Spiritual Aspects of this Jubilee Year of Mercy: Counting on Pilgrimages!

We are continuing our journey into the growth of the three Pastoral Commissions: the Teaching, Sanctifying and Governing Commission respectively. Given the atmosphere of this Jubilee year of Mercy, am undertaking a topic from the Sanctifying Commission; namely Pilgrimages!

To this effect, I am sure each local Ordinary of a diocese has already designated places for this noble act of piety. But people ask how do we prepare ourselves for such acts, what do we do when we are there, why do we make them, how are they connected to a Jubilee Year like this one? From the directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy of 2001, Mother Church gives us some aspects of a good pilgrimage.

The Eschatological Dimension

Pilgrimages remind us that we are pilgrims on earth, going to our heavenly homeland. They afford an opportunity for us to take greater between the obscurity of the faith and the thirst for the vision of clarity, tribulation and the desire for everlasting life, the weariness of the journey and the rest awaiting, between exile and homeland, between frenetic activity and contemplation. Scripture stipulates it well: There is no eternal city for us in this life (Heb. 14, 14), and that beyond the immediate objective of a particular shrine and across the desert of life, we find our true Promised Land, in heaven.

Penitential dimension

Pilgrimage is also a journey of conversion or penitential act. In journeying towards a shrine the pilgrim moves from a realisation of his own sinfulness and of his attachment to unnecessary things to interior freedom and the deeper meaning of life. As has already been said, a pilgrimage to a shrine can be a propitious occasion for the faithful and is often undertaken in order to avail of the Sacrament of Penance.

When we return home from a genuine pilgrimage, we would have felt that we are amending our life, and ordering it more closely to God, thus living it in a more transcendent way.

Festive dimension.

The festive dimension also lies at the heart of pilgrimage, and arises from many anthropological reasons. The joy of a Christian pilgrimage is a continuation of the joy experienced on Israel's pious pilgrimage to Jerusalem: I rejoiced when I heard them say: 'let us go up to God's house (Ps 122, 1). This is why a pilgrimage can be a good break from the monotony of daily routine; thus alleviating of the burdens of everyday life. Often it is an occasion to express our fraternity, in moments of friendship meeting each other and spontaneity.

Worship dimension.

Pilgrimage is essentially an act of worship: a pilgrim goes to a shrine to encounter God, to be in His presence, and to offer Him adoration in worship, and to open one’s heart to Him. During visits to the shrine, the pilgrim completes many acts of worship which are properly Liturgical or drawn from popular piety. One performs different kinds of prayer: prayers of praise and adoration to the Lord for his goodness and holiness; prayers of thanksgiving for the gifts he has given; prayers in discharge of a vow; prayers imploring the graces necessary in life; prayers asking for forgiveness of sins committed.

Frequently, the pilgrim's prayers are directed to Our Lady, or to the Angels and Saints who are regarded as powerful intercessors with God. The icons venerated at pilgrim shrines are signs of the presence of the Mother of God and the Saints who surround the Lord in his glory, "living for ever to intercede for us" (Heb. 7, 25), and always present in the community gathered in his name (Mt 18, 20; 28, 20). Sacred images, whether of Christ, his Mother, the Angels and Saints, are signs of the divine presence and of God's provident love; they bear witness to the prayers of generations raised up to God in supplication, to the sighs of the afflicted, and to the thankful joy of those who have received grace and mercy.

Apostolic dimension

The pilgrim's journey, in a certain sense, recalls the journey of Christ and his disciples as they travelled throughout Palestine to announce the Gospel of salvation. In this perspective, pilgrimage is a proclamation of faith in which pilgrims become "errant heralds of Christ.

Dimension of communion

The pilgrim who journeys to a shrine is in a communion of faith and charity not only with those who accompany him on the "sacred journey" (Ps 84, 6), but with the Lord himself who accompanies him as he once accompanied the disciples on the road to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24, 13-35). He travels with his own community and through that community, he journeys with the Church in heaven and on earth. He travels with all of the faithful who have prayed at that shrine down through the centuries. He appreciates the natural beauty which surrounds the shrine and which he is moved to respect. The pilgrim journeys with mankind whose sufferings and hopes are so clearly evident at the shrine, especially as represented through art.

Conducing a Pilgrimage

As the shrine is a place of prayer, a pilgrimage is a journey of prayer. Each stage of the pilgrim journey should be marked by prayer and the Word of God should be its light and its guide, its food and its sustenance.

The success of a pilgrimage, seen as an act of worship, and of the spiritual fruits deriving from it, require careful planning of the various celebrations that will take place during the pilgrimage, and adequate highlighting of their various phases.

The beginning of the pilgrimage should be an occasion of prayer, preferably in the parish Church or in some other suitable church, with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist or a part of the Liturgy of the Hours or with a special blessing for pilgrims.

The final stage of the pilgrimage should be characterised by intense prayer. It should preferably, be travelled on foot in processional form, and interspersed with prayer, hymns and pauses at the shrines marking the rout to the sanctuary.

The reception of the pilgrims could be a suitable moment for a "threshold liturgy", placing the pilgrims and the keepers of the shrine in a perfect context of faith; where possible, the latter should join with the pilgrims in the final phase of the pilgrim journey.

The time spent in the sanctuary constitutes the most important part of the pilgrimage and should be marked by a commitment to conversion, ratified by reception of the Sacrament of Penance; by private prayer of thanksgiving, supplication, or of intercession, in accordance with the nature of the shrine or the objectives of the pilgrimage; by celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which is the climax of the pilgrimage.

The conclusion of the pilgrimage should be marked by a moment of prayer, either in the shrine itself or at the church from which the pilgrimage departed. The pilgrims should give thanks to God for the gift of the pilgrimage and ask the Lord for his assistance in living out the Christian vocation more generously when they return to their homes.

From antiquity, pilgrims have always brought home souvenirs of their pilgrimage, in recollection of the shrine that they had visited. Care should be taken to ensure that object, images, and books available in shrines transmit authentically the spirit of the shrine. Care should also be taken to ensure that shops or stalls are not set up within the sacred space of the sanctuary, and that even the appearance of commerce be excluded.

Adapted from the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, Vatican City, December 2001

Fr. Dr. Deogratias Ssonko

Pastoral Commissioner, Kampala Archdiocese