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.)