Pilgrimage reminds us of our lifelong journey to the Father’s house
In this week’s interview, communication manager David Hazen speaks with Archbishop George J. Lucas about his recent pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and Fatima, Portugal, organized by Spirit Catholic Radio.
Q: You recently returned from a pilgrimage to several holy sites in Europe. Could you tell us a bit about the trip and what you found most striking?
There were close to 150 people in the group – many of them from our region of Nebraska, and some from other parts of the country. The pilgrimage was organized by Spirit Catholic Radio and they invited me to participate in it.
We were blessed to visit some of what might be considered popular and historic pilgrimage places in southwestern Europe. I was happy to go for a number of reasons, particularly because I had never had the chance to visit any of these places before. We began in Lourdes, in Southern France, traveled into Spain to Santiago de Compostela, and then on to Fatima, Portugal. A lot of us had looked forward to being able to end our pilgrimage in Fatima and to celebrate at least a part of the apparitions’ 100th anniversary year.
It was a privilege for me to be able to celebrate Mass in the places where Our Lady had appeared to very simple young people, both in Lourdes and in Fatima. The other pilgrims talked about what a privilege it was for them, too, to be able to attend Mass in those places. You almost have to pinch yourself at some point when you think of where you are, and not only what happened there once, but what continues to happen as a result of Mary’s intercession and the prayers of pilgrims from all over the world.
It was also very moving to visit Santiago de Compostela, the shrine to St. James in Spain, which for many, many centuries has been a destination for pilgrims on foot. Pilgrims were going there long before the apparitions at either Lourdes or Fatima.
I celebrated Mass there, and I found out just a few minutes before Mass began that it had to be celebrated in Spanish. So I was very grateful to our Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters here in the archdiocese who have helped me at least to be able to celebrate Mass in Spanish.
Q: Obviously, people travel to Europe to see beautiful places all the time, for all sorts of different reasons. In what ways does traveling as a pilgrim differ from traveling as a vacationer or tourist?
A pilgrimage is different from a vacation, although they share some common experiences. On our pilgrimage, we had a very good time. We shared great fellowship and we had a lot of fun. We saw interesting sights and scenery and enjoyed nice meals together.
The intention of going on this pilgrimage, however, was really spiritual renewal. That’s the distinction. A pilgrimage is a beautiful reminder to us that our life is a pilgrimage and that we are on a lifelong journey to our Father’s house. We get distracted by many things and by the busyness of every day. The opportunity to take some time out for a spiritual pilgrimage has some of the same effect that a retreat has. It enables us to begin to think again about the things that are most important, and to recognize that the providence of God is guiding us on our pilgrim way through life.
We had the blessing of celebrating the feasts of All Saints and All Souls while we were on this pilgrimage. Those feast days, as much as anything, help remind us that we’re part of a great line of pilgrims from the first generation of the church to the present day.
On the Feast of All Saints, we happened to be in the town of Burgos in Spain. They have a beautiful cathedral there, and we celebrated Mass in one of the chapels. It became a beautiful meditation on not only the feast day, but also on the truth of our pilgrimage in this life. The congregation was facing a beautiful gilded altar piece that was designed to provide a glimpse of the glory of heaven. And as they faced the altar, it enabled them to be focused on the goal of life’s pilgrimage, the eternal life of heaven.
As the celebrant for the Mass, I was facing the other direction. And my view was of a huge stone baptismal font at the rear of the chapel, which of course is the origin of the pilgrimage, the beginning of our life in Christ which ultimately leads to full life in our Father’s house. That was a good reflection for all of us, and I pointed that out to our group later on.
The point of celebrating All Saints Day, the point of thinking about our earthly pilgrimage, is that when we begin the pilgrimage at baptism, it’s as if God is announcing his plan for us. He’s announcing to us and to the whole church, "I plan for this young man, this young woman, to be a saint." And that is the invitation to put our feet on the path that follows Jesus, which leads to eternal life. So if we don’t interfere with God’s plan, then that promise of God, that commitment of his, bringing us, adopting us into his family, it will come to fulfillment at the end of our earthly pilgrimage.
Q: What insights would you offer to those who might see such a pilgrimage as being inaccessible to them? How can we incorporate a pilgrim spirituality into our daily lives?
Not everybody has the means or the time to travel overseas. It’s a great tradition in our faith to make a sacrifice in order to do that, and often people who don’t have great means will save over time so that a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or Lourdes, or Fatima might be possible.
That said, it still isn’t possible for everybody. So I really encourage everyone in the archdiocese to think about how they might organize a pilgrimage that is doable. Whether with your family, a group of families, or a group of friends, try to travel at least a bit because the experience of going somewhere enriches our understanding of pilgrimage.
There’s something particularly helpful about traveling with others. It’s certainly possible to do a pilgrimage on one’s own, of course. However, I found on this pilgrimage, that it is a little more like real life when we’re in a group. When God invites us to be his sons and daughters through baptism, we’re incorporated into the Body of Christ. We’re not flying solo on life’s pilgrimage. There are moments when we’re able to be alone, and those can be important moments of reflection and prayer. But most of the time, day by day, there are fellow pilgrims and they’re not always of our choosing. We interact with others and try to help them along the way, and allow ourselves to be helped when we need it. That’s a dynamic that you see very beautifully when you’re traveling in a group of pilgrims.
If one works to organize even a small pilgrimage – for instance, a family going together for a day, or half a day to some holy place – there is a dynamic that takes place when there’s time for prayer together that enriches us in a way that is different from what happens when we’re by ourselves.
So we can grow in holiness not necessarily by trying harder, but by trying something different. A pilgrimage is a bit of a different experience. Some of my happiest memories of this recent pilgrimage are of the times that we prayed together. One day we were in Fatima, walking from where the bus had parked, to the place where the three young children had an apparition of an angel. We had to walk some distance, and so we were praying the rosary along the way. There’s something special about walking in a group, praying together. I think it does intensify the experience of prayer when we can do it with others.
While we know that we may all be at different points on our own journeys of faith through life, we come with our own intentions and with our joys and our sorrows, and all that comes together in our prayer. It’s a blessing that we can’t calculate exactly, but it’s experienced in the midst of that group of faith-filled people on a little journey.
One of the characteristics of a pilgrimage is that it’s an experience of not being in control – particularly if you travel far from home. Someone else makes the arrangements and you have to trust in somebody who’s guiding you to get from one place to the next. There’s a kind of poverty in that, a sense of just being disposed and not being in control that gives us greater receptivity to what God will offer us.