The Nick and Sharon Christie family found the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Massachusetts, not far from their Connecticut home, a perfect place for a one-day pilgrimage.
In Northeast Wisconsin, countless people have made a day pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in New Franken for over 151 years, ever since our Blessed Mother appeared there in 1859.
On a regular basis, individuals, families and larger groups drive from nearby cities, towns and states for a spiritual day or even few hours at the National Blue Army Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Washington, N.J.
In each case, the message is the same: A pilgrimage doesn’t have to be to a faraway place for a week or more. A pilgrimage can also be a local one for a day to a shrine — or cathedral etc. — in your own vicinity, diocese or state next door.
Father John Doerfler, the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help and vicar general of the Green Bay Diocese, explains: “Pilgrimages are matters of opening our hearts to God. That can happen whether the pilgrimage is of a short distance or of a longer distance. If one doesn’t respond to God’s grace and open one’s heart to him, the distance doesn’t matter.”
St. John Chrysostom, who stressed the worth of visiting places of saints and Rome itself, also said there was “need for none to cross the seas or fare upon a long journey; let each of us at home invoke God earnestly, and he will hear our prayer.”
Pope Benedict XVI continues to make local pilgrimages, such as his day visit in 2006 to the Shrine of the Holy Face in Manoppello, Italy.
A local pilgrimage shouldn’t simply be a quick visit for a short prayer. Father Doerfler shares guidelines for the character of a pilgrimage, even a short, local one.
“The whole purpose of a pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to deepen one’s relationship with the Lord,” he explains. “In this light it would be quite important for someone to have some significant time of prayer at the site of the pilgrimage.” It could include a favorite devotion, novena, meditation on sacred Scripture, or any devotion proper to the shrine being visited. Depending on the shrine or church’s scheduling, day pilgrims should also try to make Mass and confession a significant part of the experience.
At the National Blue Army Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, executive director Michael La Corte often sees that pilgrims who might be uncomfortable confessing to a priest they know have no problem doing so with the priest there.
“So many return to their faith through a pilgrimage to our shrine,” La Corte finds. Regularly, people away 20 to 40 years come back to the sacrament of reconciliation while there.
On the Christies’ weekday pilgrimage to the Divine Mercy shrine, they not only went to confession and Mass, but joined in a procession around the property with pilgrims carrying banners, flowers and a statue of Our Lady and prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3 o’clock.
“We were amazed how many hours the kids spent in the chapel,” Sharon Christie says of their five children, ages 1 to 10. “They were so in awe. When you take the kids to see something holy and majestic, they’re so taken with it. Our children find that exciting.”
There are practical reasons for a local pilgrimage, too. It’s easy on travel expenses, considering soaring gas prices.
The Christies also like the short drive from their home to the Lourdes shrine of Litchfield, Conn. The family loves the outdoor grotto. Here, they pack a picnic lunch, visit the Blessed Sacrament, pray a Rosary as a family, and enjoy the grounds.
At the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, there are many quiet places for prayer: a number of chapels, statues of saints, outdoor Stations of the Cross and Rosary Garden for meditation, reflection and prayer, “where you can let the weight of the world come off your shoulders,” notes La Corte, “and the spirituality from above fill you with grace and peace. All you have to do is come here, wash yourself clean of the outside world you live in every day, let heaven do its work, and you leave spiritually recharged.”
Besides a day as an individual or family, pilgrims can join with others for particular spiritual events, like this shrine’s celebration of the Fatima apparitions each 13th of the month from May to October or for numerous events like Padre Pio Day.
People can make a local pilgrimage for any variety of reasons. Father Doerfler finds that many come seeking Our Lady’s intercession for physical healing, conversion of family members, healing of marriages or finding employment.
“People have also come to the shrine in pilgrimages of thanksgiving to God for the good work God has done in their lives,” he says. “It’s important for us to remember and not take for granted the many graces that God gives to us every day. So it’s also of great value and importance to make a pilgrimage of thanksgiving — just to do God honor and give him thanks.”
That’s exactly what Sandy Gasse and her seven children, from 2 to 21, of Wolcott, Conn., did recently. Her husband and their father, Christopher, died two years ago. “On the second anniversary we made a trip to the Divine Mercy shrine for the intention of thanksgiving to God for taking care of him,” Gasse explains. “The beautiful pilgrimage was very healing for the children.”
These little trips on his birthday or anniversary in thanksgiving for him are part of the local pilgrimages the Gasse family takes during the year. Recently they took a short drive to the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., to see relics of John Paul II on display.
“We also did that trip for the graces with Divine Mercy,” she says. With another family with them, the children “said a Chaplet of the Divine Mercy before an image of the Divine Mercy John Paul II blessed. The children prayed by his relics and asked his intercession. We do things like that often, mostly at shrines.” They also enjoyed the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine in New York state.
“It helps them to understand and know they have these friends in heaven they can go to who assist us,” says Gasse.
In making local pilgrimages, Father Doerfler advises: “It’s also helpful to wrap the travel time in prayer.” On the way, he proposes the Rosary. Also en route, a parent “could talk to the children about the place they are going and use that for catechesis.”
He says games and activities with a catechetical context could be helpful during the journey to prepare for the visit. And pilgrims young and old can think of people to pray for at the shrine or the church they’re heading to.
The Christies, who start with a traveling prayer for the intercession of Sts. Joseph and Christopher, usually pray the Rosary in the car, often playing Vinny Flynn’s Still Waters Rosary CD for meditation.
Christie says: “The children will draw into the mystery while praying it. It helps engage the little ones.”
Driving to the Divine Mercy shrine, she read to the children “excerpts of the Diary of St. Faustina of the visions of Jesus and words he spoke to her. We thought it a good idea to do that and talk to them about God’s message of Divine Mercy and how she’s an important saint for people today.”
The family also makes special visits during the week to next-door New Haven to the Shrine of the Infant of Prague in St. Mary’s Church, which is also their parish and the church where Servant of God Father Michael McGivney is entombed.
Gasse offers another local possibility: significant churches. The family once lived near Corpus Christi Church in Port Chester, N.Y., which has a momentous photographic replication of the Shroud of Turin on exhibit, plus a life-sized statue of Our Lord depicting the wounds represented on the shroud.
She says, “We talked so much about it. When would you be in the presence of the Shroud of Turin (otherwise)? It was so grace-filled. Sometimes you’re unaware of what’s in your own back yard.”
But making local pilgrimages can change that — and remarkably enhance spiritual lives.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.