The Theology of Pilgrimage — Our Path Home to Heaven

COMMENTARY: There is something transformative about venturing out, away from the comfort of your home, to intentionally seek the Lord and encounter him anew.

World Youth Day pilgrims pray before the Eucharist during the vigil Aug. 20, 2011, at Cuatro Vientos Airport in Madrid.
World Youth Day pilgrims pray before the Eucharist during the vigil Aug. 20, 2011, at Cuatro Vientos Airport in Madrid. (photo: Lorna Cruz / CNA/EWTN)

Every single one of us is a pilgrim on a journey. For us Christians, as Pope St. John Paul II said, this journey should ultimately lead us to the heart of the Father. 

But do we truly believe that? 

Too often, we can get lost in the demands and routines of our everyday lives. That is why pilgrimages to holy sites are so important. As far back as Abraham, we hear stories of God inviting people to leave their homeland and to travel to an anointed site. To this day, our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to Mecca. There is something transformative about venturing out, away from the comfort of your home, to intentionally seek the Lord and encounter him anew.

At this very moment, hundreds of thousands of young people are preparing for a pilgrimage of a lifetime. Following the tradition of St. John Paul II, Pope Francis is inviting the Catholic youth of the world to join him this summer for World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. I’ve been blessed to participate in seven World Youth Days, and I’d like to offer some thoughts on taking a pilgrimage — whether you’ll be traveling to the 2023 World Youth Day or not.

One important part of a pilgrimage is intercession. Praying for our intentions — and those of loved ones not able to accompany us — helps us listen for the still, small voice of God in our lives and leads to deeper conversion. 

At World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, my group stopped at Lourdes. There, pilgrims from so many different countries were coming to bathe in the waters and ask for God’s healing from illness. Although some were not physically healed, they still experienced the special grace of spiritual healing from taking their journey in faith.

Along with intercession is penance. Historically, if an individual had committed some serious sin, he or she could trek to a holy site and offer the pain and discomfort of the journey in atonement. Today, we might not seek out pilgrimages for the same reason. Nevertheless, pilgrimages are not without their difficulties — travel mishaps, long days, unpredictable weather. If we offer our struggles to God, he can and will do great things. 

I recall my World Youth Day in Madrid. The vigil Mass took place on one of the hottest days of the summer. Scorching heat and lack of shade made for several grueling hours — that is, until a thunderstorm broke right as we were going to bed. The teens I was with handled it so well. They began naming the person for whom they were offering up their discomfort: “This is for my mom who has cancer” or “for my brother who has left the faith.” It was a very difficult but very graced night. 

Another aspect to pilgrimages is the solidarity. When we go on pilgrimage, we are more present to those around us and to our fellow pilgrims. Sharing a common experience, a common purpose, and a common worship and prayer life creates a profoundly powerful bond of community. This is especially true for World Youth Day, when young people come together from across the world for a single purpose. And we don’t just form a deeper connection with our immediate travel partners. We also feel more connected to the millions of pilgrims and saints who have gone before us in the faith.

Lastly, pilgrimages are opportunities for thanksgiving. I absolutely love being a priest. My vocation is a pure gift. For my 10th ordination anniversary, I wanted to do something to show Christ my deep gratitude for allowing me to share in his priesthood. So I decided walking 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago — an ancient route to the burial site of St. James the Apostle — was a good way to say, “Thank you.” 

When you walk 17 miles per day, every day, you have lots of time to pray. Each morning, I would ask God to show me who I should pray for, who I should offer the day’s struggle for, who needed grace. I was amazed; some of the people who came to mind were men and women I had not thought of for decades. But, for one reason or another, God placed them on my heart. It was a blessing to pray for them, and the journey made me even more grateful to be a spiritual father.

Going on pilgrimage does something to our hearts and to how we see the world. Yes, we often go on pilgrimages intentionally looking for God. But, in the process, our vision sharpens. We begin to see him in places where we didn’t before. We realize how he is present in our families, our homes, our workplaces and our parishes. We let go a little bit more and give God a little more room to work in our lives.

So, I encourage you to go on pilgrimage. You don’t need to go to Lourdes, Fatima, Rome or the Holy Land (but if you can, totally do it!). You can visit the cathedral in your diocese for an afternoon. Or perhaps take a trip to a local shrine. Or even just spend an evening in an adoration chapel. 

Do something intentional that takes you out of your ordinary routine. Seek to encounter Jesus. You will be amazed what God can do in your heart and the ways he will make himself known to you. Buen Camino.

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