Visiting places of the cult in Europe became popular in the middle ages. These pilgrimages were mainly of votive nature – they were taken to obtain specific graces or to express repentance and to do penance for committed sins. All people took pilgrimages – from rulers to poorpersons. Visits were paid to sanctuaries of the Lord (associated with the cult of Jesus), of Virgin Mary and places of the cult of the saints. Benevolent images such as paintings and sculptures as well as relics were worshipped here. Taking pilgrimages worked out specific forms of piety and rituals. Also, for many centuries, it has been an important part of getting to know the world.
Inhabitants of Polish villages and townlets, just as in whole Europe, most often participated in organized pilgrimages, taken to the nearest sanctuary. Sometimes, they also peregrinated to distant places of the cult with the large range of the impact. Occasionally, individuals travelled even to the Holy Land.
For Beskidy Zachodnie, the most frequently visited sanctuary was Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, for Beskidy Wschodnie – Kalwaria Pacławska, people from Podhale took pilgrimages to Ludźmierz and the inhabitants of Ziemia Sądecka gladly visited Tuchów, Limanowa, Dobra. Other local sanctuaries, dedicated mainly to Virgin Mary, were also visited.
In each village, there were several men, called guides, who were involved in leading pilgrimages. They knew the most convenient routes to the sanctuary, had knowledge of opportunities for overnight stays, finally, knew many prayers and pilgrimage songs. Pilgrimages set out on a journey after the holy mass said at the parish church. In some parts of Podkarpacie, there was a custom that inhabitants accompanied pilgrims to the boundary of the village where they all prayed together in front of a roadside shrine. Here, pilgrims coming back home were also awaited. People frequently participating in pilgrimages enjoyed general respect of village inhabitants.
Thanks to pilgrimages, many rural and small town communities received devotional articles and religious images purchased in sanctuaries.
Now, the forms of taking pilgrimages have undergone fundamental changes. Less and less frequently pilgrims travel on foot, usually traveling by rented buses. Many ancient pilgrimage songs fall into oblivion and are willingly replaced by new ones. One remains unchanged: faith in the effectiveness of the peregrination and the power of the sacred.
Currently, the pilgrimage movement is also a subject of scientific research and studies. The leader here is the Religion Geography Department at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, established in 1994 by Prof. Antoni Jackowski. It issues a periodical entitled „Peregrinus Cracoviensis” where articles related to pilgrimages are published.