Pilgrims thought the clouds in this photo resembled our Blessed Mother. It was taken in France en route to Lourdes during The Catholic Voice pilgrimage.
Pat Burke/Special to The Catholic Voice
Pilgrimage takes us into our faith in a profound, transformational way
Rev. Jim Sullivan
Pilgrimage has been a part of the devotional life of Christians going back almost to apostolic times. As converts were won around the Mediterranean, the places of Jesus' life, death and resurrection gave Palestine a new, unofficial name, "the Holy Land," and Christians from across Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa begin to journey there.
One of the most famous and influential pilgrims in history is St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, and herself Empress of Augustan (that is, the highest) rank, who set out for the Holy Land about the year 326 AD.
Helena was in her late 70s at the time. She spent the remaining years of her life in Palestine, identifying places important in the life, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, and erecting churches and shrines in these places.
I made my first pilgrimage, to Italy and to Youth Festival in Medjugorje, with the teens from my youth group, in 1998. I have made almost 20 pilgrimages since.
I recently returned from a pilgrimage to Marian shrines of Portugal, Spain and France. Eighty pilgrims and two brother priests of our diocese made this pilgrimage, which started at Fatima in Portugal. I have visited Fatima several times; it is a place with a distinct Marian character, a place where the maternal love of the Mother of God underwrites an urgent call to prayer and conversion.
The rosary processions in the evening are spell-binding, and the display of reverence among pilgrims in the great churches and the huge square (which some pilgrims traverse on their knees) is deeply impressive.
I have never been to Santiago de Campostela, in Spain, the second stop on this trip, but it is the site of the first Marian apparition recorded in history; it is said that the Blessed Mother appeared to St. James there in or about the year 41 AD, to encourage him in his missionary efforts at a time when he was feeling very discouraged.
After the Islamic conquest of Palestine in the mid-seventh century, Santiago de Campostela became the Christian pilgrimage destination of choice: the road to Santiago started in Paris, and wound hundreds of miles west and south, to end in Santiago on Spain's Atlantic coast.
I joined the group at Lourdes, site of Our Lady's 16th appearance to St. Bernadette in the spring and summer of 1858. I have been to Lourdes several times and am always struck by the joy I feel there. Our Lady promised Bernadette that the newfound spring she discovered there in the rock grotto would prove to have miraculous healing powers, and that the people should come and bathe in the waters and experience the love of God.
A book published in 2008, the sesquicentennial jubilee of the apparitions at Lourdes, documented 150 miraculous cures (150 to match the years of the Jubilee) but in fact, there have been thousands of cures at Lourdes. No one knows the real number, because many of those who receive a cure do not trouble themselves with the Church's lengthy documentation process.
From Lourdes we flew to Paris, a city whose cathedral is named for Our Lady, Notre Dame. I first saw this magnificent Gothic church while on my second pilgrimage, in the summer of 1999. I was a seminarian at the time, and remember promising myself that one day I would celebrate Mass at Notre Dame. It didn't happen on this pilgrimage, so I guess I will have to plan to return!
Paris is full of beautiful churches, and we took the time to see several others: Rue de Bac, the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal, where St. Catherine Laboure lies incorrupt (she died in the 1870s). Just a few hundred feet up the street and around the corner is the shrine church of St. Vincent de Paul.
Many of our group took an excursion to Lisieux in Normandy. There we visited the grand basilica dedicated to St. Terese, and saw her incorrupt body at the Carmelite convent where she lived as a cloistered sister. For a number of our group, devotees of this immensely popular saint, this was one of the trip's highlights.
I recommend pilgrimage. It reminds us of the universality of the Catholic faith and it takes us out of the ordinary, day-to-day world and into the world of faith in a profound and even transformational way.
We come home from pilgrimage with new insights and deeper understandings. Many people have told me that their lives were changed by pilgrimage. I intend to continue making pilgrimages for years to come. I still need to say Mass at Notre Dame!
(Father Jim Sullivan teaches religion and is chaplain at Bishop O'Dowd High School, Oakland.)
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