If you’ve ever traveled, especially to another country, you’ve probably noticed swarms of tourists gathered around the well-known tourist attractions, with cameras poised and ready to capture every angle of the famous landmark. I’ve been one of those tourists myself many a time, and there is something thrilling about seeing a famous sight for the first time with your own eyes. Sometimes you do have to stop yourself, however, from getting caught up in the momentary thrill of being a tourist, and consider the place you’re visiting for its other significances, beyond just being a famous place that looks great in photographs.
There was one time in particular when this thought struck me. I was visiting Paris for the first time and one of the places my friends and I most wanted to see was the Basilica of Sacre Coeur de Montmartre, a beautiful basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart that sits atop a large hill and overlooks the entire city of Paris. One of the most incredible things about the basilica is that it offers perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and has done so since 1885. Because Jesus is perpetually on display in the basilica, it is of course a well visited spot by believers from far and wide. However, the basilica has also become a famous tourist attraction due to its beautiful architecture and scenic location. I remember being particularly struck by the contrast between the two types of visitors that make their way to this holy place–the ones who seek out this place because it is sacred and a place in which they can worship Our Lord and meet Him face-to-face, and the ones who seek out this place because they’ve seen it in photos and want to check it off their list of sights to see in Paris. In short, I found the Basilica of Sacre Coeur to be a striking representation of the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a tourist. However, when these different types of travelers were presented to me in such distinct contrast, it did make me consider the differences between the two and wonder in particular what it means to be a pilgrim, especially since the Church on earth is known as the “pilgrim Church.” I’ve been both a pilgrim and a tourist myself, and have realized that perhaps the biggest difference between the two types of travelers is that a tourist is concerned only with the present moment–with the thrill and excitement of being in a particular place at a particular time. The moment is temporary, however, and so the tourist feels a strong impulse to memorialize it through a photo or by purchasing a souvenir. A pilgrim, on the other hand, has traveled to a holy place not just for a momentary thrill, but for the purpose of seeking a particular grace or spiritual blessing that will sustain him into the future. The pilgrim is always looking forward towards his end, and even when he arrives at the pilgrimage site, it is with an understanding that it is not the final destination. That holy place is only meant to direct him more steadfastly along the path to his final end in heaven.
While it is wonderful to try and seek out as many opportunities as possible to go on pilgrimage and visit holy sites, we of course cannot always be traveling around the world as an actual pilgrim does. And yet we are, in fact, always on pilgrimage since we belong to the pilgrim Church on earth. We ought, therefore, to try to develop a pilgrim’s heart, or a heart that looks not just to the here and now and the temporary things of this world, but to the world beyond to which we are ultimately traveling. We know through our Faith that all things come from God and that all things return back to Him, and we must remember that we, ourselves, are on a return journey back to our Creator. The heart of a pilgrim is a heart that understands that “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:36).