Some might travel to Israel to visit the land where Jesus walked, preached and died. Some might visit Athens and Corinth in Greece, two of around 50 cities where St Paul proclaimed Christ. Others walk the “Camino” road from France through Spain, ending their pilgrimage at the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia on the north-west coast of Spain. Others might visit the Vatican in Rome, Italy, centre of the Catholic Christian world and sacred to the memory of St Peter, the first apostle and first Pope who was martyred on Vatican Hill. Then there is the Marian shrine of Lourdes in France, where millions of people each year come to pray and to ask for healing from God, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Jesus .
A special place of pilgrimage for many Catholics this year is another Marian Shrine in Fatima, Portugal, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the appearance of “Our Lady of Fatima”, to three children, Lucia dos Santos (1907-2005), and her cousins, Francisco Marto (1908-1919) and Jacinta Marto (1910-1920) on May 13, 1917, during the First World War. Mary’s main message was to ask all people to turn away from evil and to pray for world peace, lest there be a worse war to follow. Pope Francis canonised Francisco and Jacinta as saints this month. Lucia, who became a Carmelite nun, died only 12 years ago.
While being aware that other faith traditions such as Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, have their own sacred places of pilgrimage, I write only about places which I have had the privilege to visit as a Christian pilgrim and what difference that has made to me and I presume, to many others who go on pilgrimage as well.
For me, a highlight of one pilgrimage journey in 1987 was Israel: seeing Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth; Nazareth where he grew up; walking the shores of Galilee where he called the fishermen to follow him; and being in Jerusalem where he preached and was crucified. This pilgrimage made the Gospels and the Bible in general, very real to me. The experience further deepened my faith and love for the Lord Jesus.
My Christian faith took on a more expansive stance when I stood at the “Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem and watched many Jews praying so earnestly, and sticking little notes of prayer requests in the gaps in the wall. I was touched by the sight, knowing full well the troubles taking place in that land and in my heart believed wholeheartedly that God was listening to the cries of His people. I identified with the words of St Peter: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” (Acts 10:34) …
Santiago de Compostela
Many novels have been written and films made about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Examples are “The Pilgrimage” by Paulo Coelho and “The Way” starring Martin Sheen. My dream was therefore fulfilled when I had the opportunity to stay at the Cluny convent in Santiago de Compostela and to visit the beautiful, medieval cathedral in this city. We joined many other pilgrims at a special Mass at the end of which the famous huge burning censer, (called the Botafumeiro) pulled by eight men, and weighing around 63kg, was swung across the nave of the church, filling the air with incense. This was a practice dating from the Middle Ages and which apparently was intended to clear the air, inside the building filled with pilgrims who had done the Camino walk.
For centuries pilgrims, have come here to pray at the church dedicated to St James, the beloved apostle of Jesus Christ, and whose bones are believed to be buried at the site. To be present at this site, and to join in prayer with so many others from all over the world, gave me confirmation of my faith, and a feeling of connection to the past history of so many pilgrims who had passed through the doors of this stunningly beautiful Cathedral Church.
There were at least 50,000 or more people present at the Marian shrine in Fatima, Portugal when I visited there with my Cluny Sisters on May 12 and 13, 2009, the special feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. Pilgrims started walking from throughout Portugal to the plaza shrine, for the vigil and the feast day. Like the Camino walk, many also came on foot, while staying at different hospitality centres in Portugal on their journey to Fatima.
Fatima was a deeply moving experience for me. I had a great sense of the presence of Mary there. She draws us to God through her Son, Jesus Christ, and how can one love the Son without giving due respect and honour to the Mother?
The message of Fatima, (1917) to pray for world peace, remains as relevant today as it did during the dark days of World War 1, 1914-1918.
Pilgrims to sacred places are more than just tourists or spectators. They come with faith, expectant hope, and openness to the Divine. Some may not even have faith but come in search of answers to spiritual questions, or ways to cope with the difficulties of life or simply out of curiosity to experience what it is that draws so many others to these sacred places.
Some have had the direction of their life confirmed or changed. Others have renewed lost faith and committed themselves even more to the following of Christ in their life. I have felt a unity and a connectedness to others even unknown to me, realising that irrespective of where we come from, we are all children of God the Father, and brothers and sisters in His Son, Jesus. I doubt if anyone who goes on pilgrimage returns exactly the same as when they left with nothing changed in their lives.
The Bible is full of journey stories such as The Call of Abraham to leave his country and to go to another place God would show him - (Gen 12:1), the Israelites leaving Egypt and travelling through the desert to the Promised Land and led by Moses - (Exodus 12:33-ff), the three Magi leaving their country and guided by a star to find the new born Child Jesus - (Matt 2:1-12).
A common thread throughout these journeys is that those called are inspired by God to leave what they know, and to travel in faith to a destination to which they have been called, by a way which they do not necessarily know, and trusting only that God is with them and does not abandon them.
Our life, is a journey from birth to our physical death. We are pilgrims on life’s highway, and we support one another with our love and care.
Furthermore, we know that we do not walk alone. Just as God did not abandon the Israelites of old but went before them as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22), neither are we abandoned to walk alone. After his resurrection, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would be there to guide and strengthen, not just the Apostles and disciples, but all who believe in His name. (cf Jn 14:15 ff)
To be able to go on pilgrimage is a blessing. In the end though, we do not need to go too far.We only need to look within our own hearts to the sacred landscape of our own souls, to find the Triune God who dwells within each person. God, whom we may seek without, has already found us, for “it is in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
Sister Elizabeth Browne-Russell sjc,