Catholic Youth Parramatta

The Spirit of Pilgrimage


Joyful young people carried the WYD Cross through the streets of Sydney
Joyful young people carried the WYD Cross through the streets of Sydney

The following article is an edited version of the address given by Daniel Ang, Coordinator of Parish Services at the Institute for Mission, as part of the diocesan formation program for WYD2011. The session was held at St Nicholas of Myra Parish, Penrith, with more 100 pilgrims in attendance on 22 February 2011.

The months and experiences ahead promise World Youth Day pilgrims the true freedom and spirituality that they desire, promising to confirm young Catholics in their faith as well as to take them ‘where they have never been’ in their discipleship.

The pilgrimage to WYD2011 in Madrid is, at depth, a journey towards God. In this way, Madrid is not only a destination for us but also a point of departure, an opportunity for us to enter into new possibilities in our life of faith.

Tradition of pilgrimage

Pilgrimage has been a tradition of the Church since its very beginnings. Among the first pilgrims were the disciples, those who journeyed with Jesus of Galilee and who, in Him, came to experience God in a new way. Jesus transformed their understanding of themselves, the world, and the purpose of their lives.

Before the disciples, however, was Mary, who carried within her the very life of Jesus. Mary emerges as the maternal pilgrim, the one whose faith responds ‘Yes’ to God who had come to dwell within her flesh.

In her own journey as mother, from emptiness to fullness, from barenness to divine fruitfulness, Mary invites us, also, to ‘give birth’ to Jesus in the womb of our own spirit. In this way, Mary embodies the promise of Christian pilgrimage in which, as the Letter to the Galatians expresses it, ‘It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal 2:20).

Then came the pilgrims of the early Church. Once the persecution of Christians subsided in the 4th Century, followers of Christ enjoyed a new freedom to worship in public. This new-found freedom also saw the flourishing of Christian theology, Christian art, and believers were able to express and nourish their faith in all sorts of ways.

One expression of this freedom was the ability to embark on pilgrimage. Christians travelled near and far to venerate or honour the relics of the Christian saints and martyrs who had died in the generations before them. Rome became a popular site as the place of martyrdom for St Peter and St Paul. Of course, Jerusalem arose as the most significant site to which Christians travelled.

Pilgrimage today

Today the tradition continues and Catholics embark on pilgrimages across Europe and around the world. Some embark on their own, others in groups, and for all sorts of reasons including for healing, to strengthen their own faith, and to pray for the health and wellbeing of their loved ones. Some of the major sites for Catholics include Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, Assisi in Italy and, of course, Spain.

Spain has produced some of the great Christian mystics and saints of our Church, including St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, St Teresa of Avila, and St John of the Cross.

Pilgrims travel there for the Holy Week celebrations in Seville (the Semana Santa de Sevilla) where they watch processions of large wooden life-like sculptures from the scenes of Christ’s Passion. Participants wear cone-shaped hoods representing their repentance and grief at the crucifixion of Jesus. Such events well reflect the physical and emotive quality of Spanish spirituality, especially in its focus on the experience and suffering of love.

The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, in the north-west corner of Spain, is another major destination with the walk or ‘Way of St James’ as it is called being a traditional pilgrimage walk since the 9th Century.

The cathedral holds the relics of St James and some 100,000 pilgrims visit the cathedral on the Feast of St James on 25 July.

The cathedral at Burgos, in the north, is also a stopping point for pilgrims and holds a festival on the Feast of Corpus Christi that attracts large crowds. This cathedral also contains an unusual figure of Christ on the Cross which is venerated because of miracles attributed to it. Made from calf skin, the figure is reputedly extremely ‘life like’ with hair and teeth.

Why pilgrimage?

In understanding what is at the heart of pilgrimage we are guided by some advice from medieval Ireland and it is advice that holds true, whether our destination is Rome or Madrid. It reads: ‘Going to Rome? Going to Rome?/It will bring much trouble, little gain/Your long journey could be in vain/The King you seek will only appear/If in your heart you brought him here.’

It suggests for us that pilgrimage is not about a physical destination but about a relationship. In other words, pilgrimage is not about a practice but a person. This is what sets the Christian pilgrim apart from the tourist.

It is not necessarily the activity of travel which is different for the bags at the airport look the same and the jetlag is just as bad. What separates the tourist and the pilgrim is the intentionality of their journey, the person or relationship that the pilgrim is seeking to grow in by this experience.

The point of travelling through different environments, moving through sacred places, remembering sacred events, meeting different people, even putting up with some of the discomfort of travel, is to deepen our lives in Christ as the One who, paradoxically, journeys in and through us.

Pilgrimage is not about travelling geographical distances but undertaking an interior journey towards the One who is calling us to life. It is to walk the geography of our inner life, a life that cannot be charted by maps or reached by plane. Our physical journey becomes a means of an interior pilgrimage, an opportunity to work out and form our identity in relationship with God.

To make the point, the person who directs their heart towards Christ, even in their armchair at home, travels further than the one who wanders the streets of Madrid without Him.

Pilgrimage is about breaking boundaries in a sense, about leaving behind the ordinary circumstances of our lives, but it is not to remain there. It is to leave the ordinary behind only to come home and enter into our daily experience in a transformed way. It is to come home to our daily experience of Church, our normal relationships, our routines and personal concerns with a new heart.

It is to come home, and like Christ Himself, commit ourselves to the possibility of life in situations of death, of hope in circumstances of despair and sorrow, to live love in the midst of violence and fear, to nurture communion in the midst of isolation and division, whether that is in the school, at home, or in the workplace.

This is the new way of living that pilgrimage promises but only if we have the courage to enter into the full gift and demand of the experience in Madrid.

We might pray for each other in our journey to Madrid this August, that our destination will be so much more than the city of Madrid, that our ultimate destination will be a deeper love for, and friendship with, Christ who offers us a new experience of God and ourselves.

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