Rome was easy enough: the first time, honestly, as a tourist; the second time, to talk my way out of a job that would have kept me there for 20 years. The Holy Land was different. I did not go as a Jesuit priest, but as a college professor. I was part of a group from an association called American Professors for Peace in the Middle East, sponsored by the Zionist Organization of America, with which my university had a connection. My companion at the time was Joseph Simmons, S.J., who said back then, referring to me, Hes the professor; Im for peace. We had the joy of celebrating his 25th anniversary as a priest in the chapel of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem before his untimely death at an age younger than mine now.
During graduate studies at London University, I went regularly to Canterbury to see Dr. Maurice Larkin, who knew everything about French history. And during that time, family visits allowed me to go back as a tour guide and pilgrim. My sister, Regina, claims that she had there the best pizza ever. I had been there a decade before with Henry Lavin, S.J., onetime literary editor of America and an expert in English literature. He gave me an appreciation for Thomas à Becket, which I was later able to pass on to others.
To this day, I am guilty about my pilgrimage to Lourdes. Americas Father James Martin goes there regularly to minister to the sick with the Knights of Malta and experiences the real austerity of the pilgrimage. Three decades ago, in the throes of graduate studies and thesis writing, I asked my provincial superior if I could go to Lourdes. He had done the same degree as I in the same university, living in the same Jesuit house, so he was totally sympathetic. But he never made that pilgrimage, for two reasons. The first was practical. He could not speak French, and was equally flummoxed by other European languages. The second reason was more poignant. He was told by a wise older father in the house where we lived: Oh, no, Father, youre too young. Wait until youre old and cynical and let the Blessed Mother give you back your faith. As it happened, Father Joseph Whelan did not live to be either old or cynical.
But I did go. I did all the things that you are supposed to do. I drank the waters, attended the processions, lit candles the size of Saturn rockets for family and neighbors with their intentions and went to the baths. On vous donne quelque chosethey give you somethingwas as much as I could get out of Père Michel Olphe-Gaillard in response to my concern about practical details. He was right. It was a case of American locker room meets French modesty, as the denim wrap shocked my system.
Not one of the above experiences matches the spiritual reality, for me, of the pilgrimage I made every day during the time of the dreaded thesis preparation. After lunch every day, I would walk the few hundred yards from our house in the Rue de Grenelle in Paris, where I lived with 100 French Jesuits and two American Jesuits, Michael Cooper and James Bernauer. My goal was the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in the Rue du Bac, a site more visited than the Eiffel Tower. It was then, and still is, a shrine to St. Catherine Labouré, the sister whose vision of Our Blessed Lady in that very house led to the diffusion of the Miraculous Medal devotion. Zoe Labouré, Sister Catherine, was a most extraordinary woman. Among her sisters she seemed quite ordinary, having only one assignment during her 46 years of religious life. And she told only her confessor about her visions.
For 46 years she worked in obscure silence as administrator of a retirement home to which was attached an orphanage. Her cover was broken only in the last year of her life. She spent her religious life among the poor and marginalized in the far reaches of Paris, and it was there that she died.
Such spots invite us to consider ordinary places closer to home that are worthy of a pilgrims attention.