A pilgrim hikes along the St. Francis’ Way through the Italian countryside to St. Francis Church in Assisi. The Franciscan trail brings pilgrims into areas important in the saint’s life and ministry. (Adobe Stock)
A pilgrim hikes along the St. Francis’ Way through the Italian countryside to St. Francis Church in Assisi. The Franciscan trail brings pilgrims into areas important in the saint’s life and ministry. (Adobe Stock)

Some pilgrimages get all the attention, but pilgrimages and pilgrim trails can be found all over the world. From Japan to Norway, these holy treks can give insights into lesser told Catholic histories and can give pilgrims beautiful and meaningful experiences to grow closer to God.

Nishizaka Hill

More than 400 years ago, in 1597, Christianity was outlawed in Japan. The government, led by Toyotomio Hideyoshi, feared the influence foreigners might have on the country. And so Hideyoshi took bold action. He banished Catholic priests from the country and eventually arrested six missionaries and 18 Japanese Christians in the areas of Kyoto and Osaka. Through the snow, the captives were marched nearly 500 miles to Nagasaki, a strong Christian community. Two more Catholics were arrested en route. The prisoners, who included three young boys, were marched to Nishizaka Hill and crucified Feb. 5, 1597. Hideyoshi then proclaimed that Christianity was banned. The 26 Japanese martyrs were canonized by Pope Pius IX in 1862. The site on Nishizaka Hill, now a Japanese National Sanctuary,  was visited by Pope John Paul II and St. Teresa of Kolkata. It’s now home to a monument, museum and cathedral dedicated to the martyrs. Pilgrims to the museum will learn about the history of Christianity in Japan and get a look into how Christians hid their faith from authorities. Artifacts from the time include the scroll Our Lady of the Snows, which was preserved by Christians in hiding, and a Buddhist figurine used to venerate Mary.

St. Francis’ Way

Running through the Italian countryside, La Via di Francesco, or St. Francis’ Way, provides pilgrims the chance to take in the land that inspired St. Francis of Assisi. The itinerary, which includes four different routes, can be done on foot, by bike or on horseback. Traversing mountains and valleys, those who seek to conquer St. Francis’ Way will be in for spectacular Italian views and historical landscapes. Each path is a bit different but they all take pilgrims to many important sites. Pilgrims will stop over at La Verna Sanctuary, where St. Francis experienced his stigmata and where he spent much time in prayer; Assisi, where he was born and where he is buried; and the Rieti Valley, known for being the area where St. Francis started the Franciscan order. Along the way, pilgrims have the chance to stop in various chapels and spots where St. Francis visited and ministered.

Because of its mountainous and sometimes challenging terrain, only experienced walkers should attempt it. The distance for this trek depends on the route taken. The Roman way, which runs from La Verna to Rome, is just more than 300 miles. The Southern way, connecting Rome to Assisi, is about 180 miles, while the Northern way, connecting La Verna to Assisi, is just under 125 miles. A fourth, newer trail winds through areas where St. Francis preached — Terni, Narni and Amelia. The trail, the Franciscan Protomartyrs way, is about 60 miles.

St. Olav Ways

In Norway, nine paths traverse the Scandinavian country, all of which unite at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. The paths, St. Olav Ways, are part of a pilgrimage dating back to the Middle Ages. The pilgrimage was banned, however, during the Lutheran reformation and was just brought back in 1997. The cathedral is home to St. Olav’s shrine. It has been considered one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Norway since Olav Haraldsson II, a former Viking king, was canonized in 1031. The shrine once was a small wooden chapel atop St. Olav’s grave. The cathedral that stands there today, however, is one of the most impressive buildings in Norway. While there are about 1,800 miles of trail between all of the different St. Olav Ways paths, the most popular is Gudbrandsdalsleden. The nearly 400-mile trail starts in Oslo, Norway’s capital. The path is the longest of all the St. Olav Ways paths and follows the road to Nidaros, now called Trondheim, that was the area’s main road in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims will encounter large cities, small villages, nature preserves and historic landmarks, not to mention Norway’s scenic countryside. Some highlights along the way include the Ringebu Stave Church, a wooden church dating back to 1220, and the ruins of old Hamar Cathedral, once the most important religious site between Oslo and Trondheim.

Via Francigena

Twelve hundred miles make up the Via Francigena, which starts in Canterbury, England, crosses France and Switzerland and finishes in Rome. The trail dates back to the year 990. Archbishop Sigeric, who served as the archbishop of Canterbury from 990 to 994, traveled to Rome to receive his pallium from the pope. The archbishop kept a diary on his trip home from Rome and marked down 79 places where he rested along the way. The route of Via Francigena is based on his diary. Pilgrims will stop at the places where Sigeric, known as Sigeric the Serious, took time to rest and pray.

The path traverses rolling farmland, crossing through France’s Picardy and Champagne, before bringing pilgrims through the Alps, into Switzerland and then into Italy. Walkers continue through Italy, with the trail spanning the country’s Great Plains and Tuscany and then finishing in Rome. By traveling the entirety of the Via Francigena’s 1,200-miles, walkers will get the chance to explore ancient cities like Reims in France and Siena in Italy, as well as  beautiful landscapes like Champagne, the Alps and the Aosta Valley.

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org