Altötting – Maria Has Helped
A distinct feature of the "Heart of Bavaria" are the numerous votive tablets in the gallery and on the walls of the Chapel of Grace. There must be thousands of them! All depict the Madonna of Altötting and the underlying reason for the respective "vow" made. The donors often remain unnamed, the pictures speak for themselves, and God knows their names! The entire range of human fates is depicted: illnesses, accidents, wars and natural disasters. These votive tablets tell more vividly than words of hardship, but also of deep faith, trust and help received; each picture tells a story of life and faith – an invitation to join in prayer and thanksgiving, and to tell others about it.
People buying souvenirs of their pilgrimage take a piece of Altötting home with them to let those staying behind share in their pilgrimage: a rosary with the image of Our Lady of Grace or Friar Conrad? Perhaps incense from Altötting or incense chocolates from the Dengel confectionery store? The typical black weather candles are available at the shops lining Kapellplatz. Black is an unusual colour for candles. They were originally made from the soot of candles and the remains of melted candles in the Chapel of Grace. A familiar ritual from childhood days: when a severe storm was brewing, a candle was lit and prayers were made to prevent damage to the house or farm and keep everyone inside safe.
Einsiedeln – Being Close to Christ
Since the Middle Ages pilgrims from near and afar have visited Einsiedeln Monastery. Legend has it that the first chapel was consecrated by Christ himself in the presence of many angels. Today it is the most important baroque building in Switzerland. As a result of the smoke and soot of thousands of candles and oil lamps that have been burning in the Chapel of Grace for centuries, the face and hands of the Madonna and the Child Jesus are black. Mary carries the blessing Child Jesus on her left arm. Her magnificent dress envelops mother and child, emphasising the unique closeness of the two; no human being has ever been as close to Jesus as his mother - an invitation to all those who come here every day: be close to God, be accepted and loved by Him.
In addition to the traditional "Helgelis", cards bearing the images of saints, an edible souvenir is not to be missed. At "Goldapfel" they have been baking the Einsiedeln „Schafböcke“ ["rams"] for generations: small honey pies in the shape of a sheep; virtually small Easter lambs, to be enjoyed by pilgrims on their pilgrimage.
Fátima – Light and Peace
When the Mother of God appeared to the three shepherd children in 1917, the First World War was raging and many countries, particularly Russia, were experiencing political upheaval. The Mother of God asked for the rosary to be prayed "for peace in the world and the end of the war".
A piece of the Berlin Wall commemorates the peaceful reunification of Germany and the fall of the Iron Curtain - not least thanks to the power of prayer. Right next to it is the "Light and Peace: from War to Peace - from Night to Day" exhibition. Numerous gifts demonstrate the gratitude of people who found light in their lives and peace here. Among them is the ceremonial crown of the Madonna together with the bullet that seriously injured Pope John Paul II in the 1981 assassination attempt.
The "Domus Pacis" (House of Peace) is recognisable from afar by its blue dome. It used to house the "Madonna of Kazan", Russia's most famous icon, for many years. It was stolen in the chaos of the Russian Revolution, found a home in Fatima and was returned to Russia after the collapse of communism - a sign of the return of faith and peaceful coexistence.
Loreto – Sanctuary of the Incarnation
The first international Marian pilgrimage site – international even today (the church guidebooks are available in more than 20 languages). Bramante's marble artwork encompasses the simple walls of the "holy house" like a precious shrine. The Latin inscription reads "Here the Holy Mary Mother of God was born, here she was welcomed by the angel. Here the eternal Word of God became flesh".
And I reflect on the meaning of the invocations in the Litany of Loreto named after this place. The litany is always topical as a mirror of human needs and trust in Mary which will never be completed. Pope Francis recently added the following topical invocations: "Mother of Mercy", "Mother of Hope" and "Consolation of Migrants".
From the huge basilica dedicated to the Queen of Heaven I enter into the silence of the plain house of Nazareth, where the "Word became flesh". On leaving I notice two grooves deeply carved into the marble around the holy house: traces of the countless pilgrims who have been moving around the house on their knees for centuries - faith can even soften the hardest stone. The pilgrims do so because they believe in the Incarnation of God through Mary and thus find a place of their very own personal incarnation.
Lourdes – A People of Many Nations
For well over 160 years pilgrims of all ages hailing from countries all around the world have been visiting the Apparition Grotto, among them numerous sick and disabled people. And yet, the most striking features of Lourdes are joy and hope. Even though pilgrimages give us a time out from our daily routine, they do not represent an "ideal world". Faith does not eliminate all the pain and disabilities – but they are seen in a different light altogether: It is not necessarily a miracle, but is of great significance that so many people feel relief in one way or another in Lourdes and become "one people of many nations".
The Gospel is preached and lived in togetherness without any social or societal barriers. The pilgrims may not necessarily understand each other’s language, but a look, a smile, a touch is often sufficient. Such are the miracles that go completely unnoticed in Lourdes every day. In the Holy District is a tablet with the image of a handicapped girl inscribed with the words "They call me mongoloid. The doctors speak of Down's syndrome. My friends call me Caroline."
Mariazell – The Pilgrimage of Peoples
It all began with a cell that a Benedictine friar built off the main road for "his" statue of the Virgin Mary without any intention of creating a pilgrimage site. Today numerous national and international pilgrimage routes lead to Mariazell. The Madonna of Grace in the magnificent basilica looks surprisingly small to me, and yet so powerful. Mary points to Jesus and invites everyone to look to him and requests us "Do as he tells you", just like at the Wedding at Cana.
Mariazell is not a place of big miracles, or is it? The memory goes back to the large pilgrimages of thanksgiving. After the Fall of the Iron Curtain many pilgrims from Eastern and Central Europe went to Mariazell in 1990, followed by the Pilgrimage of the Peoples in 2004, the theme of which was "Show Christ to the People of Europe". Faith can overcome borders!
As with all pilgrimage sites, body and soul are also kept together in Mariazell. Gingerbread, a classic item of pilgrimage food, is available at Pirker's all year round. It has a long shelf-life and is good for the stomach. Beautifully decorated, gingerbread is also a nice souvenir!
Czestochowa – The Wounded Madonna
The evangelist Luke is said to have painted the image on a table in the house of Nazareth. The scars on her right cheek were inflicted by a soldier and make the icon unique. It reached Poland on convoluted routes, and time and again people have turned to "their" Madonna for help. Even the state-imposed atheism in the days of communism was rendered powerless.
It is a special moment when the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa is solemnly unveiled to the sound of fanfares in the early mornings or at certain times of the day. People kneel down, a reverent silence reigns. The Czestochowa pilgrim song comes to mind:
"There is one place I know on earth that everyone likes to go to on a pilgrimage. The Mother of our Lord awaits us there with all her goodness. Though your face is wounded, your eyes are gentle. Behold! We look at your image in faith." And especially in this day and age: "How often have our people and our country consecrated themselves to you in distress. Help, O Mother, bestow peace upon us in these troubled times ..."
Visits to Marian shrines show us that our spiritual journey will never be completed. Faith becomes reality over and over again and in every phase of life, especially through experiences and encounters with others. Everyone becomes part of the story and continues writing it...
Text by Dr Irmgard Jehle, since 1973 tour guide at the Bayerische Pilgerbüro [Bavarian Pilgrimage Office], the oldest and most renowned provider of Christian faith based tours in Germany, has visited all Shrines of Europe several times. True to the motto of her life "The journey starts at one's own doorstep", she is an expert on pilgrimages and knows each individual country and its people, history and culture, and has one or another anecdote from numerous tours to share.