Pilgrimages of faith, The Anchor, March 01, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
March 01, 2013

In his letter announcing the Year of Faith, Benedict XVI stressed that Catholics need to recover the sense that faith is a pilgrimage. To enter into the life of faith “is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime,” he wrote, and he stressed that we all have to “rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ.”

To emphasize this understanding of the itinerary of faith, the Vatican, in its list of recommendations to live this holy year well, encouraged the faithful to go on pilgrimage, specifically mentioning faith journeys to Rome, to the Holy Land, and, since Mary is the guide for the pilgrim Church, to famous Marian shrines.

Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the priesthood has been the ability to lead pilgrimages to all these places. And this is not just because I’ve always enjoyed the experience of traveling. It’s mostly because I’ve seen the quantum leaps that a good pilgrimage can have in the life of believing pilgrims, as they continue the journey of life toward the heavenly Jerusalem.

During my time as a seminarian and priest in Rome, I had the privilege to welcome tens of thousands of people on pilgrimage and take them to St. Peter’s tomb, and to the great basilicas, churches, saints and catacombs of the city. Since I returned to the diocese in 2000, I’ve been able to lead many pilgrimages back to the eternal city. It’s exhilarating to be able to help people become aware that they are heirs and heiresses of an enormous spiritual treasure in the city whose soil has been sanctified by the blood of SS. Peter and Paul.

I also treasure the pilgrimages I’ve led elsewhere to the various Marian Shrines, great cathedrals and sanctuaries of Europe, Fatima, Lourdes, Czestochowa, Montserrat, Loreto, Lanciano, Assisi, San Giovanni Rotondo, Padua, Monte Cassino, Santiago de Compostela, Lisieux, as well as to the “living shrine” of the Church, amassed for World Youth Day.

But the most moving experience I’ve had on pilgrimage occurred exactly a year ago, when I was able to bring 52 people — parishioners old and new, family members and friends — to the Holy Land at the beginning of the 40-day pilgrimage of Lent.

Entitled “In the Footsteps of Jesus,” we began in Nazareth where Jesus was conceived and grew up. Along the way we went to Ain Karim where He made John the Baptist leap in the womb; Bethlehem where He was born; the Jordan River where He was baptized and began His public ministry; the Mount of Temptations where He lived the first Lent; Cana where He made Marriage a Sacrament and worked His first miracle; Taghba and Bethany where He multiplied loaves and fish; Capernaum where He revealed Himself as the Eucharistic Bread of Life; the Sea of Galilee on which He walked and stormed the seas; the Mount of the Beatitudes where He gave the Sermon on the Mount; Caesarea Philippi where He pronounced Simon Peter the rock on whom He would build His Church; Mount Tabor where He was transfigured; Nain where He raised a young man from the dead; Bethany where He stayed at the house of Martha and Mary and raised Lazarus from the dead; and of course Jerusalem, where He taught, expunged the money changers, was murdered and rose from the dead.

There’s nothing quite like a pilgrimage to the Holy Land because not only does one have the chance to follow Jesus’ footsteps somewhat literally across the land He made holy, but you’re able to journey through the entire Liturgical year in the span of days. At each of the sacred spots, you celebrate the Mass of the feast or solemnity associated with that spot. So in Nazareth, you celebrate the Mass of the Annunciation; in Bethlehem, the Mass of Christmas; Tabor, the Transfiguration; Calvary, the Exaltation of the Cross (because there is no Mass for Good Friday); and the empty tomb, the Mass of Easter. You’re able to trace all the mysteries of faith that we traverse throughout a year in just a week, which is not only an incredible experience for a priest but also for a faithful pilgrim.

There were so many highlights that I’ve been reliving on the first anniversary of their occurrence. Tomorrow marks one year from the most memorable “Stations of the Cross” I’ve ever done. Because the roads of the Old City of Jerusalem can often be very crowded, we got the whole group up so that we could leave at 3:30 in the morning. I was somewhat concerned that getting them up at that hour — which I didn’t tell them about until the night before at dinner — would lead them to call for my crucifixion rather than recapitulate the call for Jesus’!

As we were heading from our hotel to the place of the first station in silence and total darkness, it began to snow rather hard, the first major snow that Jerusalem had seen in 16 years. It was freezing, wet, and basically miserable. We used Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s beautiful Way of the Cross meditations, reading them under huge umbrellas on my iPad. We were using a headset and ear-piece system so that we wouldn’t wake up all of the residents of Jerusalem.

We did the Tenth Station, Jesus is stripped of His garments, right outside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth stations literally right on Calvary where they took place, and for the Fourteenth Station we descended from Calvary to the place where they had anointed Jesus and then to the tomb where His corpse was laid. Immediately after we finished, I went into the Sacristy to vest for Mass, which we would have on Calvary. It was incredibly moving to be able to give Jesus’ Body and Blood to the pilgrims in the very spot where Jesus had offered His Body and Blood for the salvation of the world.

After Mass everyone headed back to the hotel for breakfast. Two of the people who had most complained about the early start were the first to come to me, with tears in their eyes, saying that the Way of the Cross through terrible weather was not just the highlight of the pilgrimage but one of the most moving spiritual experiences of their life. They grasped that even though they didn’t get much sleep the night before, Jesus hadn’t gotten any sleep at all while imprisoned; even though the wet snow was nasty, it wasn’t anything like the nastiness Jesus had to endure along that same route.

I thought that that was a perfect illustration of the type of conversion that happens on pilgrimage, when pilgrims, like the Magi, return home “by a different route,” changed forever.

This year, during the Year of Faith, I’m leading a pilgrimage to the Shrines and Saints of France in September. I chose France in order to be able to take my new parishioners to the sites associated with St. Bernadette, especially Lourdes where the Blessed Mother appeared to her, and Nevers, where St. Bernadette was in the convent and her incorrupt body now rests.

But we’ll also be visiting Lisieux (St. Therese), Paray-le-Monial (the Sacred Heart apparitions); the apparition site of Our Lady of La Salette; Ars (St. John Vianney); Rue du Bac (St. Catherine Labouré, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise de Marillac, and the Miraculous Medal); Annecy (St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal).

We’ll also be praying in some of the great Churches of the world, like the Cathedrals of Chartres, Notre Dame in Paris, Orleans, Avignon (which the popes used for 70 years), the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur in Paris, and Notre Dame de Fourvière in Lyons, where we’ll see our faith depicted beautifully in art and architecture.

It will be a lifetime’s worth some of the greatest and most famous sanctuaries — and some of the greatest saints — in the history of our faith. If you’d be interested in joining me, I’d love to have you join me. There are still a few spots left. Please send me an email right away and I’ll send you a brochure.