The commodification of pilgrimage?

Traditionally, Christian pilgrims formed a communal relationship with each other and with the caretakers of the sacred sites throughout the ritual of pilgrimage. That communal relationship, which was forged through the hazards of the journey, the sharing of resources, and the entry into an alternative reality, defined the social character of the pilgrimage. In the modern tourism industry, however, the pilgrim’s social role was defined as that of the client who paid for travel arrangements, airfare, tourist guides, comfort­able accommodation, and pre-packaged experiences of the sacred.9

The 2000 Jubilee was special for several reasons. John Paul II has claimed, himself, that it represented the ‘hermeneutic key of my Pontificate’ (in Tertio Millennio Adveniente10). By this, the Pope ‘is reminding his readers that the End of Time is a concept inherent in the Christian faith; for "time" as mankind observes and measures it is a human construct which is destined to pass away’.11 Yet, in celebrating the Holy Year in a series of rituals and events centred on Rome, John Paul II displays a carefully considered spiritual geography that includes Bethlehem and other holy places. As Cosgrove and Martins (2001) suggest, this has parallels with London’s secular celebration of the Millennium, where in both cases ‘we are presented with a symbolic mapping of the millennium based, not on territories, but on networks: both actual (in the buildings, churches, and processional pathways) and virtual (in their axial connections and linkages through modern technologies’.12

Yet this view ignores the fact that 2000 was important for other reasons, not least in the enthusiasm with which John Paul II exhorted the Catholic faithful to visit Rome. By contrast, Paul VI had even considered not holding the 1975 Holy Year. Having inherited the modernising spirit of Vatican II, he was unsure as to whether the Rome-centred nature of the event should not be replaced with a less centralised mode of celebration (and where the Eucharist replaced Rome as the centre of the Church).13 So in many ways, 2000 was a restatement of John Paul II’s aim to return the Church to a more orthodox theological stance, combined with an emphasis on addressing some of the major social problems of the time, and the Vatican’s uneasy relations with its past concerning, for example, the revision of the Church’s hostility to Galileo or apology for the burning of the heretic Giordano Bruno.14

So while the outlook of John Paul II emphasised a dynamic revision of the Church’s stand on several issues, this was combined with a renewed devotionalism. In many ways, this was an echo of the role of Rome in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The devotional nature of the Pope-faithful relationship was emphasised, moreover, through pilgrimage. As Stinger (1985) describes, the emergence of pilgrimage can be traced to the efflorescence of Renaissance Rome, running from 1443 to the Sack of 1527, and accompany­ing a greater emphasis on papal ritual, particularly in the liturgy and ceremony.

Sixtus IV’s plans for urban renewal were inspired particularly by growing numbers of pilgrims, especially in the Holy Years (Jubilees) instigated by Boniface VIII in 1300. Sixtus’s bull reflected the papacy’s vision of Rome at the centre of the Church on earth. As Stinger explains, Rome is

the city consecrated to Christ through the glorious blood of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and has been made by the Most High head of the Christian religion and seat of His vicar. This civitas sacerdotalis et regia (royal and priestly city) is caput mundi, and in consequence draws multitudes of the faithful from all parts of the earth to visit the basilicas of the Apostles and to gain indulgences, especially during Jubilee Years.15

The particular importance of Jubilee years make the city of Rome perceptible through non-worldly criteria. As Stinger notes:

For pilgrims, Rome existed not as a city in the sense of a human community, but rather as a vast, mysterious and potent sanctuary, a gateway to the heavenly world. Contemporary reality paled before the visionary splendour of the eternal kingdom, as human dimensions of space and time gave way to mystical celestial links, unfathomable to rational enquiry.16

The revival of particular cults and the visiting of particular holy and mystical sites of the city were thus fed upon by pilgrims who, upon visiting a requisite number of basilicas, were able to reduce the time they would spend in purgatory. Here, the ‘Roman pontiff, blessing the crowds in Piazza S. Pietro, served as the sluice gate by which the streams of divine mercy were channeled downward to the pilgrim Church’.17 It is this performative dimension that was revived particularly in the nineteenth century, but that has been perfected and exploited in extremis by two popes of the twentieth century: Pius XII and John Paul II.

