The power of pilgrimage

Over the past few weeks a number of our parishioners have been on pilgrimage some to Lourdes and others to Medjugorge. There is also a group going to Knock this coming week. The first question that gets asked when you return home is: ‘How did you get on’, and the inevitable did you have a good time? My answer is that if you go on a pilgrimage simply to have a good time, and even if you succeed, you have entirely missed the point of being there in the first place. To simply go for a good time is just to seek entertainment with a religious flavor.

There is a strong tradition of pilgrimage in our Christian faith that stretches right back to the Old Testament when the first pilgrim, Abraham, our Father in Faith, was called by God to set out on a journey of faith not knowing where he was going but to a land that God would show him. Our own pilgrimage here stretches back to the 6th century and is one of the earliest Marian pilgrimages in the world because Marian devotion was only then beginning to become popular. it was not a big feature of the very early church when Mary was not given such an exalted status as in later centuries and up to that time it was widely accepted that Christ had brothers and sisters.

One of the places we visited while in Medjugorje was the Palace of Diocletian in Split. He was the Roman emperor who from 290–310 was responsible for the last of the great persecutions of the early Christians. Indirectly he was the one responsible for the Pilgrimage here in Our Lady’s Island. Fleeing from his reign of terror some of those early followers emerged from the catacombs and got on board ships plying the trade routes that would take them outside of Roman domination. The old port of Carnagh was one of the main stop over points on the Celtic trade route and the place closest to the Continent that was free from Roman control. This area afforded those early Christians their first taste of religious freedom and this was where they built their little churches like St Vaulks, that still stands, and gave saints names to so many of the townslands round about. In fact we have more townslands called after the very early saints than any other part of the country. It is rather ironic that having spent much of his life promoting himself as a god, and building his magnificent palace as a retirement home, no sooner had he died than the Christians took it over and built a cathedral over the place of his burial. It was as if the truth that he ran from all his life he still couldn’t avoid in death.

That’s a bit of a digression so back to what pilgrimage is all about. Traditionally it was certainly never understood as a pleasure trip. It was always taken to be an outward journey that usually involved some measure of hardship or penance that reflected a much more difficult inner journey. In ancient times when people had no option but to walk long distances, as they did from Lough Derg to here, the journey and the interactions on the journey were even more important than the destination. You can just imagine spending ten days walking, talking, cooking and sleeping with the same ten or twenty people. Imagine the pressure of that alone and all the personal issues it would bring up in peoples lives.

Inevitable there would have been somebody who liked the sound of their own voice and drove everybody mad with their mindless chatter. Likewise there would have been the quiet shy ones who had lots to say but rarely got the chance or simply lacked courage.

Just as every ship needs a captain, every group and community needs a leader who holds everybody together. Where a leader is lacking in strength the temptation is to abdicate responsibility, usually out of fear, to someone who is bossy and a control freak, one who likes to give orders to everyone and wants to be in charge of everything. While the leader feels that he or she is getting off the hook such abdication of a leadership role is usually resented by those he is supposed to lead

For people who grew up with parents who were controlling or who found themselves in a controlling marriage you can just imagine what issues a bossy person in a group would bring up. Almost everybody in a close-knit group like that would have acted like a mirror for someone else. Some would have been reminded of unresolved issues with their parents who although long dead were still influencing their lives. Those who had rivalry with siblings would have been surprised that someone in the group reminded them so much of that brother or sister that they weren’t talking to or couldn’t stand the sight of.

Invariably, given the closeness of the group, age-old conflicts would emerge and become re-enacted on the stage of the present. People would discover that there were individuals that they just didn’t like but they still had to learn to love them. So tolerance might be born but only after a difficult birth. Forgiveness might be practiced but only after harsh words were spoken and the realization dawning that the person you though you were angry with in the group was only reminding you of someone from another time in your life. In effect the group experience would not so much have caused pain but would have acted like a poultice bringing out the pain that was already there.

And so it is with almost every pilgrimage experience where a group are involved and spend time together. For that brief period there can be great fun while at a deeper level some will drive each other crazy. Yet, that is how personal growth takes place and its also how Christian community is formed. Many will choose to avoid it like the plague and never get involved in any kind of voluntary work or group activities but in the end of the day deep down we know that we will never grow if we do not allow ourselves to be challenged. In Christian language if we avoid the cross and the pain that’s involved we will never know resurrection.

So next time you meet someone who is either here on pilgrimage or who has returned from one you might ask, not did you have a good time, but rather what did you learn about yourself, and how did you rise to the challenge. In the end growth in personal awareness is a lot more important than having a good time.

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As the oldest Marian shrine in Ireland, Our Lady’s Island welcomes pilgrims and tourists all year round and aims to present the life-changing truths of faith in a manner and language that is appropriate to all ages in this current age.

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The Parochial House,

Our Lady's Island, Co. Wexford, Ireland


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