· Vatican City ·

The analysis

Faith at the feet
of women

 La fede ai piedi delle donne   DCM-003
05 March 2022

Women reach places of worship by vow


In the post-modern and globalized society, we can speak of a female specificity of the pilgrimage and we can identify different ways women have performed it. To begin, let us dispel one prejudice. Women have always traveled by faith. Not only the Roman matrons and medieval aristocrats to the Holy Land (article p. 12, Ed.). Some chroniclers speak of the large influx of women during the Jubilee pilgrimages. In the first Jubilee of 1300, the historian Giovanni Villani reports the presence of women. There were married women, widowed, and pregnant mothers with young children, who travelled to Rome alone. Although it is difficult to establish, it is estimated that their number was about a third of that of men but there are those who believe that the percentage was around 50 percent. The iconography of the time depicts them with a cane, a hat, with children beside them or together with their family.

From the medieval period we have evidence (recorded in the Book of the Alms of the City of Pistoia) that, between 1350 and 1450, a group of six women left on pilgrimage from Sicily, passing through Rome, then along the Via Francigena, to continue through the Via Tolosana and reach Santiago de Compostela.

Except for this pandemic period, research conducted by sociologists of religion, from the nineties to the present day, show that the pilgrimage phenomenon is growing throughout the world, is affecting all religions and the presence of women is always very significant. A large participation of women is found in the pilgrimage to the Virgen del Rocìo in Andalusia, Spain. This is celebrated in June, usually on the Sunday following the feast of Corpus Christi, extending for days; to which women wear beautiful traditional clothes, adorned with rich jewelry. These statistics are mirrored in Lourdes too, where the high female attendance emerged in 1995 in the historic Religiosity in Italy survey, promoted by the Catholic University of Milan and coordinated by Vincenzo Cesareo. That research also showed that making a pilgrimage was intergenerational -with adults and girls walking together-, and that of the three behaviors that define it (the “journey”, “making a vow” to ask/fulfill a grace, arriving at the “goal”), “making vows” interests women more than men.

The Marian pilgrimages are a particular type. Women perform this ritual for hours / days to thank Mary for a grace received, because she has fulfilled a desire that, although it belongs to the whole family, is expressed effectively and explicitly by women.

One cannot define the nocturnal pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love in Rome as an exclusively female pilgrimage. However in the course of my research (Sfondare la note [Breaking through the night]), many elements have led to the affirmation of the importance of an involvement and a “horizontal relationship” that binds in particular the women who make the journey on foot, and a “vertical relationship” of women with the Madonna, who was a woman, indeed the woman par excellence.

The age of the women-pilgrims is not homogeneous; adults prevail, but there are also many girls; mostly students, some together with their families, others with their boyfriends. There are also many nuns from different religious orders. Women, even those belonging to different cultures and ethnic groups, walk together, one next to the other. 

It thus gives the experience a choral significance. On pilgrimages with large numbers, women actually “walk” in small groups, of three to four women-mothers-friends, who share experiences of their daily lives and who, in these circumstances, are united in prayer for some need or special reason.  In their “life stories”, there is frequently the story of “miracles” that have involved their children and grandchildren. For many women, who lead a hurried and hectic life, the “slow journey” to the destination becomes an opportunity to meditate, recharge and resume their everyday lives with greater awareness. A pilgrimage becomes an experience in which they “find themselves”, even when there is no explicit religious or spiritual motivation. Indeed, the reasons for these trips are often not religious in a strict sense, and are undertaken by those who are not necessarily believers and practitioners; nonetheless, at the conclusion of the pilgrimage, women say they have had a religious experience.

A pilgrimage has its own symbolic language that is expressed in an ancient gestures and rituals. The pilgrim needs concreteness and corporeity, the touching, kissing the religious image, the walking barefoot, exposing the body, and becoming physically tired, are gestures that express and speak of the intense relationship of the devotee with their crucifix, her Madonna, their saint. It is a “total social fact”, as the French anthropologist and historian of religions Marcel Mauss calls it, which involves the physical, psychic, and cognitive dimensions of the person. These aspects of bodily religiosity are also evident in central Sicily, in the pilgrimage to the sanctuary of “U Signuri di Bilìci” where an ancient crucifix is venerated. Ninety percent of the barefoot pilgrims enter the sanctuary to “touch” with their hands or with a handkerchief and kiss the feet of the crucifix, the bleeding wounds and this constitutes the most engaging experience for women.

The enhancement of subjectivity that characterizes the post-modern woman requires that she can manage in subjective terms the moments of her religious experience too. Therefore, it is here that the pilgrimage experienced and carried out according to their own time and space, without any constraints, without commitments and ties with a religious institution, may be a more appropriate way to subjective sensitivity to express their connection with the Absolute. Without any presumption, I think I can say that the model of female pilgrimage religiosity can be proposed as a form of religiosity tout-court. 

by Carmelina Chiara Canta
Lecturer in Sociology of Cultural and Communicative Processes at the University of Roma Tre.