Pilgrimage has rarely been easy. Storms and shipwrecks, robbery and kidnaping, wars and illness were endured, not to mention the self-imposed disciplines: walking barefoot, fasting, begging for hospitality or passage. In his day, after enduring three and a half months of storm-tossed travel while returning from the Holy Land, Iñigo de Loyola had to talk his way through the lines of warring French and Spanish troops.
Facing death and coping with military authorities were a pilgrim’s lot. As one commentator wrote: “Dangers and adversities encountered on the way were accepted as a participation in [Christ’s] passion. The robbers into whose hands one could fall were likened to the soldiers who stripped Christ and divided his clothing among them.” It is only since the late 19th century, with the advent of mass leisure, that pilgrims came to assume ease of travel and lack of danger as their due.
The number of pilgrims to the Holy Land peaked during the Great Jubilee Year of 2000, when some 900,000 visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories. But with the outbreak of the al Aqsa intifada the same year, the flow of pilgrims slowed to a mere trickle. Pilgrim hospices shut their doors, and local Christians, 80 percent of whom work in the pilgrim trade, went hungry.
In the last year, however, pilgrims have begun to return. Many Italian bishops have led diocesan pilgrimages. Nigerians have come by the thousands, thanks to government subsidies. Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher from England, Wales and Scotland made repeated journeys; and the German Bishops’ Conference has announced plans to hold one of its meetings in Jerusalem to show that Catholics abroad remain committed to the Holy Land’s Christian communities.
Many Western Christians, however, when they think of the Holy Land, fear for their lives. Nearly 4,000 people have died since the outbreak of the intifada: more than 700 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians. But in their hospices and tour buses, pilgrims are virtually immune from the troubles. Only a single pilgrim, I am told, has been killed in the violence. Americans seem particularly fearful about making pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Undoubtedly the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have something to do with this, as does news coverage from the Middle East. When I recently urged a group to sponsor pilgrimages, one wit threw down a challenge: “Tell CNN to change the headlines.”
Insulated from the kind of trouble experienced daily in much of the world, risk-averse Americans tend to exaggerate the dangers of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Correspondingly, they tend to underestimate the good that pilgrims can do in times of conflict and to ignore the spiritual growth that comes from facing real, though modest, risks as they follow the way of the cross.
“The pilgrim’s mind and heart are fixed on far horizons,” wrote the late Cardinal Basil Hume, “but must never ignore or make light of injustice, pain, and deprivation here in the passing world. Each day provides the pilgrim the tasks to be undertaken.... There is an immense task...to bring peace and understanding to those who fear and fight each other...” (To Be a Pilgrim, 1983). Today the Holy Land is desperately in need of peace. American Catholics’ solidarity with the Christians of the Holy Land and our spiritual kinship with the land’s Jews and Muslims urge us to become pilgrims in the hope that God will give his land peace.
Pilgrimage is an interior journey as well as an exterior one. It demands we confront our demons as we prepare to encounter God. It brings us face to face with the fear that paralyzes the soul; it spurs us to be ambassadors of peace. This year an increase in the number of Catholic pilgrims from the United States to the Holy Land will be a sign that some Americans, at least, have confronted Demon Fear and have made themselves ready to be instruments of God’s peace in one of the world’s bleakest struggles, but one which is ours, both as Americans and as Catholics.