Rob Elford and his son Stephen celebrate the end of their Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Elford is now planning a five-day pilgrimage ending at St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Halifax. Photo courtesy Rob Elford

Five-day Stella Maris Pilgrimage opens new road to re-evangelization

  • July 25, 2019

It was just a regular conversation between a bishop and a pastoral intern, sharing coffee and small talk between Masses. But when it was finished, the Halifax-Yarmouth archdiocese had set in motion its own unique project to pray for the renewal of the local Church.

Rob Elford, the pastoral intern at St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Halifax, was having a coffee with Archbishop Anthony Mancini, chatting about the Church, where it was and where it would be heading. It led Mancini to share memories of a trip he had taken with the late Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte that led them to Belgium about a dozen years ago. The archbishop recalled the local bishop and his intention in re-evangelizing his parishes with specific events held in individual parishes. These were to culminate with parishioners walking to the local cathedral for Mass. 

Mancini saw this as a metaphor for pilgrimage, and that struck a chord with Elford.

“That really obviously stayed with him, the metaphor of people walking from all of the parishes into the cathedral for this specific celebration in hope for the future of the Church,” said Elford.

And it gave him an idea.

“I’ve done the Camino (de Santiago pilgrimage, or the Way of St. James), why don’t I take the pilgrimage piece? And this is where we are,” he said.

Where we are is Elford organizing and leading the archdiocese’s inaugural The Way of Stella Maris Pilgrimage. The five-day, 104-kilometre walk will take pilgrims through trails along the picturesque eastern shore of the archdiocese starting Aug. 10 at Middle Musquodoboit and finishing Aug. 15 at St. Mary’s. The pilgrimage has taken on the Stella Maris name as it ends on the Marian feast day of the Assumption of Mary, which is also the patronal feast day of the archdiocese.

Mancini will join the pilgrims for the home stretch before celebrating Mass at the cathedral. Mass and eucharistic adoration will be part of the daily activities.

Elford has walked the Camino twice, including with his 12-year-old son Stephen, and thinks about the journey often. The Camino is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe that come together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.

“It’s a pleasure to re-offer that locally,” he said.

It fits in nicely with the archdiocese’s pastoral plan, in effect since Jan. 1. Halifax-Yarmouth is undergoing a three-year renewal that will see it transition from its 65 parishes and 25 missions into a new diocese made up of 20 parishes. Inevitably, declining numbers at Mass will mean some church closings as the archdiocese reflects on 200 years in existence and what is to be in the future. 

“Hopefully this pilgrimage will be an opportunity where we can set some time aside for prayer and reflection” in the midst of change and restructuring, said Elford.

On a personal level, he sees pilgrimage as an exploration of the core issues of identity: Who am I? What is my role as a child of God? As a parent?

“It’s time to wrestle with those core issues. Beautifully so.”

The response to the pilgrimage has “been overwhelming,” said Elford. At first, he was hoping to draw 20 people for the journey but has had to cut registration off at 54 as the churches where the pilgrims will overnight along the way cannot accommodate any more. The ages of participants varies widely, with the oldest aged 76. Ten per cent of pilgrims will be over 65 and another 10 per cent under 30.

Elford hopes this plants the seed for an annual event and a post-pilgrimage survey will try to find where improvements can be made. “Based on that feedback we’ll move forward but my hope at this point is it will become an annual event.”

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