08 April 2021, The Tablet

In the proxy footsteps of the past

by Mary Boyle

Virtual pilgrimages

In the proxy footsteps of the past


The restrictions on movement caused by the pandemic have left many of us looking for ways to satisfy our itchy feet. Yet especially where spiritual travel is concerned, we have unknowingly hit on the same solution as our medieval forerunners: why not make a virtual pilgrimage?

Even before “Covid-19” entered our lexicon, the number of people who actually made a long-distance ­pilgrimage was dwarfed by those armchair pilgrims who, like me, entertained vague notions of doing it “one day”, or even just read about it.

I was writing a doctoral thesis on medieval pilgrimage when my brother’s Christmas visit to Bethlehem gave me the impetus to stop scrolling and become a Holy Land pilgrim myself. Easy enough in the pre-pandemic twenty-first century. Covid-induced restrictions have now made the holy places more inaccessible than they were in the fifteenth century, when a journey to Bethlehem was considerably more time-consuming than a short-haul flight. But even then help was at hand – and still is: 500 years ago it was possible to get the same spiritual benefits from a virtual pilgrimage as from a physical pilgrimage.

So when Pope Francis decided to grant this year’s virtual Lourdes pilgrims a plenary ­indulgence, he was following in the footsteps of Innocent VIII in 1487, who granted all the remission available at the seven pilgrim churches of Rome to the nuns of St Katherine’s Convent in Augsburg for a pilgrimage ­conducted within their own walls.

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