According to the website of the walled Tuscan town of San Quirico d"Orcia, the medieval pilgrimage route between Canterbury and Rome called "Via Francigena was a series of local paths and trails of various widths and various materials" -- built and maintained by local nobles -- "which linked mountain passes, bridges, ferry boats and villages." (Uncaptioned photo, presumably of a portion of the Via Francigena, from lifeinitaly.com)
"The real pilgrim goes on foot," says Italian Premier Romano Prodi, enthusing about a project in the works to revive Via Francigena -- the medieval pilgrim route from Canterbury in England through northern Europe to Rome -- for use by modern-day walkers both religious and secular. Covering a distance of 1,930 km [c. 1200 m], the pilgrimage "took three months for most medieval Christians who walked it":
An American journalist, Eric Sylvers, walked the 900 km stretch from the Alps to Rome earlier this year for charity and intends to write a book about his experience along the way.
"Many towns keep their bit in good condition, but what's needed is a broader project to rehabilitate the whole thing," said Sylvers in an interview.
"Before the arrival of the motorcar, the Francigena, which means 'born in France,' was Italy's transport spine," notes The Telegraph:
No vehicles now use the Francigena, which varies in size between wide footpaths and narrow trails, some of which pass through treacherous mountainous areas . . .
At the moment, around eight per cent of the Via Francigena is dangerous to walk on, said Massimo Tedeschi, president of the European Association of the Via Francigena. However, he said, the Italian government had set aside the bulk of a £7 million budget for ancient roads to restore the Francigena . . .
The Vatican said the appeal of a pilgrimage was to be found in the journey itself. For the early pilgrims, a walk across Europe was the only form of tourism available.
It's somewhat akin to our turning old railroad beds into hiking and biking trails here in the US, but instead of creating "environmentally friendly" exercise corridors that make our fellow citizens "feel good about themselves" -- even as such projects divert dollars away from less glamorous bridge and other infrastructure maintenance -- Europe's Via Francigena could be a catalyst for something truly momentous. EUROSOC explains:
Moreover, as the light of Europe's Christian heritage continues to dim in some areas and becomes an issue of contention in others, restoring the route has become an important history lesson. Europe developed along these ancient pilgrims' roads, as learning and ideas carried by the pilgrims travelled back and forth along the roads: They were the continent's main communications networks, and cities fortunate enough to find themselves on the route became cosmopolitan centres thanks to the people passing through them (and sometimes staying) . . .
There is also the possibility that the Via Francigena would bring prosperity to some of the towns along its length, and so it would easily pay for itself within a few years.
God helps those who help themselves? But who will help those who won't help themselves? We're thinking of that dhimmitudinous Bishop in the Netherlands who suggested that "Christians should refer to God as Allah, which would promote better relations with Muslims." Yet there is reason to hope. The international edition of Newsweek (Yes, THAT Newsweek) headlined a fascinating feature story last winter proclaiming "The World is rediscovering the power of the pilgrimage":
Today, pilgrimage routes that date back millennia and run thousands of kilometers across international borders are being revived by both church and state not only so people can enjoy the road but quite consciously to assert the identity of a united Europe that, historically, is Christian . . .
Under Pope John Paul II, who was ''the greatest pilgrim of the 20th century, if not all time," says Atuire, the Vatican put a new emphasis on the power of the journey itself and the creation of ''a community of movement." This was something Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism never lost, but that the Christian church in the secular West failed to nurture. In the minds of many Europeans and Americans, Atuire explains, pilgrimages were seen as an exercise ''for the simple folk." And among Protestants, even in the churchgoing United States, there was long-standing skepticism about the very idea of pilgrimage, as though it were vaguely unsavory -- an effort to bargain with God for indulgences. But what Atuire calls ''that experience of believing and walking together" is different. It is a voyage of discovery.
We guess it depends upon what your definition of pilgrimage is. As David Gelertner has written:
From the 17th century through John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Americans kept talking about their country as if it were the biblical Israel and they were the chosen people.
Where did that view of America come from? It came from Puritanism . . . Puritans spoke of themselves as God’s new chosen people, living in God’s new promised land -- in short, as God’s new Israel.
By that definition, America itself -- Puritan/pilgrim John Winthrop's "City Upon A Hill," Emma Lazarus's "Mother of Exiles" -- is the "shrine or sacred place" that is the pilgrim's ultimate destination. But If "believing and walking together" is what it takes to raise our European brethren out of their slough of dhimmitude, we say put on your sensible shoes and start walking!
Update: The Divine Miss Kelly links with an approving nod:
I detect the subtle, warm influence of Papa Ratzi here, this project is right up his alley.