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“A Bible People”: Post-Conciliar U.S. Catholics, Scripture, and Holy Land Pilgrimage

From: U.S. Catholic Historian
Volume 31, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 85-106 | 10.1353/cht.2013.0017

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Each year, approximately 250,000 U.S. Christians, including 60,000 Catholics, journey to Israel and the Palestinian Territories to “walk where Jesus walked.”1 U.S. Catholics have a long and essentially unstudied history of such pilgrimages dating back to the late nineteenth century.2 Once connected to devotions like the Stations of the Cross and the rosary, Holy Land pilgrimage has prospered in recent decades even as other devotions have showed precipitous decline.3 As U.S. Catholics advanced socio-economically and trans-Atlantic commercial flights made international travel more efficient and affordable, pilgrims have flocked to the Holy Land in unprecedented numbers.

The lack of scholarship on these contemporary Catholic pilgrimages is surprising. Sociological and anthropological studies of Christian pilgrimage developed around, and still largely focus on, Catholic sites. By contrast, work on the Holy Land has centered almost entirely on U.S. evangelical Protestants and, more specifically, the impact of Christian Zionism.4 In these studies, Catholic pilgrims rarely appear “in person.” Instead, they provide a ready counterpoint in that they are imagined by Protestants to exemplify devotionalism (Catholic “ritualism”) in contrast with evangelical Biblicism.5

In fact, few U.S. Catholics who set out to “walk where Jesus walked” are part of the devotional revival associated with conservative Catholicism.6 Moreover, far from being Biblically illiterate or uninterested in Scripture, they often describe themselves as “Bible people.” The typical pilgrim is a devoted, weekly communicant and scripturally-focused. More than others, he or she is likely to participate in Bible studies and articulate the desire for a “personal relationship” with Jesus. For these U.S. Catholics, the significance of Holy Land pilgrimage lies in how it is located at the nexus of traditional devotionalism and Bible-focused knowledge and experience. The pilgrimage opens up opportunities to negotiate flexible relationships with the institutional Church, to reaffirm links to Christian tradition, and to ground faith more firmly in Biblical study, interpretation, and meditation.7

Studying the Holy Land

In 2009, I travelled to the Holy Land on a twelve-day pilgrimage. The first day I shared a meal with Janine and Frank, a couple in their mid-60s from Boston, Massachusetts. We were making small talk—the weather, the falafel, our favorite Christmas carols—when Janine turned to topics more profound. “We’re the middle generation,” she said, leaning towards me for emphasis, “and we’re becoming a Bible people.” Janine and Frank have hosted a Bible study in their home for more than a decade. No priests attend these gatherings—just the People of God and scripture. “It’s something our parents never would have done,” Janine noted, referring to the changes she has experienced since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Anthropological studies of Christian pilgrimage typically focus on the journey and the shrine itself (the “center out there” in Victor Turner’s well-known phrase).8 My interest lies in drawing a fuller portrait of how pilgrims like Janine and Frank incorporate the trip into their everyday religious lives, including the Bible studies that so often precede it. To this end, I rely on an interdisciplinary methodology that includes archival research, in-depth interviews, and “multi-sited” ethnography. Between 2008 and 2012, I participated in two Holy Land pilgrimages and conducted pre- and post-trip interviews with 131 pilgrims from seven different groups.9 Our conversations lasted between two and four hours, conducted in person when possible. I focused on Catholic groups from Massachusetts, Maryland, and North Carolina, which collectively consisted of participants from seventeen states.

I highlight the stories of three of these pilgrims below: Janine, Frank, and Paula. Janine and Frank travelled in 2009 with a Boston-based group and Paula in 2008 with her Maryland parish. They are typical of American Catholic pilgrims in background (Euro-American, U.S.-born, “cradle” Catholics), gender (more women than men), age (about fifty to seventy), and socio-economic status (varied). Frank, now retired, has a master’s degree and worked as an industrial chemist, while Janine stayed home with their children. Paula, a single mother of four without a college degree, has supported her family with a series of administrative jobs.

Their stories provide...



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