October 31, 2022

‘Why Go On Pilgrimage?’

by Sister Joseph Marie, SsEW

Pilgrim – a foreigner

At the end of September/beginning of October, I and four of my religious sisters were given the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. Never having been on a “pilgrimage” to anywhere, much less overseas, I had no idea what to expect. I looked up the word “pilgrim” in the dictionary; it comes from the Latin “peregrinus”: “foreigner, stranger.” Pilgrimage is derived from this same word and has come to mean “a stranger on a journey to a sacred place.” This set me to thinking on what I was about to do, where I was going. 

In 1858 Our Lady appeared to a fourteen-year-old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, standing in a niche in a cavern on the banks of the River Gave in southern France. She appeared to Bernadette a total of eighteen times, asking her to pray the rosary for poor sinners, that a chapel should be built there in her (Our Lady’s) honor and that processions should come there. She revealed herself to Bernadette as “I am the Immaculate Conception,” reiterating the dogma recently proclaimed by Pope Bl. Pius IX in 1854. 

Arriving in France after an all-night flight, I understood what it meant to be a “pilgrim”. A person in a foreign place, without understanding the language, trying to keep up with our group while shuffling luggage up and down escalators, waiting in line to go through customs and praying earnestly I didn’t “beep” while walking through the metal detectors, I realized how important it is to fulfill the Old Testament mandate “be kind to the foreigner in your midst!” My longing to arrive in Lourdes where Our Lady was surely waiting for me became ever more earnest. 

Life is a pilgrimage

As the sisters and I prayed together at Our Lady’s Grotto and washed in the miraculous spring, the line from Psalm 84 came to me: “As they go through the Bitter Valley, they make it a place of springs…” While we attended the Devotions at the Basilica and took part in the Rosary processions with thousands of other pilgrims from all over the world, I realized in a tangible way, the gift of unity of the Body of Christ. Together we prayed the Rosary for the Church suffering on earth and in Purgatory. As we took extra care of the sick among the pilgrims, we sensed the encouragement of the Church Triumphant seen in the banners of the Saints as we processed by them, following Our Queen with our lighted candles. All of us praying to her together, offering our petitions and bringing the intentions of all those we love, brought home to me the reality of the Communion of Saints. 

Some may wonder, as I did before I left, “why travel to these places when I can just ‘google it’ and see better pictures anyway?” “Why go through all the expense and inconvenience of traveling to a foreign land when I can pray here at home, in our own convent chapel?” I found the answer when I arrived in Lourdes, but also as I pondered on my experiences when I came back home. 

The second reading in the Office of Readings for Thursday of the 38th week in Ordinary Time is from “A Treatise on John” by Saint Augustine. He writes of our being drawn to God by our longing for Him -that our will is drawn to God by our desire to love. Hearing Augustine’s examples of “desiring”, this sentence caught my attention: “Show me one who is full of longing, one who is hungry, one who is a pilgrim and suffering from thirst in the desert of this world, eager for the fountain in the homeland of eternity and he knows what I mean.” 

When I heard the word “pilgrim” it dawned on me: THIS is why we travel to the sacred places. Because they remind us that our whole life is a pilgrimage to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem where Jesus and Mary await us; where the saints lead us into the joy of the Heavenly Father who waits to welcome us after the arduous journey of life. May we be welcomed by that same presence of Our Lady that I was welcomed with in the Grotto of Lourdes. 

After Lourdes, the Sisters were also able to visit other holy sites in France. A few photos of these shrines are below.