Wikipedia defines “pilgrimage” as “a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith.” There are many classic pilgrimages: a visit to the Holy Land, the increasingly popular Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the historic Canterbury pilgrimage immortalized by Chaucer, or the modern secular pilgrimages to the birthplace of the famous.
Every week as bishop, I make a pilgrimage of sorts to a local parish church. I get up, grab some breakfast, pack my bags and head out on the road. Each week is a journey of faith and insight. Each place is different in outward appearance, and yet at the heart are all the same. There is indeed a visit to a shrine – not the physical building, although some churches are very beautiful and many have been made particularly holy because of the continuous prayer of faithful people for a century or two. Rather, I find that the significant spiritual journey is to meet the “holy people of God,” the ordinary faithful people of any parish who give of themselves to sustain a community of prayer, who are becoming more deeply conformed to the life of Jesus, and who are quietly engaged in God’s mission for the welfare of the community in which they are placed.
Almost universally, when bishops are asked, “What is the most life-giving part of their ministry?” many name their visits to parish churches week in and week out. Bishops are not like most priests or deacons; bishops are itinerant. They move from place to place and – in the words of Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury – do the work of “interpreting the strangeness of one community to the next.” They are “one with the apostles” as they proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ and celebrate the sacraments of redemption.
Bishops get to see a lot. While we often must deal with the thorny problems that others cannot find obvious solutions for, what bishops most often encounter are people from all walks of life – “all sorts and conditions of people” as the Prayer Book prayer says – putting flesh on their baptismal promises to live as disciples of Jesus. This is not the stuff of news headlines or videos going viral on YouTube. It is an unassuming, unglamorous “getting on” with the routine business of living faithfully as Christians-of-the-Anglican-persuasion in the world.
It inspires me. It gives me courage. It gives me hope.
These weekly pilgrimages are journeys that sustain my belief and faith because the parishes, and more precisely the parishioners, are the local face of the Church. They are truly the “vicars of Christ,” the representatives of Jesus on earth, even though it sometimes takes some time to discern that.
There are, of course, some outstanding characters. There are some who are lackadaisical. Most are somewhere in between. But isn’t that true of every organization, and in every age? There have always been saints, and always scoundrels. Saints are hard to live up to; scoundrels are hard to live down; and both can actually be a bit of a pain to live with. In my journeys around the diocese and around the world, what really impresses me are the ordinary folk in the middle who try to make sense of their often confusing and challenging circumstances, who try to live with integrity and faith, who try to find some experience of joy and peace and to share that with someone else. They are the backbone of our Church. I continue to be impressed and humbled by this.
Now go back through this article and replace the third person “they” with the second person “you.” Hear me say this about you!
We are currently in the midst of Lent – a season, yes, but also a pilgrimage. As you know, part of my Lenten pilgrimage this year is to join with others in the diocese, and specifically with a small group of cathedral parishioners, to walk together to meet Jesus in John’s Gospel. (See www.ssje.org/meetingjesusinjohn/.)
As in all pilgrimages, fellow travellers who weave in and out of your journey are a critical component. You learn their stories as you walk along the way, you may make new friends and discover unexpected insights about yourself. And you find yourself walking with God.
Pope Benedict XVI described it this way: “To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendour and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.”
During Lent, we journey from the penitence of Ash Wednesday through the “training” or “disciplines” that build and stretch our spiritual muscles. We accompany Jesus on his way, from the triumphal entry into the Holy City on Palm Sunday to the betrayals and his sacrificial suffering and death on the cross at Calvary. On Holy Saturday, we temporarily halt the journey and linger to mull over the disillusionment and confusion that Jesus’ disciples must have experienced, and which we all face at various times in our lives.
And finally, we arrive at the empty tomb of Easter, which turns out not to be a destination but marks the start of another journey – a pilgrimage that will continue to mould the contours of our life. Eternally.