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Our Pilgrim Journey


Mary Deturris Poust

Visitors walk through St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Max Rossi)

During a recent 10-day trip to Rome, my first visit to St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City was somewhat disappointing. It was a Tuesday, and I was crammed against thousands of other tourists, frustrated and unable to get near Michelangelo's Pietà or the main altar. There was no way I could spend any time in quiet prayer, so I vowed to come back and experience the basilica as a church instead of a museum.

The trip was not arranged as a pilgrimage, but I hoped that it would become one for me. I planned and prayed and planned some more, but it didn't take long for me to realize that without a willingness to step outside the tourist box, my "pilgrimage" was going to turn into a parade of indistinguishable ancient churches and artwork.

The next morning at 7 a.m., I returned to St. Peter's with a friend. At this early hour, we were the only ones going through security, and once inside, we had the entire basilica almost to ourselves. In each of the numerous chapels that line the sides of the basilica, priests — many of them tourists themselves — were celebrating Mass in various languages. My friend and I became a two-person congregation in a chapel where a Nigerian priest was offering Mass in Italian.

This was the St. Peter's I had longed to experience, where the heart of the Catholic faith could be felt beating powerfully in the familiar refrains of the Mass, even if the languages were unfamiliar to my ears. I even had the opportunity to go to confession during my visit to the basilica. There, under Michelangelo's dome, I found my pilgrim moment.


"A pilgrimage is first and foremost a metaphor for our life," write María Ruiz Scaperlanda and Michael Scaperlanda, co-authors of The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim (2004). "In real life, we have to make deliberate choices that make our life reflect our values, to live out what we believe. Our 'maps' include the Mass, daily Scripture readings, daily prayer, the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and reconciliation), a spiritual director, retreats — all giving us directions to point us in the way of truth. So it makes sense that when we go on a pilgrimage we be deliberate about making choices that remind us constantly that this is not just a tourist trip."

The authors offer pilgrimage tips based on their own experience: Make daily Mass a part of your routine as often as possible. If you're on a tour or with other people who are not pilgrims, take a moment when you visit a church or holy site to sit quietly and say a simple prayer. Bring spiritual reading with you. Keep a journal, especially noting how you experienced God in your day. And approach each day with this request: "Here I am, Lord. Show me what message you have for me in whatever happens today."

It may take some creative thinking to get a true pilgrim experience. Talk to locals and find out when the church or shrine is less crowded. Ask when Masses or other special services will be celebrated. Try to enter into the local community's celebrations rather than watching from the outside. The extra effort can make the difference between going home with nothing more than a few nice photos and returning with a sense of spiritual renewal.


It is easy to romanticize the idea of a pilgrimage, to turn it into something larger than life — something to experience only when the money, the time and the stamina allow for one to travel to a far-off country and see the great spiritual sites. We imagine places like the Holy Land, and file our pilgrimage plans away on a spiritual bucket list.

But what if you're unable to travel even a short distance? Do you have to miss out on the pilgrim journey? Not at all. We are all called to be pilgrims, walking a path toward God no matter where we are. Some may walk hundreds of miles along the famed Santiago de Compostela in Spain or wade into the waters at Lourdes. But many more will make their pilgrim journeys much closer to home.

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The reality is that a true pilgrimage does not even require a passport. True pilgrimage is as much an interior journey as a geographical one. Living with a pilgrim mindset, we can find places that will feed our hearts and spirits just about everywhere we turn — from the little shrine in the next town to the cathedral in our diocese to that historic church near our favorite vacation spot. Even the mundane events of daily life can become one more leg on a pilgrim journey that will last a lifetime.

Making a pilgrimage is too important to our spiritual growth to save it for "some day." Instead, we have to look for ways to build pilgrimages into our lives the way they are now. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to become pilgrims without leaving the confines of our own diocese, state or country.


My first "real" pilgrim journey was to the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y., where Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was born and where St. Isaac Jogues, St. René Goupil and St. John Lalande were martyred. This beautiful and sacred place overlooks the Mohawk Valley and is only 45 minutes from my home. Nonetheless, it took me eight years to "discover" it, and even then it was only because I joined my son's Boy Scout troop for their annual retreat there.

When I awoke to a frosty fall morning, I could see dozens of campfires dotting the field and hundreds of Knights of Columbus from New York State arriving at the shrine for their own annual pilgrimage. Knights and Scouts crossed paths throughout the day — on the Way of the Cross, while waiting to go to confession and while viewing a pro-life display. Our shared faith was vibrant and visible.

Walking on holy ground, praying with other pilgrims, sleeping in a tent not far from the ravine where St. René Goupil was killed in 1642 for teaching the faith, gave me my first taste of just how powerful the pilgrim journey can be. I felt a sense of oneness with everyone around me, with all those who came before me and all those would follow.


Mary DeTurris Poust is an author, blogger and columnist. Her most recent book is The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass (Alpha 2011).