I have been thinking about pilgrimage lately.
The growing popularity of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has put the whole idea of pilgrimage on the radar screen for many people who might never have thought about undertaking a pilgrimage before. A recent New York Times story relates that 240,000 pilgrims are expected this year on the Camino, as it is called, compared to 423 pilgrims who were certified as completing the route in 1984. 215,880 pilgrims completed the route last year alone. Is pilgrimage becoming a revived category of meaning today?
Just this week, I heard from a friend who lives in Versailles, France, who described to me a parish pilgrimage in honor of the baptism of the parish’s patron Saint, St. Louis. 1,300 parishioners joined the walk, which could be as long as 15 miles or as short as 1,000 feet. Again, the number of participants was impressive. The pilgrimage was punctuated with reflections on one’s own baptism as well as the baptism of the parish’s patron saint. Texts taken from the Church’s rite of baptism for adults provided inspiration along the way. Getting to know other parishioners on the pilgrimage was also a benefit my friend derived from this experience.
I see a connection between pilgrimage and two other phenomena in the Church today.
First, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults talks about faith as a journey. Initiation is an iterative process. There is a path and a goal, but the journey takes as long as it takes. As the rite says, “nothing can be determined a priori.” The journey unfolds in stages, a concept very congenial to human sensibilities about life as a journey and faith as an unfolding story of discovery and relationship.
Second, this reminds me of the popularity of the labyrinth as a spiritual exercise. Again, it is an exercise that relies on walking. Those who walk the labyrinth report a spiritual mystery unfolds within themselves as they follow the path–not focusing so much on the end point as on the next step. They trust that they will reach the center of the labyrinth and spiral out again (back into everyday life). The walk is an icon of the experience of faith.
Although pilgrimages are not per se liturgical exercises, it seems to me that they are related to liturgical spirituality. The Book of Blessings has a rite of blessing for pilgrims. Yet even more fundamentally, the liturgy as a whole is about blessing pilgrims on their journey — from the moment of their call to faith until the day they reach journey’s end. A pilgrim is not someone wandering and confused but someone on an intentional journey. It was in this sense that the Second Vatican Council called the Church a pilgrim people (LG 48, GS 57).