Between the coronavirus and the economy, big trips are out of the question for many of us this summer.
If you’re stuck at home, consider taking time to make a “virtual pilgrimage” to some of the most spectacular sacred sites around the world.
Obviously, a virtual pilgrimage is not the same as being there — but, like watching a livestream Mass, it can still be an opportunity to encounter God.
The holy places highlighted in the next few pages offer immersive virtual tour experiences online that let you explore the spaces a bit like you might in real life.
As you visit, resist the urge to rush through or consume the content as you would any other website.
What sets a pilgrimage apart from tourism — and what should set our virtual pilgrimage apart from ordinary browsing — is prayer.
As the catechism puts it, “Pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer” (CCC 2691).
So start your virtual journey with this prayer to the Mother of God.
Pilgrim’s prayer through Mary
O Virgin Mary, Help of Christians, we dedicate ourselves to your service.
We concentrate our minds, hearts and bodies, and promise to work always
for the glory of God and the salvation of man.
Protect the young and help the aged, save sinners and console the dying.
You are our hope, Mary, Mother of Mercy and Gate of Heaven.
Pray to your son for us so that we may be filled with selfless charity and deep faith.
Ask Jesus for those things which we cannot obtain through our own actions
and help us in this our present necessity.
May we always see the will of the Father of our lives.
We ask you this, sweet Spouse of the Spirit,
so that we may come to your son in grace.
Photo: CNS/Vatican Museums
For its outsized importance in the history of art and the life of the church — it’s the room where popes are elected — the Sistine Chapel is surprisingly small. And between the typical crush of thousands of daily visitors and the security guards endlessly scolding tourists for trying to sneak photos, it can be hard to properly and prayerfully appreciate the place in person.
Through the Vatican’s virtual tour, you can take your time in the chapel and contemplate the full sweep of salvation history. The southern and northern walls depict scenes from the lives of Moses and Jesus by some of the greatest painters of the Renaissance.
Of course, the chapel is most famous for Michelangelo’s frescoes. On the ceiling, he painted nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, including the iconic Creation of Adam. A quarter-century later, in 1536, he returned to paint The Last Judgment. As art historian Liz Lev writes, “This massive work, covering the entire altar wall, looms sternly above the cardinals as they cast their votes” during a papal conclave. “An awe-inspiring Christ sits at the heart of the work … while Mary nestles by the wound in his side, continuing to draw souls to her Son.”
“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When in Rome
The Vatican website also has virtual tours of Rome’s four “major basilicas” — St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, and St. Mary Major.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Under the title of the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mary is the patroness of the United States. And in the nation’s capital stands this church in her honor — one of the largest churches in the world — which has been visited by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. At nationalshrine.org/virtual-tour, you can visit some of the basilica’s more than 80 chapels and oratories dedicated to Our Lady and take in “the world’s largest collection of contemporary ecclesiastical art.”
The shrine reflects “the ethnic and cultural diversity of the United States and the unity and universality of the Catholic Church,” according to the website. “Among the nationalities and ethnicities represented throughout the basilica are African, Austrian, Chinese, Cuban, Czech, Filipino, French, German, Guamanian, Hungarian, Indian, Irish, Italian, Korean, Latin American, Lebanese, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Slovak, Slovenian and Vietnamese.”
“This shrine speaks to us with the voice of all America, with the voice of all the sons and daughters of America, who have come here from the various countries. … These people, speaking different languages, coming from different backgrounds of history and traditions in their own countries, came together around the heart of a Mother they all had in common.”
St. John Paul II
Honor your Mother
You can find videos on YouTube of pilgrimage sites dedicated to Marian apparitions like Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fátima.
Basílica de la Sagrada Família
The Sagrada Família (Holy Family), in Barcelona, is one of the most breathtaking churches in the world — and it’s not even done yet. This ornate, one-of-a-kind temple, designed by Antoni Gaudí, has been under construction since 1882 and is scheduled to be completed in 2026. When you visit, be sure to look up at the columns branching like trees toward the ceiling.
Gaudí drew inspiration from “the book of nature, the book of sacred Scripture and the book of the liturgy,” Pope Benedict XVI said when he dedicated the basilica in 2010. “He made stones, trees and human life part of the church so that all creation might come together in praise of God, but at the same time he brought the sacred images outside so as to place before people the mystery of God revealed in the birth, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
“St. Joseph will finish this church.”
We are family
For sites connected with the earthly lives of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, look up the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, which according to tradition contains the places of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.
Closer to home
St. James Cathedral in Seattle has a virtual tour with great photos and explanations of its many artistic treasures.
You can also explore the statues and stained glass at Seattle’s beautiful Blessed Sacrament Church.
Northwest Catholic - July/August 2020