. This was the 90th such pilgrimage organized by their leader, for whom this pilgrimage is a kind of family endeavor.
3. What happened here to make this such a big deal? I recalled from my own childhood stories of miracles and healings and crutches being left at the altar, but aside from a modest display of crutches on two pillars, I didn’t see or hear much about miracles.
So, I visited the museum, took the tour, and just walked around looking at stuff for two days. Here’s the most compassionate and human responses to my questions that I could come up with.
1. Ste. Anne has been the patron saint of sailors for hundreds of years. When you’re tossing about on the ocean like a cork, it probably feels very comforting to have Jesus’s grandmother in your back pocket. In fact, there are churches and ports all over Quebec dedicated to Ste. Anne, so that’s nothing new. In fact, this parish has been around since 1658.
I began to understand that Ste. Anne (They call her “Bonne Ste. Anne”—Good St. Anne) was a posture, a symbol, a representation of something we fragile creatures deeply long for. Native Americans (the “First Nations” here) have a special devotion to Ste. Anne. Every year they hold a “First Nations Sunday,” which must be kind of like a Catholic powwow. They call her the Grandmother.
Everyone needs a grandmother, and the First Nations know how to honor their elders.
So, whoever the real grandmother of Jesus was, the Ste. Anne at this shrine reflects our longing for something wise, maternal, and protective. I can honor this “Good Ste. Anne” with as much enthusiasm as the next person because of the qualities she represents.
2. In my previous life as “youth group coordinator” for my tiny parish, I understand the desire to organize something that will impact kids. That will put them in the presence of God in a way that they won’t forget. Unfortunately, it’s easy for us adults to forget that this is God’s work and God’s timing, and adolescence is both particularly
impressionable and peculiarly distractable and resistant time of life. So, I could see myself—with all the good will in the world, and expending tremendous energy in the process–renting a tour bus to cart 20 or 30 adolescent kids on a pilgrimage to Ste. Anne de Beaupré where miracles happen.
However, what I saw as an observer were harried and exhausted adults and tons of kids doing their adolescent thing in a different environment. Most of them were good kids, and maybe some came away personally touched. But I’m thinking that all that money and energy might be better spent on programs back home rather than on a blowout trip.
3. What happened here? This took some digging, but apparently, the miracles started almost as soon as the church was founded in 1658. In 1665, Marie de l’Incarnation, who founded the Ursuline school and convent in Quebec City, wrote, “Seven leagues from here there is a borough called Petit Cap…there one sees paralytics walk, the blind recover their sight, and the sick regain their health.” From the legacy this woman left in Quebec City, she was clearly no fool.
And so the pilgrimages began. For the first few hundred years, the church was small and the pilgrims, while constant, weren’t overwhelming. But the miracles continued and the numbers increased, especially as it became easier to get here in those big, comfy buses.
In 1885, a fancy new basilica, representing enormous effort, replaced the small church that had served the community faithfully for 200 years. In 1922, it burned almost to the ground. A year later, work began on the present shrine. It took 53 years to complete.
So, what happened here? To the credit of the Redemptorist priests who’ve been in charge of the place for over 100 years, I felt a genuine effort to welcome all visitors and to meet whatever needs they might bring, whether it was a place to spend the night or to confess a burden or to receive a blessing.
I also was impressed that the miracles were scarcely mentioned, although they’ve been happening consistently for all these years. No cheap sensationalism here. No miracle cure reality show in the works. The shrine is all about pilgrimage; the message is that all created things are equally sacred and that this is a holy place to visit. The miracles still happen; documentation is all faithfully kept…somewhere, but they’re not the main course.