In the bull indiction for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis suggested various ways on how to live out this mercy year, one of which was embarking on a pilgrimage, specifically to one of the Holy Doors he designated in Rome or throughout the world.
Now, I don’t know about you, but ever since I entered the Catholic Church at Easter 2015, a lot of folks have spoken to me about pilgrimage and its importance in the life of a Christian. We are encouraged to not only go on physical pilgrimage to religious sites in the world, but many say the idea of pilgrimage is, in fact, a microcosm for the individual Christian’s journey — that each of us are on an individual pilgrimage in our own lives.
Call me brash, ignorant, or just plain dumb, but up until a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea just exactly what a pilgrimage entailed. Then, I left for Italy on a 10-day pilgrimage, and it all began to make more sense in my baby-Catholic mind. I came to discover that pilgrimage plays a crucial, and indeed necessary role in coming to a fuller understanding of the faith.
The idea of pilgrimage dates back to the early Christians; of course, going on a pilgrimage then was a much different affair than it is now. Planes, trains and automobiles were but a figment of the future’s imagination, and what is a roughly 14-hour journey today could take weeks, months or even years, depending on the destination. Though the method was much different, the intent remains very much the same — to visit sacred sites and pay homage to those fellow believers who, as the liturgical prayers tell us, have gone before us in a sign of faith.
These sacred sites are many, but they can include the tombs of martyrs, churches or locations which were home to important moments in the history of Christianity, or as this Jubilee Year is indicative of, Holy Doors, which provide extra graces for those weary pilgrims who travel long and far to pass through them.
This brings me to my next point: don’t go on a pilgrimage expecting it to be a family vacation. The very idea of pilgrimage implies hardship, and although a pilgrimage today doesn’t have to be as difficult a one as the pilgrims of old had to endure, I think an important facet of going on pilgrimage is to suffer in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who walked the roads, and even paved them, long before us.
If life is indeed a pilgrimage, then it would only make sense that going on pilgrimage is not a comfortable affair. As we’ve heard many times before from the early Church fathers and those modern commentators on being an authentic disciple of Christ, being a Christian is not a call to live a comfortable life; it’s a call to live a dangerous life, a life contradictory to the very fabric of society and culture, a life modeled after a man who was divine in nature and misunderstood even by those closest to him, a life that demands everything of us and rewards us with even more in return.
As is the case with life, we many not fully understand the extent of the pilgrimage we choose to embark on, and we certainly don’t know what to expect. But it’s a funny thing that happens when we choose to leave our comfort zone as men and women and travel as weary pilgrims: as we walk along these paths in faith, we end up discovering what faith really is.