Last Summer I served as chaplain for a pilgrimage to England. My friend Joseph Pearce had invited me to visit the sites of the English martyrs and Catholic literary figures.
At first I was unenthusiastic. I could think of better things to do than tromp around English ruins with a group of American tourists. My concerns were abated once we got started. I’ve written about the experience here at London’s Catholic Herald.
I was reminded by my pilgrimage of the great graces unlocked for me as I made the pilgrimage of a lifetime. During the summer of 1987, while still an Anglican priest, I hitchhiked from England to Jerusalem staying in monasteries en route. It was a wonderful experience. Each day I walked along the way and seemed to be walking by faith. I met wonderful people who stopped to give me a lift. I worshipped in beautiful churches, met amazing monks and fellow pilgrims. Graces and glory were revealed step by step in ways I could never have imagined.
The pilgrimage to England was like that too. We went on our journey and found people and place to bless us which we never expected. The best example was our visit to Oxborough Hall in Norfolk. This beautiful moated country house was the seat of the Bedingfeld family–a recusant family who stood firm throughout the centuries of persecution of Catholics in England.
When our coach arrived we joined the other tourists and as I was climbing out of the famous priest’s hole (where I had sat and sang a Salve Regina with Joseph Pearce) a tour guide said, “If you are Catholic they’re having some sort of procession today. You might like to join them.”
As it turned out it was a Corpus Christi procession and we did indeed join the English Catholics as we processed from the ancient chapel around the grounds singing the hymns and joining in the prayers. Afterwards we were privileged to celebrate Mass in the ancient Bedingfeld family chapel.
Serendipitous moments like this are crammed into a pilgrimage, and it continued the next week when I went on a private pilgrimage with a friend to Italy to venerate the holy
Shroud of Turin. Ways opened up. People helped us, new friends were met and at one point we received what I believe was miraculous guidance on our way. I could tell the stories of what happened until daybreak.
Pilgrimages are far, far better than a mere vacation. What do you do on a vacation? Sit around? Travel? Do stuff? Waste time?
Much better to travel with a purpose. Much better to waste time with God and fellow Catholics. Much better to read and pray and laugh and share stories together on pilgrimage.
The point of a pilgrimage is that you go on a holy holiday. It’s a very Catholic thing to go on pilgrimage instead of vacation. As you do, you remember that we are a pilgrim people. It’s a trek. It’s a time to travel. It’s an adventure. It’s the long journey home. The whole experience becomes a sacramental moment in which you stop to realize that these other people are your people. They are fellow pilgrims. They are the people that matter and your spiritual journey is what matters most.
On a pilgrimage you get outside of yourself and your own little world. You expand your horizons and learn about new cultures, new food and (very important) new beverages. You visit holy sites and pray. You hear Mass and join your life with the life and prayer and faith of your brothers and sisters in another culture and another land. You deepen your awareness of the history of the faith. You learn about the trials, traumas and triumphs of those who came before and those who live differently than you.
Your heart is opened. Your mind is opened and your life is opened.
I say all that to say this: I’m going back. I’m sold on pilgrimages. No more vacation for me.
I’m going back.
Not to England, but next April to Poland. We’re going to visit sites associated with Pope St John Paul II. We’re going to visit sites associated with St Faustina. We’re going to bring back first class relics of both saints to be enshrined in our new Shrine to the Divine Mercy in the new church of Our Lady of the Rosary. We’re going to visit sites associated with St Maximillian Kolbe. We’re going to Czestechowa and Zakopane and Auschwitz.
You can come too! Go here to check out the full e-brochure and learn how to sign up.