Pilgrimage to Rome

People have been making pilgrimages to Rome since the fourth century when the Roman Empire became Christian. Early pilgrims had the advantage of the well-maintained infrastructure of Roman roads. The most popular route from northern Europe was down the Rhine Valley. But with the Barbarian invasions and the instability of Europe after Charlemagne, the pilgrim route became increasingly perilous, and from the early 9th century Santiago de Compostela came to replace Rome as a popular pilgrim destination.

Pilgrimage to Rome was revived when Pope Boniface VIII declared 1300 a Jubilee (Holy) Year, whereby a visit to Rome would merit a plenary indulgence, and with it a complete remission of sins. Pilgrim numbers soared, and the practice of declaring Jubilee Years at intervals of 50 and 25 years continued to attract large numbers until the Reformation when the new Protestant churches turned their backs on the cult of pilgrimage.

Over following centuries, however, the numbers of pilgrims to Rome crept back up – despite the vicissitudes of wars and revolutions in Europe – until, with the arrival of mass transportation in the early 20th century, visiting Rome had become a rite of passage for millions of Christians.

In the 2000 Jubilee Year, 25 million pilgrims visited Rome by one means or another. Today’s foot pilgrims have, therefore, swung full circle, making a conscious choice to travel under their own steam and at their own speed, on a journey in which not only the end, but also the means, are of great significance.