On Pilgrimage

As you read this, I’m on pilgrimage in Italy. One of my favorite parts of my job is leading trips to places in important to our Catholic faith. While you might assume it’s my favorite because it means traveling to Europe, seeing the Pope, and eating good food, it’s actually my favorite for a different reason.

I get to experience people experiencing. I get to pray with people as they climb the Holy Stairs on their knees for the first time. I get to see people reach out to touch the Pope as he drives by. I get to witness the joy of people praying in front of the Crib of Our Lord and weep as they see the relics of the Passion.

Each time I take a group over to Rome, I’m shaken out of my own jadedness towards the Eternal City. Anyone who knows me knows I can’t express my love for Rome enough. But familiarity breeds complacency. As the trip approaches, I calm the jitters and answer the questions from people who have never traveled abroad. Both their excitement and concern reminds me of the importance of pilgrimage – something that I fear I take for granted.  Packing for Rome is little different than packing for the East Coast for me, and I can almost do it in my sleep.  I need the reminders of the pilgrims in my charge to awaken me.

That is why I love to experience people experiencing Rome. This is my tenth time hopping on an airplane to Rome (and two of those trips were extended stays for studies), and although each trip has always involved seeing something new, mostly I will revisit places I have been dozens and dozens of times. But I will go there anew – because I will go there with people seeing it for the first time.  I will be at Mass with permanent deacons who have never set foot in Europe – and now are assisting at Mass in the great basilicas of Rome.  I will witness people praying at the tombs of their confirmation saints. I will see people gaze at the Sistine Chapel for the first time.

These experiences are an important part of one’s faith formation. As director of adult formation, I offer speaker series, write bible studies, and film catechetical videos for social media. But these pilgrimages provide formation in a way sitting in a classroom or listening to a podcast never can.  Touching the Catholic faith as one does on pilgrimage is life-changing.  I was abundantly blessed to have parents who realized importance of this, even to the point of taking me out of school for two weeks so that I could travel to France and Italy.  At only fifteen years old, I stepped into St. Peter’s Square for the first time. And although I didn’t know it then, my life would never be the same, thanks to that piazza.

Not everyone has the chance to travel to Europe, and I know that for many, something like seeing the Pope or praying at these sites might always remain on the bucket list. That is why I must never, ever take it for granted. I must never become jaded at the sight of Michelangelo’s dome, rising over the rooftops of Rome.  I must never tire of walking through the Forum on Via Sacra, my steps tracing the steps of our first Pope and St. Paul.  I must never lose the joy I had that very first time I walked into the loving embrace of Bernini’s colonnade.

That is why I bring others. Because I have to experience it for the first time – again.

Pray for my group, as we begin our pilgrimage, and pray for our diocesan seminarian Anthony, who will be ordained on September 28 to the diaconate in St. Peter’s Basilica with his classmates from the North American College.

(And if you’ve never considered a pilgrimage, pray about that, too. You won’t regret it. Especially if you go with my friend Mountain.)

A Story Still Being Written

This spring, four of my friends and I had a mini-reunion. We have all gone our separate ways since college, and it usually takes a wedding to get us all back together. That was the case this time.

As we were all traveling by car or plane to the wedding destination, one of my friends reminded us via group text about the liturgical feast that weekend: Divine Mercy Sunday. Thirteen years earlier, we had spent Divine Mercy Sunday in Paris. Now, the exact same five of us would be spending it together again, for Sarah’s wedding. Where some would see coincidence, I only saw Providence.

How much had changed in thirteen years… and how little had changed. As we stayed up talking into the wee hours of the night before the wedding and danced the night away at the reception, you might have thought nothing had happened in the past decade. Sarah still danced the same, albeit now she was in a big white dress. We still had the same inside jokes, the same laughs, and the same memories. But now there were husbands and babies for some, various careers and professional successes for others, and additional degrees for all of us. There were heartaches and losses, crosses and triumphs, lessons learned through mistakes and maybe a few regrets. The grey hairs poking through and the first signs of wrinkles were signs that the five girls sitting up at 1 am talking about doughnuts had wisdom which the five girls in Paris did not (although we had probably discussed doughnuts then, too). But our friendship had been forged in Christ, and there was a resulting eternal feel to it, despite maybe our own failings here and there.

None of us could have predicted life and its twists and turns. And that’s a lesson not only to look back with, but to look forward with as well.

We are in the midst of the story.

We all have a story, and part of knowing God is knowing our story. But we can’t forget that the story is still being written. Ultimately, it is being written by Him, although looking back we can probably all see the smudges where we tried to take the pen all by ourselves.

As long as we take in breath, that story is in the middle, not the end. And that must give us consolation. Not every story looks like a fairy tale – in fact, contrary to what that grass looks like on the other side of the fence, none do. And no story is the same. But even when the light seems dimmest, the road seems to lead nowhere, or we think we messed up the story – it’s still being written.

And perhaps in those confusing times, looking at the previous chapters is most necessary. Because we can be reminded that just as the joys might be passing, so too are the sorrows. Whenever the present moment seems too heavy, we can look back in the story and remember that no story is stagnant. And every story has marvels that only He could write.

Thirteen years ago, on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, the five of us were standing in a hotel room in Paris, staring as the world news on a tiny French TV told us the only Pope we had ever known had died. We headed back to our home in Rome the next day, knowing our lives would be forever forged by the experiences we were about to have.

Some days, those experiences and graces are forgotten. Other days, they are my life preserver. Did I know in Paris what life would look like 13 years later? Of course not.  I don’t know what the next 13 years will look like, either. And that’s okay. Because if I look hard enough, I see a beautiful story, marked with God’s grace, that is still being written.

Whether you worry about your own future or the future of a child or grandchild; whether it’s a spiritual struggle you’re experiencing or a more earthly need; whether you’re in a joyful time right now or a particularly dark one; the story is still being written.

It was fitting to be reminded of it that weekend, because it’s one of the greatest reminders of God’s mercy. Wheat and weeds are growing side by side right now, the cross and the resurrection seem to be coexisting. But all God asks for is love, hope, and perseverance. Trust Him – He’s still writing the story.

 

 

This post was originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.