Why Pilgrimages are Necessary

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By: Elizabeth Self, Notre Dame

As a conscientious Catholic, I’ve often been afraid that I may be called a hypocrite. There’s a glitzy and glamorous side of modern Catholic culture that emphasizes the importance of aesthetically pleasing prayer nooks, classy but terribly expensive clothing, and edgy social media feeds that show just how worldly you are. And far from attracting people to the faith, these trends make it appear even more exclusive.

Unfortunately, I think pilgrimages often fall under this umbrella. Because, let’s be real; they’re expensive. They still take us from continent to continent. They’re luxurious. Not everyone can nor should leave their work and families for an extended period of time. They’re also dangerously indulgent, and when we embark on pilgrimage and start snapping pictures and touring around cities, we soon find that we are reiterating to ourselves the difference between a trip and a pilgrimage under our breath with increasing urgency. We are tempted to consider it merely a spiritual pilgrimage, and that we can still drink wine every night, seek out the nicest restaurants, and gather an impressive shopping haul. We wear away even a sense of traveling by making ourselves as comfortable as possible in every place we happen upon.

“To go in a spirit of prayer from one place to another, from one city to another, in the area marked especially by God’s intervention, helps us not only to live our life as a journey, but also gives us a vivid sense of a God
who has gone before us and leads us on, who himself set out on man’s path, a God who does not look down on us from on high, but who became our travelling companion.”
From the Vatican, on 29 June, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, in the year 1999. John Paul II

How do we sense God leading us on if our noses are being led from one pastry shop to another? If we slip from the pilgrimage’s website to TripAdvisor? The opportunity for grace can be totally lost, I’m afraid. But I do believe that it is possible to keep pilgrimage holy, to make it again a
movement in companionship with the God who is anything but merely spiritual. We need pilgrimages not because we can overcome all of these temptations in a tour de force but because we are lazy and sinful. We need to be confronted again with the wager; if there is a God and He walked this earth, and there are people who have achieved eternity with Him by living in His holy way, then why would we do else-wise. We need to feel His wounds and be witness to Her (the Church’s) history. Pilgrimages strengthen our convictions. They animate our faith. They light our imaginations, which are essential to moving steadily in hope toward the ultimate goal.

We need sweet moments in churches over seas, masses in different languages, and trading flags and medals to remind us that we belong to this universal church. We don’t need to pretend to be holier than the rest, strong enough to rise above the prince of earth by ourselves. Leaning into the sacrifices and challenges of a deliberate pilgrimage trains us for the journey, the grand adventure,
that is our path with Christ.

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