In 2015 my friend Joseph Pearce invited me serve as chaplain to a pilgrimage he was leading to England. We were to explore the lives of English Catholic literary figures and holy martyrs.
I was not enthusiastic. My travel has always been independent…figuring out my own accommodation, travel details, train timetables and schedules. That was part of the fun.
In the summer of 1987 I had made a pilgrimage of my own hitch hiking to Jerusalem and staying in monasteries all along the route. For me that was the idea of pilgrimage. A backpack on my back, a walking stick in one hand and the rosary in the other.
To sit on a bus with a load of American tourists didn’t appeal. I’ll be honest. I’m a snob. I was envisioning the usual ugly Americans abroad–big bellies white legs sticking out beneath a pair of bermuda shorts, Sunglasses a cigar and lots of cameras and a bottle blonde wife stepping down from the bus in the middle of London and saying, “Sidney, are we in Amsterdam today? Is that a canal?”
You get the idea. But I joined in an had a terrific time. The pilgrimage tour was custom designed for Joseph and the pilgrims were all equally anglophiliac Catholics. We had a blast, and Catholic Heritage Tours organized every detail with superb efficiency. The drivers were excellent, the tour guides smart and capable, the hotels and food just right and everything clicked over like clockwork.
I was a convert.
The next year we were building the new Our Lady of the Rosary church and wanted relics of Pope St John Paul II and St Faustina. You had to go to Poland to get them so I got in touch with Catholic Heritage Tours and they organized a terrific parish pilgrimage to Poland.
The next year we went to Italy and Rome and last September they organized a trip in which we use my book Mystery of the Magi as a source to re-trace the steps of the wise men from Petra to Bethlehem.
So now we’re in Atlanta airport waiting for our flight to Paris where I’ll be leading forty pilgrims on a tour focussing on St Benedict and St Therese–but including a visit to St Bernadette, St Catherine Laboure, various cathedrals and more.
Why am I so enthusiastic about these pilgrimages? For lots of reasons. Firstly, they are hugely educational. Many Americans have not travelled to Europe and are not as familiar with the riches and history of our faith. Visiting Italy, Poland, England, France or Spain helps to put the facts of the faith into perspective. The Divine Mercy devotion or the Sacred Heart devotion means a lot more if you have visited Krakow or Paray le Monial and seen where the saint lived and received the word of the Lord.
There is also the cultural advantage. Touring the great cities of Europe and sampling the art and architecture of the cathedrals and great churches helps Catholics realize how important these riches of our faith really are.
Another benefit are the new friendships and fellowship that we share as we travel. There is always a joyful spirit with lots of laughter and care for one another as we travel.
Most of all are the graces we receive. Even with good accomodation and comfortable travel there is an element of hardship on the trip. Sometimes we are tired. Things go wrong. We lose our patience. We learn to put up with one another, but we also learn more about the pilgrimage of faith through this life.
We’re on a journey to another country and taking a journey to another country stretches our awareness, opens our eyes to new perspectives and helps us to see God’s providence at work in many other ways. There are always surprises and unexpected blessings.
I can remember during our pilgrimage to Rome we went on a walking trek to find the different Caravaggio paintings in various Roman churches. When we got into the church of San Agostino we stumbled upon a side chapel where we discovered the relics of Augustine’s mother St Monica. I didn’t know it was there, and when I pointed it out to the little group who had come with us I realized that three of the women were mothers who were prayerful for their wayward sons. All three were soon in tears and kneeling at the shrine of Monica, and one who was a convert whispered to me on the way out of the church, “This pilgrimage was worth it just for this visit! You probably don’t know, but I took Monica as my confirmation saint!”
That’s the real purpose and power of pilgrimage. God opens doors and unlocks graces we did not expect. We step out on a journey of faith –even with a schedule–God interrupts and brings us face to face with other truths, new friends, fresh ways of seeing and most of all, fresh ways of seeing his work in the world.
So we’re off to France with expectant hearts, and where next year? Rome, and then a cruise to the Holy Land and the cities of St Paul. Go here if you would like to learn more. And the year after that? I’m up for a trip to Lourdes, then across Northern Spain following the Camino de Santiago before going on to Fatima….Will it happen? Time will tell.