Among the gifts I received upon my ordination to the priesthood, one that has proven unexpectedly valuable is the Book of Blessings. Its prayers bring to bear on all moments of life the wisdom of Scripture and tradition. I realized this when searching for fitting words to begin our pilgrimage to World Youth Day 2002.
During the previous school year at Boston College High School, another Jesuit and I encouraged students to join us for two weeks of pilgrimage in Canada. After months of publicity, planning and begging for funds, six students and the two of us, after an early July morning Mass, climbed into our school van to begin our pilgrimage, prepared with these apt words from my Book of Blessings:
Brothers, as we set out, we should remind ourselves of the reasons for our resolve to go on this holy pilgrimage. The place we intend to visit is a monument to the devotion of the people of God. They have gone there in great numbers to be strengthened in the Christian way of life and to become more determined to devote themselves to the works of charity. We must also try to bring something to the faithful who live there: our example of faith, hope, and love. In this way both they and we will be enriched by the help we give each other.
The human heart naturally seeks God. Consequently, pilgrimages to memorials of God’s saving presence have been and remain universal expressions of this deep yearning. Christian Scripture attests to this fact. In the Old Testament, we read that Abraham and Jacob memorialized encounters with God who had committed himself to care and fidelity while they set off in faith to the Promised Land (Gen 12:6-7; 28:10-22). Mount Sinai became the destination for the freed tribes of Israel after the exodus (Ex 19-20). Once settled in the Promised Land, Jerusalem with its Ark and Temple became the object of obligatory pilgrimage. Indeed, Psalms 120 to 134 were hymns sung by pilgrims as they went up to the holy city.
The New Testament also records numerous pilgrimages. Joseph and Mary were separated from the young Jesus while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Lk 2:41-45); Jesus journeyed as a pilgrim to Jerusalem frequently to celebrate the liturgical feasts (Jn 2:13; 5:1; 12:20); Christ suffered, died and rose again during a time of pilgrimage (Mt 26:17; Mk 14:12; Lk 22:7-8; Jn 13:1); and the outpouring of the Spirit that formed the church descended on gathered pilgrims (Acts 2:1-10). Pilgrimages are indeed occasions for grace.
The chronicle of Christian pilgrimages is rich in grace, history and evangelization. So too was ours. We set off that July morning for the Jesuit Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario, where we joined a thousand other pilgrims from Jesuit schools around the world for a week of formation in Ignatian spirituality. We slept in huge tents, ate meals in fields, prayed outdoors and visited ground hallowed by the labor, prayer and blood of earlier Jesuits and their companions on fire with the Gospel. We followed the World Youth Day cross to Toronto for another week of prayer and activities with hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims from around the world—a powerful sign of the church’s universality and vitality. We lodged in a school-turned hostel for 600 pilgrims from Boston, New Orleans, Paris and Versailles. “Father,” one student remarked, realizing that his foreign language study back in Boston was more than an elaborate fabrication, “these people really speak French. Like, they say Bonjour in the morning.”
When I recently asked our students to recall highlights of the pilgrimage, they mentioned meeting fellow Catholics from around the world enthusiastic in their faith; praying in many languages; the graced (my word, not theirs) hardships of irregular sleep, cold showers, passable food, heat, sun, rain, mud and mosquitoes; the stirring Way of the Cross performed in the streets of Toronto; and the papal Mass at which Pope John Paul II challenged all 800,000 of us rain-soaked and mud-covered pilgrims to be light and salt for the world in the third millennium. The extraordinary generosity of people, especially our Jesuit hosts along the way, was also on their list.
Aside from reserving Aug. 16-21, 2005, for pilgrimage to Cologne, Germany, for the next World Youth Day, how can pilgrimage be a part of one’s more ordinary devotional life? Set out for a distant shrine, or even a neighboring church. Pray for an intention along the way, and allow for some hardship, some lessening of control. Self-denial is as fundamental to pilgrimage as it is to authentic Christian living. Beware of any spirituality that does not ask something of you. Ignatius of Loyola, who called himself “the pilgrim,” required pilgrimages of all aspirants to his company to foster reliance on our Creator and Lord (General Examen, No. 67). Keep this wisdom in mind. Upon arrival, return to the Lord through the sacrament of reconciliation and resolve to donate income or time to those in special need.
At the end of our pilgrimage, weary and weathered, we gathered again in our school’s chapel and, opening the Book of Blessings, I found the perfect prayer to conclude our pilgrimage to Canada and to set out again on our more ordinary, daily discipleship:
Blessed are you, O God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. From all races of the earth you have chosen a people dedicated to you, eager to do what is right. Your grace has moved our hearts to love you more deeply and to serve you more generously. Bless us so that we may tell of your wonderful deeds and give proof of them in our lives. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.