The Meaning of Pilgrimage

The Meaning of Pilgrimage May 22, 2024

In my previous post, Living the Eucharist as a Family, I mentioned that pilgrimages from four corners of the United States are taking place, ending in Indianapolis, IN for the Eucharistic Congress in July. Our Sunday Visitor notes this being one of the largest Eucharistic processions in history, roughly a 1,000 mile route!

I live in Connecticut, where the St. Elizabeth Seton route began after the Pentecost Vigil Mass at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. St. Elizabeth Seton is the first American-born saint to be canonized, dedicating her life to offering free Catholic education to girls. Her work paved the way for what we know today as the parochial school system. The route will continue through one of the oldest dioceses in the U.S. and through the Appalachian Mountains.

Pilgrimages hold a special meaning in the Catholic faith. Pope Francis summed it up in an address during the Jubilee Year of Mercy back in 2016:

“Going on pilgrimage to the shrines is one of the People of God’s most eloquent expressions of faith…It would be erroneous to believe that those who go on pilgrimage live not a personal but an “en masse” spirituality. In reality, pilgrims bring with them their own history, their own faith, the light and dark features of their own life. Everyone bears in his or her heart a special hope and a particular prayer.”

a large crowd of people with flags and banners
Mick Haupt/Unsplash

I made two memorable pilgrimages five years ago. The first was in 2019 to the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA, run by the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. The second was in 2021 to the St. Joseph the Worker Shrine in Lowell, MA, run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. I hope to make another pilgrimage soon! The National Association of Shrine and Pilgrimage Apostolate (NASPA) has a national directory of shrines, listed by state.

National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA

St. Joseph the Worker Shrine in Lowell, MA

What pilgrimage(s) have you taken? More importantly, after going on one, how has the experience shaped you? While pilgrimages are journeys to holy places, it’s important to remember the significance the journey has on us. New Testament scholar, Fr. Felix Just, S.J., notes in an article entitled, The Power of Pilgrimage:

“The ultimate purpose of a pilgrimage, however, is not just to see sacred sites (“religious tourism”) but to grow in faith, become better disciples of Jesus, and encounter God more deeply.”

Fr. Felix highlights three important elements of a pilgrimage:

Educational: taking time to learn about the archaeological, biblical, and cultural aspects of the site you are visiting

Spiritual: focusing on spiritual transformation, facilitated by activities such as celebrating Mass, praying and singing together, doing the Way of the Cross

Communal: fostering community through sharing meals, group meetings, informal conversations, taking and sharing photos

Sometimes the destination for a pilgrimage isn’t always glamorous. God can lead us to places to open our eyes to see plights in other parts of the world. For me, that was a pilgrimage to Kibera in 2016, the largest urban slum in Africa. I made the pilgrimage with a friend I was working with at a Missionaries of Charity orphanage. The slum is his home and he invited me to see where he grew up. I was immediately met with drastic impoverished conditions: close proximity of living quarters, foul smells, pollution, etc. The pilgrimage was done silently, not to alleviate the situation or solve a problem, but to simply observe. 

File:Kibera aerial view western part.jpg
Kreuzschnabel/Wikimedia Commons

Experiences such as this challenged me to continue getting out of my comfort zone, to go on pilgrimages so that my faith remains rooted as I engage it in the world. Take the step today to go on a pilgrimage. It doesn’t have to be across the globe, it can be in your own community. The point is to open yourself up to a new community, culture, or way of life!

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