Exploring Sacred Sites Close To Home


Editor’s Note: This is the introduction to our special travel edition. At the bottom you will find links to sites we didn’t have space to include there. 

Part of the reason my husband and I created The Faithful Traveler — a television show that explores Catholic sacred sites around the world — was to show Americans that they could go on pilgrimage here in the United States. Most of the Catholics we knew didn’t go on pilgrimage unless they could afford to go on some of the “Great Pilgrimages” to the Holy Land, Rome, Lourdes, or Santiago de Compostela.

And that’s a shame.

Here I was, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where I had five shrines within a short drive of my home. Surely, I could not be the only one so blessed, I thought. I looked around the country, saw some of the spectacular places of pilgrimage and Catholic history we have here in the U.S., and thought, “Why don’t more people know about these places?” So, we created a television series that seeks to explore them all.

This list of 20 of the most beautiful and historic Catholic sacred sites in the United States in this special issue of Catholic Digest is not unique, nor is it exclusive. There are many, many more sites that are equally sacred, beautiful, and historic, and their absence from this list does not take away from that. But we only have so much space. To cover each and every gorgeous, important, and artistically meaningful sacred site in our country would take a few volumes of a large book and a few hundreds of television episodes.

This list is meant to whet your appetite. To encourage you, if you haven’t begun already, to start looking around you to see what’s in your neck of the woods. Visit our website to see our map of sacred sites in the United States. Go exploring. Let us know if we’re missing any. While we certainly don’t want to dissuade anyone form going on one of the Great Pilgrimages, we do want to remind you that making a pilgrimage closer to home is easier than you might think.

There are many reasons why people go on pilgrimage — to learn, to give thanks, to petition, to remember, to honor. For me, pilgrimage has always meant coming home to a place where I know I am loved. Finding refuge in a chapel, close to God and away from life’s insecurities. Seeking understanding and familiarity in a foreign country, where I don’t speak the language. Resting in a haven of peace and tranquility in the heart of a busy city. I go on pilgrimage because, in the midst of my life’s pilgrimage, I need reassurance and reminders that no matter what, God is with me and he loves me more than I love myself. No matter where I am, I am always home in a Catholic church or shrine and I am always welcome.

So are you.

One of the things that always greets us at a sacred site is art. Sacred art raises our hearts and minds to God in ways that nothing else can. Look at a statue of Mary and try not to love her, to want to imitate her love, obedience, and holiness. Stand before a statue of the crucified Christ and try to not feel pain and sorrow — and gratitude — for his sacrifice of love for each and every one of us. Sit in the dappled light of a stained glass window that depicts a biblical tale or stories from the lives of the saints, and try to keep from wanting to learn more. Sacred art opens a door to prayer and meditation in ways that little else can. Beauty is truth, and this truth is God’s.

When we visit sacred sites dedicated to a saint, we learn about their lives, which motivate us to persevere in our own meager attempts at holiness. The varied lives and experiences of the saints remind us that there is no one way — save for following Christ — to God. I carry my cross, which is different from yours, in a different way than you do. I struggle differently, and I offer up my sacrifices differently. But if we all persevere — like the saints — and constantly strive for holiness, someday we, too, might achieve the heavenly reward, to be close to the one who loves us so much that he sent his only son to die so that we might be free.

The sacrifice that always accompanies pilgrimage strengthens us on our own daily pilgrimage, from Earth to (hopefully) heaven. Pilgrimage begins at home, before you go, and the struggles begin then, too. When you plan a pilgrimage, plan for obstacles because they will come. Don’t let those opportunities slip by! Make use of the traffic jam, missed flight, annoying seatmate, bad food, cramped hotel, or whatever else befalls you on your way or during your pilgrimage. Offer them up as reparation for the conversion of sinners. Unite your sufferings with those of Christ’s, and not only will your sufferings be useful, they will help to bring you closer to him, as well. Which is what pilgrimage is all about, isn’t it?

Before you begin this virtual pilgrimage through the sacred sites of our country, let me remind of just a few more things:

Do some research before you go. Visit the site’s website. Read about the site or saint. Watch The Faithful Traveler if you’re going to a site we’ve visited. The more you know, the more you get out of your pilgrimage.

Bring your camera, but follow the rules of each location and don’t distract others from their prayer. Some sites don’t allow photos. Don’t be disobedient! You can always buy a book or postcards at the gift shop. Focus on the purpose of your visit — to be with God — and ask him to imprint the memory of the beautiful site in your heart. He won’t let you down.

Dress like you are going to visit God, because you are. Many sacred sites, including some on this list, have dress codes. Save the beachwear for the beach and the miniskirts for the club. Be respectful in the house of God.

Lastly, and most importantly, don’t forget to pray. Pray before you go, pray while you’re there, and pray after you’ve come home. Prayer is to our spiritual life what air is to our physical life. Without it, we die. And through it, we speak to God and he speaks to us. Don’t let that conversation ever end.

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