Inspiring the spirit: In search of treasures ancient and new

Pilgrimage offers a way to deepen faith  and strengthen communion with others. In our first Inspiring the Spirit column, Sydney Catholic Schools’ Director of Religious Education and Evangelisation, Anthony Cleary, reflects on ways we can grow along the journey.

Later this year Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP will lead his first pilgrimage with members of the Sydney Catholic Schools community, journeying to the Holy Land and to Italy. It will continue a personal practice he established while Bishop of Parramatta and a well-regarded tradition among our Archdiocesan schools.

The practice of pilgrimage offers a source of deep spiritual significance. St John Paul II, often called the ‘Pilgrim Pope’, suggested that pilgrimage offered a way to interior renewal, to a deepening of faith, and a strengthening of communion and solidarity with others. To this end, Sydney Catholic Schools has endeavoured to provide teachers, students and parents with opportunities to go on pilgrimage. Some have journeyed to central Australia, while others have followed the footsteps of St Paul or trekked the famous ‘El Camino’ in Spain. Many others have travelled overseas to participate in World Youth Day, and in doing so – were named ‘pilgrims’.

Pilgrimage experiences are life-changing.

Pilgrimage is central to our story as Christians and to the Church. Sites associated with the life of Jesus and places with a connection to saints have become centres of great spiritual significance. Some of these include: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, Fatima and Guadalupe. The custom and practice of pilgrimage goes to the heart of our humanness and our relationship with God. In a way, the journey we go on represents our deep longing to encounter and know God.

In recent times the practice of pilgrimage has diversified from its traditional religious roots. For many, it is a means of knowing more about their family background and cultural heritage or understanding and expressing their sense of national identity. This is particularly true of young people who travel in unprecedented numbers to historic landmarks and places of national significance, especially the battlefields which have helped shape our national identity and psyche—Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Kokoda Trail. While not ostensibly religious, these sites are very much considered to be sacred places by the young who journey there. They are able to connect with the past and appreciate the legacy to which they are heirs.

While contemporary society often promotes a culture of individualism, many peoples’ search for identity and meaning comes from their being drawn into a deeper relationship with others. Pilgrimages enable this to happen.  Strong interpersonal bonds are forged through shared experiences, especially hardships or compelling religious rituals. At the same time, each pilgrim will see and recall their experiences differently.

The motivations for going on pilgrimage are many and varied. Some pilgrims travel for explicitly religious reasons, inspired by the ‘sacredness’ of the places they will visit. Others are in search of clarification. They are ‘spiritual seekers’, unsure as to what they are looking for or what they might find. They are in search of answers that they cannot find at home and they hope to be changed by the experience.

Many peoples’ search for identity and meaning comes from their being drawn into a deeper relationship with others. Pilgrimages enable this to happen.

One thing is true; pilgrimage experiences are life-changing. While involving a physical journey, pilgrimage more profoundly represents an inner journey of change and growth, often spiritual. If properly travelled it enables the pilgrim to experience a conversion of heart, where attitudes and perceptions are changed and where life is viewed and lived differently. It is this new-found sense of personal meaning and purpose that underpins the adage, ‘the journey is more important than the destination’.

One should not compare the two however, as both the ‘journey’ and the ‘destination’ are inseparable, and they are life-giving elements of the pilgrimage experience.

At a time when growing numbers of people drift away from mainstream religions and question the existence of God, pilgrimage experiences remind us of what it means to be human. While we are each naturally drawn to the unknown and to places of beauty, pilgrimages are different from mainstream tourist experiences. They enable moments of encounter, like that experienced by the two disciples on their journey to Emmaus; ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road?’ (Luke 24:32). Ultimately, it is this encounter that all pilgrims seek, as they respond to the deepest yearnings of the heart.

For the true pilgrim, their journey is a sign of their ‘hungering for God’, a hungering which Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of at the World Youth Day Vigil in Sydney, 2008:

There are times when we might be tempted to seek a certain fulfillment apart from God … but where does this lead? … God is with us in the reality of life, not the fantasy! It is embrace, not escape, we seek!

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