Why a Pilgrimage?
Father Noseque, a young Hispanic priest, was saying to a colleague, “Why should I bother organizing a pilgrimage, it’s a lot of work, requires too much of my time, and instead of going on my vacation to rest, relax, and enjoy – I will have to be with clingy parishioners who are either too old, too young, too confused, or have too many problems, and I see enough of this all year long.”
Well, all of the above is probably true to some extent. However, there are some overriding reasons that make a pilgrimage an essential part of our spiritual life.
A simple definition of a pilgrimage is that it is a journey to a sacred place or places. While that is true, a pilgrimage is really about the opportunity to have an encounter with Jesus Christ, with God; and this encounter is for all those participating. Obviously. the parishioners who actually sign-up for this spiritual journey, along with their participating friends and relatives, are definitely pilgrims. But, also, the priest, even though he may be the spiritual director, he too is a pilgrim. Indeed, since the pilgrimage is usually announced in the parish bulletin, placed on the parish website, and is promoted in flyers tacked up around the church, and sometimes even in publicity placed in local newspapers, the pilgrimage becomes all encompassing and begins to have an effect on all those in the parish and the local community – in essence, even those who do not physically go on the pilgrimage are somehow part of the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage, since it is also viewed as an opportunity to travel, take a vacation, rest, relax, and perhaps be an answer one’s problems, can be the sign of faith, that does not require faith in order to provide faith.
Of course, one does not need to go to a foreign land to have an encounter with Jesus Christ. Yet, there is no question that going on a pilgrimage sets aside a specific time and place in which the pilgrim can withdraw from the everyday hubbub of the world. This unique journey allows one to reflect, pray, and maybe, just maybe, have this special encounter with Christ. I remember being on a pilgrimage in Italy where we went to Lanciano – the site of a Eucharistic miracle. (In the 700s, a priest celebrating mass had doubts about the transubstantiation. During the Consecration when he said, "This is my body. This is my blood", with doubt in his soul, the priest saw the bread change into living flesh and the wine change into blood which coagulated into five globules.) One of the pilgrims, a pharmacist, although saying she was catholic, never really believed in the transubstantiation. Suddenly, being in the church where the miracle occurred, listening to the story, and seeing some of the physical elements of the miracle, she began to cry, and blurted out, “Oh, my God, I truly believe that this bread is your body, and this wine is your blood.” I have participated in many pilgrimages, and truthfully, I had never seen this type of reaction, so it is the exception rather than the rule. However, it was truly a moving event for all of us, really life changing.
Life changing events on pilgrimages do not need such dramatic events as transpired in Lanciano, they also occur when a pilgrim, who is perhaps just along for the ride, is really seeing the pilgrimage as an excuse to have a nice vacation maybe to Italy, or Spain, or Portugal, or France, and this pilgrim, all of a sudden comes to the realization that God loves him or her, all of a sudden the realization that God sent his only son to suffer for us, to die on the cross for us, to resurrect from the dead, to show us that we no longer need to fear death, neither the physical death that awaits us nor the death that we receive daily from our spouse who maybe is an alcoholic, or our child who maybe is a drug addict, or our boss who maybe treats us very badly, or our friends who maybe are talking about us behind our backs, that we can overcome these deaths by leaning on Christ, trusting in Christ, praying to God - when a pilgrim comes to this realization, the fruits of the pilgrimage become very evident.
When one speaks of the fruits of a pilgrimage, these fruits are not only individual but are also collective.
Once again, the entire parish participates in the journey even if it is in a vicarious manner by just seeing promotional pictures of the sacred places to be visited, or real pictures taken by the pilgrims during their spiritual journey. Those who participate on this journey are staying in the same hotels, usually eating meals together, participating in visits, tours, and masses together, and are forming bonds that will make the parish back home a stronger body. I have seen parishioners who have been members of the same parish for over twenty-five years, and who did not know each other, who lived a couple of blocks away from one another, yet never had the opportunity to interact with each other. After the pilgrimage, they were not only fellow parishioners but best friends. Also, during the pilgrimage, the priest is not only seen as spiritual director but also as a man of faith, who cares enough about his flock to take them on a spiritual journey. Here too, strong bonds between parishioners and priest are formed. This lends credibility to the priest as shepherd. Also, the opportunity to see the priest as a fellow human being, who also eats like the rest of us, who likes certain foods and not others, who needs to go to the bathroom, the human qualities of the priest are made evident and this is a fantastic way for parishioners to identify with their priest.
The reasons to organize a pilgrimage and the benefits of a pilgrimage are pretty clear. Once the priest or pilgrimage organizer decides to sponsor a pilgrimage, the next step is to determine which sacred places should be visited. There are two parts to this aspect. One is that the organizer has the right to view the pilgrimage as his pilgrimage and therefore, to a certain extent, the priest has the right to decide on which places should be visited. However, the other aspect is to understand that it is also very important to consider what the parishioners want to see and do. There is no sense in trying to organize a pilgrimage that will have few to no participants. The priest might want to go to Fátima, Portugal – a wonderful pilgrimage site but maybe many of the parishioners are from Portugal, have been to Fátima many times, and are really looking to visit another sacred area. So, this part requires just a common- sense approach to align the desires of the organizing priest with those who wish to participate – so maybe a short visit to Fátima can be combined with a visit to Santiago de Compostela and Lourdes, for example.
Once the destination of the pilgrimage has been determined, the next step for the priest organizer is to recognize that he is not a tour operator. To book flights, make hotel reservations, arrange in-country bus transportation, meals, guides, escorts, visits, and entrance fees, as well as where to have masses, could become a full-time job. So, the best thing to do is to find a tour operator that can do the work for you. We here at Bravo Tours are specialists in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France; and we would be most happy to help you deign your pilgrimage to any of these areas. Your job will be simple, just pick the destination and the itinerary, announce it in your parish or local parishes, advertise it in your bulletin and on your parish’s website, and hold several short meetings to explain the itinerary and to collect the first deposit.
Once you have your participants in place, the rest is easy because Bravo will handle the rest. For more information, please call us at 1-800, 272-8674, or contact Lou Dinnella, the Director, on his cell: 201-960-7403.
May God Bless you and your parishioners!
P.S. Priests who organize a pilgrimage can earn free trips and travel stipends.