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Preparing  For a Catholic Pilgrimage to Portugal, Spain and France

cityscape in Lisbon, Portugal

A pilgrimage is an enriching experience, and even more so when you are knowledgeable about the country you’ll be visiting. If you’re praying about going on a pilgrimage to Portugal, Spain, and France, continue reading for an introduction to each country, its people, and its Catholic history.

Table of Contents:

  1. What to Expect on a Catholic Experience in:
  2. FAQ

About Portugal

cityscape in Lisbon, PortugalLooking out over the cityscape in Lisbon, Portugal

Portugal’s history is colored by the presence of a myriad of cultures including the Celts, Romans, Germans and more. In its infancy as a country, it was marked by warfare and constant reconquest, eventually becoming a global empire during the “Age of Discovery” beginning in the 15th century. Today, it only spans the westernmost tip of Europe.

Characteristics of the Population

Nearly 11 million people live in Portugal. The median age of its citizens is 42 years of age with 40% of its population between the ages of 25 and 54.

81% of its population is Catholic. The remaining 19% is a mixture of other Christian denominations and those who do not have any ties to religion. A very small number practice Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism.

Overall, people and relationships are emphasized rather than time and expediency. This is a beautiful thing when it comes to travel! You are able to take your time and enjoy all that the country has to offer.


Portugal shares a border with Spain and is roughly the size of Indiana, with 35,600 square miles of landmass. The country enjoys 1,151 miles of Atlantic coastline and spans a variety of topography. There are mountains in the north and rolling plains in the south. Portugal is often described as scenic and picturesque.

Religious History

Throughout the ages, Portugal has been known for its Catholic influence, especially during ongoing battles with the Moors in the 8th and 9th centuries. As Islam swept across the known world, the Portuguese considered it divine intervention that the country remained Catholic.

The presence of Catholicism in Portugal continued throughout the Age of Discovery and persists today, with the Marian apparitions in Fatima inspiring Catholic faithfuls around the world.

Why Catholics Visit Portugal

Portugal is rich in Catholic culture. Numerous pilgrimage sites dot this thin slice of the Iberian Peninsula, drawing millions of pilgrims every year.

  1. Fatima, Portugal: the location of multiple Marian apparitions that occurred in 1917. Pilgrims come to see The Little Chapel of Apparitions, Our Lady of the Rosary Basilica, and Holy Trinity Basilica.
  2. St. Jerome’s Monastery: a UNESCO World Heritage Site that showcases heavenly architecture to inspire the soul.
  3. Santarem’s Miracle Church: houses the 13th-century Eucharistic miracle. The bloody Host can still be witnessed upon the altar!

About Spain

A bird’s eye view of Barcelona, SpainA bird’s eye view of Barcelona, Spain

Spain is a diverse country both geographically and socially. Having access to the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea made Spain a trading empire and one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Its strategic location made it susceptible to countless conquests from the Romans, Moors, Vandals, and Huns in the last 2,000 years. Their cultures flavor the architecture and way of life, even today.

Characteristics of the Population

Spain has nearly 50 million people, with the median age being 42 years old. Spanish is spoken by 74% of the population. The remaining 26% speak a variety of other languages like Galician, Basque, Aranesee and Catalan.

90% of the large population identifies as Catholic. The other 10% is a mixture of other denominations or people who don’t affiliate with a religion.

Spain's Religious History

Tradition has it that Saint James the Apostle evangelized Spain after Pentecost. It’s his journey through Spain that gave rise to the Camino de Santiago. However, Spain didn’t always remain Christian.

From the 8th to the 12th centuries, Spain was primarily Islamic following the conquest by the Muslims. That changed with the reconquest of the Christians in 1212. After that began the long line of Catholic Kings that contributed to the stunning display of churches still present throughout the country today.

Why Catholics Visit Spain

Catholic pilgrimages to Spain offer a chance to visit countless Biblical and historical treasures, some of which include:

  1. La Iglesia de San Marcos: a breathtaking 18th-century church in honor of Saint Mark the Apostle. It is best known for its rounded nave adorned with Marian imagery.
  2. Basilica of Saint Teresa: a splendid church built on the site of Saint Teresa of Avila’s birth.
  3. La Sagrada Familia Basilica: this basilica in Barcelona has been under construction for more than 135 years! It uses naturalistic architecture to remind us that Creation leads us to the Creator.

About France

The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception above the grotto in Lourdes, FranceThe Basilica of the Immaculate Conception above the grotto in Lourdes, France

France is most known for its high culture of museums, art, and cathedrals. As the center of Europe, it has always been a melting pot of ideas that has culminated in some of the greatest breakthroughs in science and philosophy.

Characteristics of Population

France touts a population of 68 million people. The median age of this famous country is 41 years old. However, a law from 1872 makes it illegal to take an official census and retrieve more accurate numbers.

Approximately 51% of people in France identify as Christian, nearly 40% claim no religion, and another 5% identify as Muslim. Just under 1% are Jewish.

France’s Religious History

After the fall of the Roman Empire, France was a disputed section of land among various warring kingdoms and tribes. It wasn’t until 843 and King Charlemagne’s emergence of power that the Christian faith really took root. They were one of the forerunners of the Crusades in the 13th century.

The strong Catholic identity gave rise to some of the grandest cathedrals in the world, as well as some of the most famous saints like Joan of Arc and St. Louis. With the French Revolution of the 18th century, the Church was all but destroyed in France, resulting in countless martyrs. The Church bounced back in the late 19th century.

Why Catholics Visit France

Pilgrims visit France for a myriad of reasons. Its rich Catholic history means there are countless holy sites of import throughout the country. However, Lourdes is the site that most Catholics long to visit in France.

  • Lourdes, France: the site of 18 Marian apparitions to a young woman named Bernadette Soubirous. These apparations took place from February 11, 1858, to July 16, 1858.
    • Grotto of Massabielle: here, the Blessed Virgin appeared to Bernadette as a woman dressed in white with a blue sash and yellow roses on her feet. Three must-see churches are built there today.
      • The Crypt
      • The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
      • The Rosary Basilica
    • Miraculous Spring: On February 25, 1858, Mary made a spring appear. It’s known for its healing properties. Faithful can come and immerse themselves in the waters.
    • Boly Mill and The Cachot: Saint Bernadette was born at Boly Mill on January 7, 1844. Later, she lived with her family in The Cachot – a small, one-room prison where they had to live for a time.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Where is Fatima?

    Fatima is located in central Portugal on the tableland of Cova da Iria, with scenic mountains and villages dotted with stone buildings. It’s a one-hour drive from the city of Lisbon.

  2. Where is Lourdes?

    Lourdes rests in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in southwestern France along the border of Spain. It edges up to the fast-flowing river, Gave de Pau.

  3. What is the weather like in Portugal, Spain, and France?

    Portugal and France share relatively similar weather patterns. The temperature ranges from 47 degrees to 83 degrees Fahrenheit (give or take a few degrees). The chance of rain is no higher than 30% on average.

    Spain is a little more variant, with temperatures from 33 degrees to 92 degrees Fahrenheit. Rain chances are similar to that of Portugal.