This reached its apogee in the rule of Eugenio Pacelli Pius XII (1939-58) around whom an intense personality cult centred. Pacelli developed the devotional nature of papal rule in four ways: first, the Pope as embodiment of the Church and its values; second, the emphasis placed by Pius on the centrality of Rome as centre of the world (caput mundi); third, a ‘cultivation of a sense of cosmic crisis’ with Rome at the epicentre for dramatic purposes; fourth, the staging of rapturous encounters in St Peter’s with ‘elect’ groups of the faithful.18 Pius XII had earned notoriety for his apparent awareness of the deeds of the Holocaust, and his betrayal of the Jews of Rome to the Nazis.19

He presented the growing international criticism as attacks on the Church in general, to be met by two campaigning tools – the request for telegrams of support from Catholics worldwide, and the mobilisation of the Catholic laity in St Peter’s Square. Under Pacelli, ‘the "Roman people" were the privileged interlocutors, the microcosm of the Catholic world, who also, as the people of the Holy City, must maintain its Catholic character and set an example of conduct to visitors from all over the world’.20 To this end, the Holy Year of 1950 perhaps marked the beginning of the modern spectacular Giubilei: the awarding of a plenary indulgence to those who visited particular basiliche in Rome (a complete amnesty for time in purgatory), the use of St Peter’s Square as an ‘amphitheatre for regular mass rallies and exhibitions of papal pomp and circumstance’ where Pacelli’s ‘liking for gymnastic and sports displays echoed demonstrations in Red Square in Moscow’.21

In the same way, the 2000 Holy Year was the culmination of John Paul II’s papacy. However, when the aggregate effects of pilgrimage are measured, it is clear that in contemporary Rome there are important issues concerning the staging of a Jubilee in the city. This is related primarily to the tension between the various branches of the secular Italian state (principally Rome city council) and the practical demands of the Catholic religion. Here, the influx of a projected 40 million tourists in a single year was greeted with enthu­siasm by the tourist sector, but with horror by others already frustrated by the infrastructural poverty and archaeological fragility of Rome. As I have argued elsewhere, the 2000 event provided a convenient fusion of interests of an ‘entrepreneurial Church and entrepreneurial city’, where Rome’s city council used the influx of state funding to undertake major projects in the city (and this would be an event that would allow the mayor, Francesco Rutelli, to project himself to the leadership of the Italian left in the 2001 general election).22

In many ways, the Giubileo can be seen as a continuation of a ‘mito di straordinarieta’ in the debate over how Rome should be planned, a tradition that has included events such as Mussolini’s planned but unstaged Esposizione Universale of 1942, the 1960 Olympics, and the 1990 World Cup.23 In each case, the ‘extraordinary’ event has tended to focus on specific parcels of land within the city, neglecting an overall strategic project. As a result, ‘the rest of the city doesn’t exist’.24 For Berdini, the Vatican has received the majority of central government special funding dedicated to infrastructural projects, concentrated in two places: a proposed underpass beneath Castel Sant’Angelo, the tomb of Augustus, and a multi-storey parking lot burrowed into the Gianicolo hill (ilparcheggio di Dio (God’s car park), as critics dubbed it). Both proposals – aimed at improving access to St Peter’s for pilgrim tour buses – caused major controversies in the city, between Rutelli and his council, the superintendent of archaeology Adriano la Regina, and the Vatican.25


The territory of the Vatican within Rome showing key sites of the Jubilee 2000 interventions

Here, the impact of pilgrimage on Rome was cross-cut by appar­ently commodified values, present in the majority of pilgrimage activities.

As transformation stations between the earthly and heavenly realms, pilgrimage shrines are the pre-eminent centres for deal­ings between human beings and the divine. In many ways, they represent the stock exchanges of the religious economy. Using the shrine divinity as a mediator, physical suffering and penance are exchanged for material and spiritual favours, contracts are forged with the saints, sin is amortised by means of a tariff of devotional or ascetic practices, and in many instances indulgences may be earned merely by dint of having attended the shrine festival and having expended earthly time in doing so… Money is by no means excluded from these sacred exchanges. . . indeed all kinds of monetary offerings can be incorporated into the religious marketing circuits of the shrine. . . Yet the emphasis on recipro­cated giving and self-interest does contrast with a putative theme in Christian teaching concerning the free, ‘pure’ gift.26

This dilemma is central to other popular pilgrimages, such as that to Santiago de Compostela, where ethnographic study has revealed a whole range of spiritual and profane pilgrimage practices, perhaps encapsulated in the distinc­tion between a ‘solemn’ and ‘Chaucerian’ approach to pilgrimage.27 Here, the line between tourism and pilgrimage is very fine, as the Vatican and St Peter’s become central to the accumulation strategies of both Church and state.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm