Rediscovering our own Sacred Ground: Top 7 Australian Pilgrimage Sites
So it comes as no surprise that faith-based travel has taken on a new direction in response to COVID-19.
The good news is that pilgrimages during a global pandemic are not only possible but practical, and while visiting favourite destinations like the Holy Land, Lourdes or the Vatican are on hold, Catholics are adapting.
For millennia, Christians have gone on pilgrimage, not just to visit a place and admire its nature, art or history … but to seek and immerse themselves in the places touched by the presence of God.
Under normal conditions, faith-based travel worldwide is big business, with approximately 330 million tourists visiting the world’s key religious sites every year, generating around $AU23b in global revenue.
#1 MARY MACKILLOP CENTRE, PENOLA SA
Mary MacKillop Centre, Penola SA – Where St Mary of the Cross co-founded the Sisters of St Joseph in 1866 to bring education to the poor.
Visits to holy sites are considered to be the oldest form of tourism – and more open to repeat business than secular leisure travel because pilgrimage really is all about the journey as much as it is about the destination.
Unsurprisingly, a global pandemic hit not only tourism but pilgrimage destinations exceptionally hard.
But it also turns out that there are silver linings to the dark coronavirus cloud that descended on the world a year and a half ago.
With holy places often a little off the beaten track of ordinary tourism destinations; their remoteness has in some ways helped make them naturally compliant with coronavirus restrictions.
#2 ST MARY’S CATHEDRAL, SYDNEY
The Mother Church of Australia and an impressive example of Gothic architecture featuring a striking array of stained-glass windows.
Precisely because a pilgrim is a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons, Aussie travel company Harvest Journeys is opening up spiritual treasures and traditions in our own backyard.
It says despite the world being in the middle of a pandemic with international borders closed, its future is looking bright. In an interview with The Catholic Weekly, newly-appointed CEO Selina Hasham said she is hopeful for the next phase of the pilgrimage journey for the community of the Church in Australia and beyond.
She said COVID had unexpectedly provided an opportunity to look locally and investigate the rich history of both Australia and New Zealand.
Celebrating the beauty of the places, faces and graces in Australia, possibilities include walking in the footsteps of Saint Mary Mackillop, visiting Australia’s oldest Catholic Church – St John the Evangelist in Tasmania – or joining the Benedictine Sisters for Mass at Jamberoo Abbey.
#3 SANTA TERESA MISSION, NT
A Catholic indigenous community close to Alice Springs and the Red Centre, known for the faith and strong culture of the local people.
Ms Hasham said COVID had allowed all Australians to look at what lies in their own backyard and take in all of God’s graces while facing travel restrictions.
“Some may think I’m crazy to be entering the travel industry in the middle of a pandemic but I know that pilgrimage for Australians has an exciting future,” she said.
“Once borders open and people can travel again, sacred journeys with meaning will be in unprecedented demand, but until then we have an untapped opportunity right here in our own backyard.
“While Australia may not have the explicit sacred sites that Europe or the Holy Land has, which offer the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Christ or float on the Sea of Galilee, there are sacred pathways to be discovered here.
#4 SEVENHILLS WINERY AND IGNATIAN SPIRITUALITY CENTRE, CLARE VALLEY SA
Established in 1851, the birthplace of the Jesuits in Australia – and one of our oldest wineries.
“Somehow we’ve got this idea that we originated somewhere else, that our roots go back to Europe, but I think now’s the time to really understand who we are as a country and to discover the storylines of Australia and the history of the Church,” she said. “There’s a big push for localised travel to support the tourism industry and I think through pilgrimage we also want to support the faith life of rural areas.
“Just imagine groups of people going out to celebrate Mass in Parkes, for example, with the Bishop of Wilcannia Forbes. That has to bring some hope and faith to the local community while allowing pilgrims to learn how their country cousins live their faith.
“Pilgrimage is about walking pathways like the Camino in Spain, but what makes it a Holy journey is not so much the destination and the fact that St James is buried in Compostela, but the fact that those pathways have been trod by centuries and centuries of millennia searching and seeking.
“And we walk in those sacred paths that have been well trod, and we receive something that we probably can’t even articulate, so can we do that in Australia? … Yes, I think we can.
#5 NEW NORCIA, WA
Australia’s only monastic town founded in 1847, home to the monks that form the Benedictine Community 90 minutes’ drive northeast of Perth.
“I think we need to reconnect with our land and our history as a Church in this country and we can do that by being pilgrims. Aboriginals talk about it as the song lines of our country, and these need to be walked.
“Australia was named The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit long before the first colonies started here and I don’t think we’ve yet as a church understood that identity … to me it means we are a land that is open to the presence of God in a way that we have not yet realised.
“It’s about the Holy Spirit moving amongst us as a people and showing us how to heal as a nation, whether it be our indigenous brothers and sisters, the beginning of our colonies that were in many respects quite violent, or even the whole sexual abuse crisis in the Church.
“That’s part of the reason I’m so excited about taking this job, because I know that pilgrimage is one way to really put ourselves back together, to restore, to take time out and to heal,” she said. Every pilgrimage, according to Ms Hasham needs the three F’s – fun, faith and fellowship – to distinguish it from a traditional vacation.
#6 SHRINE OF OUR LADY OF MERCY, PENROSE PARK
A work of the Pauline Fathers in honour of the Black Madonna of Jasna Gora, but representing shrines from many nationalities.
She said the graces offered on pilgrimage are possible because people step outside the busyness of life allowing them to be open to God. “People have encounters on pilgrimages that you would not normally experience at home,” she said.
“Quite often people go at a pivotal time in their life, maybe they’ve lost a spouse, maybe they’ve been caring for parents who have passed away, maybe they’ve been through a divorce or even lost a child, often then they’ll go to process that and incredible things happen.
“I think it has a lot to do with how we surround ourselves with familiar comforts of home; we’re safe, secure, we’ve got Netflix, we’ve got routine and we’ve got our work, and when you take yourself out of that sometimes it can be uncomfortable, but that also gives God a chance to enter.
“They talk about the thin places of the world, it’s an Irish term where God breaks through and where heaven comes down to earth, and definitely without a doubt the Holy places of the world encountered on pilgrimage are the thin places.
“Over the years pilgrims have gained a pretty tough reputation for being boring, going to church and buying plastic Mary’s at trinket shops, but it’s so much more than that.”