Pilgrims hiking from southern France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. CNS photo/courtesy CaminoDocumentary.org

Speaking Out: The purpose of pilgrimages

By  Vincent Pham
  • June 13, 2019

This past March Break, I found myself as a pilgrim visiting amazing places like Barcelona, Assisi, Siena and the Vatican. It was part of a school trip that Chaminade College School organized for me and 16 of my fellow classmates and it was an amazing life experience. 

More recently, I went on a pilgrimage to Martyrs’ Shrine, the national shrine dedicated to six Jesuit martyrs and two lay people from the Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Midland, Ont.

To the secular eye, religious pilgrimages may seem like just another vacation. But as a faithful Catholic, I believe a pilgrimage is more than just a trip. Pilgrimages are a chance to step out of my day-to-day routine and find a sense of refreshment and renewal. 

Many flock to these pilgrimage sites to venerate the relics of saints, hoping the saints will help them encounter God. Some go on pilgrimage in a spirit of thanksgiving for the blessings in their lives. And some seek spiritual and sometimes physical healing. 

I love going on pilgrimages and it is one of my favourite acts of piety. However, pilgrims (including myself) tend to fall into certain traps that may deprive us of the spiritual experience that pilgrimages are meant to bring. 

So I thought I might share with you some of the tips and lessons I’ve learned so far.

When you step foot into places like St. Peter’s Basilica or the Church of Martyrs’ Shrine, you cannot help but take pictures of the beautiful architecture and art. Sometimes, you go into a place of worship, take pictures and go out. You start thinking about which ones you’re going to be posting on Instagram or other social media. 

We tend to forget that churches and shrines are not meant to be tourist attractions. These are houses of prayer, places to encounter God through the saints. 

I also learned that authentic pilgrimage doesn’t just take financial preparation, but also spiritual preparation. To prepare for my European pilgrimage last March, I got a job to pay for the flight and accommodations, but I also spent time in prayer each day leading up to the date of my departure. 

The personal sacrifices, the hard work and the personal reflection all contributed to the intentionality of my trip. To me, the pre-pilgrimage stage is equally as important as the pilgrimage itself. 

The moments that resonated with me from pilgrimages are not the moments that I took out my camera and snapped a shot of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s difficult for pictures to capture the true essence of what I felt being there. 

The moments that I bring with me are the spiritual moments, like when I was praying in front of the skull of St. Jean de Brébeuf at Martyrs’ Shrine, or when I was contemplating the death of Christ in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta at St. Peter’s Basilica.

For my fellow young people who might be considering a pilgrimage at some point in the near future, the best advice I can give is to be in the moment. 

Don’t try to just capture the moment and save it for later. To be able to stand in a church in the spirit of silent prayer, away from the busy day-to-day life, is beautiful and necessary for the spiritual life.

And after the trip is over, remember that these spiritual activities are not limited to the one-day or 12-day pilgrimage. They are part of a bigger pilgrimage — our earthly pilgrimage. 

We go on pilgrimages, on these spiritual journeys, to remind us of our smallness and frailty as human beings, and to prepare ourselves for the end goal of Heaven. 

Therefore, this summer, as many embark on pilgrimages, let us be mindful of our purpose, so that the pilgrimages we make will bear many spiritual fruits.

(Pham, 18, is a Grade 12 student at Chaminade College School in Toronto.) 

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