Last month I had the privilege of accompanying a group from our diocese on a trip to Rome. They were members of the Christ Child Society and their spouses. This is a charitable organization dedicated to serving at-risk children regardless of race or creed. Their efforts are directed especially to newborns and their mothers as well as pre-school age children.
This was the fourth time as a bishop that I have served as a spiritual guide to a group on pilgrimage to Rome. I did it twice for my parishioners when I was still a pastor in Detroit. Then there was the ecumenical pilgrimage from our diocese that the Lutheran Bishop Marcus Lohrman and I led to Germany and Rome a few ears ago.
The city of Rome has many attractions of great historical, artistic and cultural interest. (The food and wine are not bad either!) Initially, people are interested in seeing the sites of Rome and enjoying what the city has to offer to them as tourists. However, I have always been impressed that what begins as a tour ends up being a pilgrimage. Inevitably, participants are drawn together and drawn closer to their faith by the religious experiences of their visit to the Eternal City and to other sites too, like St. Francis’ hometown of Assisi. This is something they cherish and remember.
Part of the reason is Rome’s great patrimony of Christian history and art. However, on the trips that I accompany, I always have us start the day with Mass at one of the great Roman basilicas, which really sets the tone for all that we do. And of course we participate in a Wednesday audience with the Holy Father. By faith we know that as the successor of St. Peter, the pope is the visible source and foundation of unity, the “rock” on which Jesus builds His church, against which “the gates of hell will not prevail” (Mt 16:18). I am struck, too, at people’s willingness to go very early for a good seat and then wait patiently, sometimes outdoors in the hot sun, for a chance to see the pope.
Pilgrimage is one of the most ancient and universal of religious practices. As one Bible dictionary puts it: “Although the word ‘pilgrim’ and ‘pilgrimage’ are absent from most English translations of the Bible, the image is a major one, encompassing some of the deepest meanings of what it means to be a follower and worshipper of God.” A recent essay describes the meaning of pilgrimage under three aspects: The first is desire, a search for something lacking in our lives, whether that something is health or peace of mind or spiritual satisfaction. Then there is hope, a quest for something better, for a confirmation that there is more to life than our daily routine. And finally, there is the realization that life itself is a journey, and that a pilgrimage may help us to understand better the meaning of life.
We journey to earthly shrines as a sign of our pilgrimage to a heavenly home. And we do it with other believers in faith and prayer. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, the church is by definition a “pilgrim people.” “Here we have no lasting city, but we look for the city to come that is built by God” (Heb 11). The church keeps on walking amid the trials and tribulations of the world and the consolations of God.
Catholics on pilgrimage may be in search of a particular spiritual benefit, or they may be making an act of thanksgiving or penance. Then again, our purpose may be to venerate Mary or the saints, or some sacred relic, or to be inspired by the words of the pope or some other person renowned for holiness, whether living or deceased.
When I was younger and living in Rome, I was eager to travel. Now that I am older, it takes more of an effort on my part to rouse myself in order to pack that suitcase and get on the plane. Yet once I get to where I am committed to go, I am always happy that I went.
I am not alone in having to overcome the temptation to cling to what is familiar, comfortable and safe. I recall a meditation by the theologian Karl Rahner. He said we can imagine our life as a little hut sheltering us at night with a fire burning in the center to give us light and warmth. We are surrounded by darkness and are afraid to venture out. Unless we do, however, we will not find God, because it is only by leaving what is safe and comfortable to pierce the darkness that we will find the light of God. This is a fitting metaphor for the spiritual pilgrimage that all of us have to make out of our self-contained comfort zone into the wide world of God and God’s people in the Catholic Church.
At the end of our Rome pilgrimage, I made a separate side trip to Fatima to fulfill a longstanding desire to visit that famous Marian shrine. On the patronal feast of our diocese, Oct. 7, the Feast of our Lady of the Rosary, I was privileged to offer Mass at the main altar of the basilica for the intention of our diocese. It was 5:45 a.m. — the only time available on the reservation list — and the congregation consisted of about 25 Catholics from China. Although we had no common spoken language, the Mass was our language, and we understood one another well enough to give mutual greetings and assurances of prayer for the church in Toledo on their part, and my prayers for the church in China. Pilgrimages can indeed open our eyes and hearts to a wider world of faith.
The value of a pilgrimage is not measured by miles. It is always possible, even within our own diocese, to make a pilgrimage to the shrines at Carey or near Bellevue. Our diocesan centenary, too, is an opportunity to make a pilgrimage to our own magnificent cathedral. Participation in the Right to Life Mass at the National Shrine in Washington in January is another possibility. Whatever the pilgrimage, may God be with us on our journey.