Back in July I attended at stateside World Youth Day event. The pilgrims there gathered in Washington, D.C. for catechist talks, veneration, and Mass. It was a small-scale replica of what the pilgrims in Krakow were doing and seeing. We gathered from across the country and ate Polish food, saw Polish dancers, and visited the Holocaust Museum (the pilgrims in Poland toured Auschwitz). The prayers were said in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Polish, and ASL. The idea was that we couldn’t make the pilgrimage to Poland, but we could experience the pilgrim spirit and show solidarity with those who did go.
I wasn’t really sure about being a pilgrim. Can one be a pilgrim in less than 48 hours? My ideas of pilgrimages are mainly sourced from The Canterbury Tales and The Way. So, walking around Europe with strangers. My idea of a pilgrimage is a very individualistic trip—one of self-realization and renewal. But this pilgrimage was all about the collective, solidarity with those in Krakow. It was about being part of something bigger than yourself, and any individual actualization was a byproduct, not the selling-point.
I guess what always turned me off to the idea of pilgrimage is the idea that I should expect some profound spiritual change. I’ve never held the idea that I could choose when to have an awakening, that I can plan a trip and organize spiritual insight. Now, the visiting places of religious significance I understand, because I’m a history buff, but I don’t think all those Europeans were travelling to Jerusalem in the 1100s because they were history nerds on vacation. But for me there is a fear of pilgrimaging: what if I spend all this time and money and effort to reach this holy place, and feel nothing?
But I’ve realized pilgrimage doesn’t have to be about that (and maybe never was meant to). My modern sensibilities prioritize the individual’s feelings, but feelings are fleeting, and they can be deceptive. Faith is more than feel-goods and epiphanies. A pilgrim goes to a shrine because they are told to or because they need to or maybe because they want to. In the act of pilgrimaging, the reasons don’t matter so much; the pilgrim fades away into the faces of the thousands of other pilgrims—there together or over the centuries. It doesn’t matter that I go; it matters that a pilgrim goes. It matters that the saint is venerated, the holy day observed, the faith kept.