The purpose of Christian pilgrimage was summarized by Pope Benedict XVI this way:
To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendour and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe. Above all, Christians go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to the places associated with the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. They go to Rome, the city of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, and also to Compostela, which, associated with the memory of Saint James, has welcomed pilgrims from throughout the world who desire to strengthen their spirit with the Apostle’s witness of faith and love.
“I resonate with that” became an overused phrase and eventually a fun, inside joke for the Ireland Pilgrims during our pilgrimage in 2022 to Ireland and Northern Ireland. Over the course of the 3 years that the Ireland Pilgrims met, there emerged two themes that guided our pilgrimage: Celtic Christianity and the ongoing situation between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. We traveled from Dublin to the northern most point in Northern Ireland, The Coorymeela Peace Centre. As we traveled, we experienced many new ways to look at Christianity and peace and we met with a variety of local experts who guided us on our journey. We met nightly for devotions and with the leadership of our chaperones, the pilgrims shared what “resonated” with them each day: the beauty of nature, the open mindedness of the Celtic Christians and the lasting effects of The Troubles in Belfast. The churches and holy sites we visited did not top their lists.
When we start the pilgrimage journey with the youth at St. John’s, they are in 8th or 9th grade- ages 13-15. By the time they travel (barring global pandemics) they will be in 10th and 11th grade – ages 14 – 16. Many of these kids have never been overseas let alone away from their families for more than a few days. To prepare for their pilgrimage, they attend the Pilgrim meetings weekly, participate in service projects, fundraise, and volunteer at the church. They are beginning to think independently and can make connections they never could before, but they are in the infancy of their life and especially of their faith life. They resonate more with the part of Pope Benedict’s explanation of pilgrimage that says “to go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself”. They resonate less with the part that says, “Above all, Christians go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to the places associated with the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. They go to Rome, the city of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, and also to Compostela, which, associated with the memory of Saint James, has welcomed pilgrims from throughout the world who desire to strengthen their spirit with the Apostle’s witness of faith and love.”
A pilgrimage that will be transformative for many teens does not necessarily mean visiting ancient, spiritual and historical sites. Instead, they are searching for meaning, understanding and for God to reveal God’s self to them in ways that make sense to them. They are searching for independence – can they travel without parents to a foreign land? Can they eat foods that are wildly different from their usuals? Will God be there in the anxiety, the joy, the fear, the newness, and the exhaustion? Please don’t get me wrong, we should, and we DO take the youth to the sacred, spiritual sites, but ultimately, what will resonate with them, what will guide them to search for Christ and choose to live a life of service with Jesus at the center? Maybe it will be on a traditional pilgrimage like the Camino, or maybe it will be from an encounter with a 16-year-old Afghan refugee girl sharing her story in an art studio made for refugees to escape the hot and unsafe camp just a few steps away. God shows up on these pilgrimages. Youth and adults are transformed in ways we could not predict. There are personal and spiritual transformations that occur. Making the St. John’s Pilgrimage inclusive and accessible to all of our youth, means that we have made some changes. However, I promise you, it is worth it! Please come to the Greece Pilgrim’s presentation on Sunday, 10/15, to learn what “resonated” with them and to welcome the new group of pilgrims as they begin their journey of spiritual self-discovery!