For hundreds of years people have made spiritual journeys to places singled out by the divine. These holy sites offer believers the chance to experience a direct connection between heaven and earth; and Gozo’s history, infused with religious fervour and divine apparitions, has spawned numerous such sites.
Religion has always been an important factor in the tourism industry, with most faiths requiring or encouraging their followers to go on spiritual journeys.
Till this very day, in fact, we see thousands of people descending unto Rome on a weekly basis to hear the Pope’s sermon; while one of the five pillars of Islam, insists that all those who are able to should visit Mecca, the birthplace of prophet Muhammad, at least once in their lifetime.
“When we speak about religious tourism, however, we must be careful not to mix it with traditional or cultural tourism, because while these are linked, they not the same,” explains Fr Gerard Buhagiar, the rector of Ta’ Pinu National Shrine.
What he means by this is that religious tourism is loaded with human emotion, hope and even fear; and these sacred spots speak of miraculous mysteries and the power of God, prophets and saints.
But what makes these sites special? What makes a visitor a pilgrim? And where on Gozo can one go?
Beyond that, what makes a place holy and what makes a tourist a pilgrim?
“A shrine is a sacred place that may be a receptacle for the relic of a saint; a place where a heavenly call or event had occurred, particularly by the Blessed Virgin; or a place that has become associated with pilgrimage and which offers a unique spiritual experience,” says Fr Gerard.
In other words, a holy place is somewhere touched by the divine and which can offer devotees solace and hope. In fact, many people go on pilgrimage as a means of thanksgiving, or as a way to invoke the place’s holiness as an intercession with God in their times of need.
“When visiting shrines, visitors become seekers of God, and thus, pilgrims,” adds Fr Gerard. “These spiritual and religious visitors are on an inner path towards a state of beatitude, and the pilgrim seeks inner peace in moments of reflection in the environs of the shrine.
“Visitors, however, may also journey for other reasons, such as to enrich their religious culture by visiting the monument and enjoying the religious art. In fact, the beauty of the edifice and its surroundings often help casual visitors get in touch with the sacred.”
Are there any holy sites on Gozo?
Gozo has a long religious and spiritual history. Let us not forget, after all, that the oldest freestanding temples anywhere in the world are located within its perimeter. Over the past 2,000 years, however, it’s the Christian tradition that has become dominant, and Gozo is a favourite among those who venerate the Virgin Mary.
One of the holiest sites on Gozo is the Ta’ Pinu Shrine and Basilica, located in Gharb. This shrine is widely believed to be the spot where, in 1883, the Blessed Virgin spoke through a painting to a peasant girl called Karmela Grima, and asked her to pray. Since then, many miracles are said to have taken place as a result.
“Over the years, the Shrine has slowly, but surely, established itself on the international religious scene as one of the main Marian Shrines on the southern edge of Europe,” says Fr Gerard, who is the rector of the shrine.
Last year, in fact, the Ta’ Pinu Shrine drew over 344,000 pilgrims, with over 231,000 of those being foreigners.
“Undoubtedly, Pope John Paul II’s visit to this shrine in 1990 has helped to not only affirm the Shrine’s status but has also served as a means to encourage greater devotion to the Virgin Mary in this specific place of worship,” explains Fr Gerard. “Then, Pope Benedict XVI’s gift – a golden rose to the image of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu – was further recognition to the devotion of the Maltese faithful towards her, and that was also very significant.”
Gozo, though, is home to many other churches and chapels that are visited by countless pilgrims every year. Another among these is the chapel dedicated to St Dimitri, which is also located in Gharb. This chapel is steeped in legend and devotion, and one story claims that St Demetrius once rode out of his painting and onto a Turkish galley to return a woman’s son, who had just been abducted.
Moreover, the Cathedral of the Assumption and the Basilica of St George – both located in Victoria – are also holy sites that attract thousands of visitors every year. These two churches are adorned with art that stands testament to the locals’ devotion to both saints.
Can I go if I’m not religious?
Holy sites are often places that arouse emotions in anyone who ventures to them – whether they are religious or not. This is because these sites offer a quiet and solemn space for people to think, pray and ponder; a rarity in today’s world.
They are also aesthetically beautiful, with art depicting not only saints and Biblical events, but also the mentality and the fashions of the times they were created in.
Ultimately, each of these sites is unique, and imparts something different to each individual who visits them, so whether you’re a devout Catholic, a culture vulture or just someone looking to experience something different, a holy shrine is always a magical place to visit.