My feet hurt, and I am grateful. It's a sign I'm still moving. And movement—any forward motion—even when slowed by aching feet, is pilgrimage-worthy.
I am three months into a physical sojourn from surgery repairing a tendon in my ankle, from which my surgeon announced: "It will be six months until you feel better."
Still, last week, armed with my trusty cane, and the encouragement of my 21-year-old daughter, I flew to Paris for a reunion with her and a pilgrimage to a few sacred places I have loved. One of those places was Sacré-Coeur, the basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, where continuous adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has taken place for 125 years.
Set on the region's highest hill, Montmartre, where tradition holds that St. Denis (the first Bishop of Paris) and his 3rd-century companions were martyred, Sacré-Coeur commands sweeping views of Paris and its environs. And to reach it, it's all up hill.
Together my daughter and I climbed the familiar mighty steps, thankful that my foot had healed enough to make the trip. Upon reaching the top, we found someone else had made the climb—a gentle beggar with no legs at the door of the great church. I placed an offering in his tin cup and proceeded inside, grateful even more for the gift of aching feet and the opportunity to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament.
I had reached my destination and, with joy at being at my daughter's side, basked in the silence of the Lord's Real Presence, the same Eucharistic Lord I visit on shorter weekly pilgrimages to our little hometown chapel on Main Street.
The concept of pilgrimage resonates throughout Christian history. Ultimately, we Catholics say the Church is on pilgrimage to heaven. No matter where we come from, we are all making the same journey.
In its earthly state the Church needs places where the community can gather together. Our visible churches, holy places, are images of the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, toward which we are making our way on pilgrimage. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1198.)
Christian life is a holy pilgrimage that begins with baptism and destines its adherents for the promised land of heaven. But along the way a believer makes many shorter pilgrimages-within-the-pilgrimage, both formal and informal, in the course of life.
I've been blessed to travel formally on pilgrimage to many historic Christian sites. In 1998 and 2002, I traveled to Fatima in Portugal, Mary's "throne" upon earth, as the late John Paul II would say. It was in Fatima that Our Lady appeared to three shepherd children in 1917 bringing a message for the world. In 2004 and 2007, I was privileged to pray in the four basilicas of Rome. And I am looking forward to returning to Rome this spring.
Here in the United States, I have traveled to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA.
Each pilgrimage brought a special blessing and learning to my life at the time it was undertaken. Today I know several people preparing to pilgrimage to Rome for John Paul II's beatification in May, and to meet Benedict XVI this summer in Madrid for World Youth Day.
I am grateful for the opportunities to travel to these pilgrimage sites. And yet, long before such occasions were afforded me, I learned the core of that pilgrimage idea from the Church: that even if we never get to go to one of these magnificent places, we are still on a journey with the Lord.
Spiritually, there have been many less formal pilgrimages-in-kind that have borne great fruit in my life. All it took was asking Jesus to accompany me on these "journeys" . . . pregnancy, retreats, periods of illness, liturgical seasons, coursework, and moving to a new home or a new job, just to name a few.