Post by Denise Bossert
Like Simeon and the Magi, the Church has always known the simple truth: we are on a quest to encounter the Lord. This truth turns Magi into pilgrims. It sends Simeon and Anna into the Temple. It turned St. Helena and St. Francis of Assisi into Holy Land trailblazers. The Church takes up the call to be a pilgrim people who go to the places where Mary and Jesus have been.
This faith quest goes back even further. To a man called from Ur of the Chaldeans. To Ruth who followed Naomi out of Moab. To the Israelites called back from exile. We see it as the page turns from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. The Blessed Virgin Mary is inspired to visit Elizabeth and leave behind a disbelieving Nazareth. The Holy Family is directed to flee into Egypt, away from Herod’s rule and the murder of the Holy Innocents.
While it is part of Church tradition, and reaches back into the depths of salvation history, pilgrimage is not a strong part of the American Catholic schema. We go on retreats. We do parish missions. But pilgrimage is also necessary for the Catholic soul.
Bill Howard, former editor for The Colorado Catholic Herald, believes in making pilgrimages. “A pilgrimage reminds us how universal the Church is and challenges us to see the Lord working through different traditions and practices than our own. A pilgrimage gives you a much greater appreciation for the beautiful history and teachings of the Catholic Church.”
I met Bill Howard last May when we both traveled to the Holy Land with the Catholic Press Association as guests of the Israel Ministry of Tourism (IMOT). “I loved the Israel Ministry trip,” he says, which he describes as a fast-paced overview of the Holy Land and an intense media immersion surrounding the Holy Father’s visit. “One had to work to make private pilgrimage moments.” Bill encountered one of those sacred moments on the Sea of Galilee.
The Sea of Galilee is a favorite pilgrimage site. The faithful gaze at the shoreline where Christ walked. They look across the water and think of a night when another boat was so tossed about by storms that even seasoned fishermen were terrified. They replay the Lord’s words and remember how even the wind and the waves obeyed his command. Our Lord calls to them.
Bill Howard believes in pilgrimage, whether it is deliberately seeking out moments while on a trip to Uganda or to the Holy Land or while on a cross-country trek that includes a side visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help near Green Bay, Wisconsin. “There is a great purification in the journey to a sacred place.”
My second visit to the Holy Land was thoroughly a pilgrimage. We began our day with prayer and had daily Mass in places like the Basilica of the Annunciation (Nazareth) and the Church of the Visitation (Ein Kerem). One night in Bethlehem, we participated in a program called Sharing the Bread, in which pilgrims meet in the homes of Palestinian Christians. Thirty years ago, the Christian population in Bethlehem was ninety percent. Now, they make up just two percent of the population. Why do they stay? They stay because this is the birthplace of their Lord Jesus. It is an inheritance on a spiritual level, and even if things are difficult, they will stay. And we will have holy sites to visit on pilgrimage because of their faithfulness.
Select International Tours and Cruises, a premier pilgrimage company, created the Select to Give Foundation. The shared-meal program is part of that foundation. The meal was the full expression of pilgrimage, which is about people, lodging, and culture, and how these things have a divine synergy. They expand our hearts and help us to see Christ beyond our parish, beyond our diocese, beyond our country.
Each year, a group from the Holy Land sells olive wood carvings at my parish. Even then, I never specifically thought about Palestinian Christians. To be honest, until the trip with the IMOT, I didn’t even realize Bethlehem was in Palestinian territory. In May, I met Palestinian Christians, and I found their stories to be compelling. They became real to me. I let them into my heart. Pilgrimages lead to conversion, to metanoia. A change of heart and mind. Now, I have faces with names, people with homes and stories that will remain with me always.
When I converted, nobody could keep me quiet about this gift of our Catholic faith. A similar thing has happened to me when it comes to pilgrimage. Some say that going on a pilgrimage is dangerous. And then they look at me strangely because I don’t strike them as the kind of person who courts danger. I’m not into extreme sports. I don’t have a death wish. I’m from their parish, their archdiocese, their state. They had me pegged as the reclusive writer.
I feel safe the entire time I’m on pilgrimage. Yes, even in the Holy Land, I felt safe every moment. We are a pilgrimage people. It is who we are. It is in our DNA. Just one pilgrimage makes a person remember that.
As Catholic journalists and bloggers, we need to be trailblazers like St. Helena and St. Francis of Assisi. We can open the doors on this aspect of Catholic life that is under-utilized in our culture.
As writers, we can introduce them to these amazing pilgrimage destinations. As photojournalists, we can capture the beauty and grandeur of the people and the places that Jesus and His Blessed Mother chose to visit.
Let’s remind the faithful that we are a pilgrimage people. And then, let’s lead the way. People who make one pilgrimage want to make another one and another one. I’m planning pilgrimages to Mexico and the Holy Land in 2015 and plan to join pilgrimages to Knock and Lourdes as soon as I am able to fit them into my schedule.
Denise is a convert to the Catholic Church. She is the daughter of a Protestant minister. In 2005, she converted to Catholicism after reading books by Carmelite saints. Her syndicated column called Catholic by Grace has been published in 63 diocesan newspapers. She has also written for Catholic magazines and appeared on EWTN’s Journey Home and Women of Grace. She is a Catholic travel writer and pilgrimage leader with Select International Tours and Cruises. Her first book is entitled Gifts of the Visitation and explores the Blessed Mother’s journey from Nazareth to Ein Kerem where she remained with St. Elizabeth for three months prior to the birth of St. John the Baptist. Website: denisebossert.com
Denise Bossert, Catholic columnist & author