In his book, The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path, Bishop Barron explains how we can develop this attitude—how we can center ourselves on Christ. Today we feature an excerpt from this section.
At the beginning of Canterbury Tales, Chaucer evokes the beauty and elan of springtime—the sweet showers of April, the burgeoning of the plants, the singing of the birds—and then he tells us that this surge of life awakens in people a peculiar desire: “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”
Springtime was the season when medieval Europeans left the security of home and set out on lengthy journeys—risking disease, robbery, even death—in order to look at the relics of saints or to stand in holy places. In the case of Chaucer’s pilgrims, of course, the destination was the Cathedral of Canterbury and the grave of the “holy blissful martyr” Thomas a Becket. But Christians moved all over Christendom on these journeys—to see the tomb of the Wise Men at the Cologne Cathedral, to visit the grave of St. James at Compostela, to commune with St. Mary Magdalene at Vezelay, to stand near the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, to be with Peter and Paul in Rome. That last expression—“to be with”—probably best evokes the mentality of these pilgrims, for they were not, for the most part, simply tourists or souvenir hunters (though there was quite a trade in relics!); they were spiritual seekers who sincerely felt that they could establish a personal contact with saints at the site of their life and death….
To travel to Compostela or Rome or Jerusalem—with all the attendant dangers and difficulties—was to mimic the arduousness of the spiritual path, and to arrive at those holy destinations was to act out the finding of the center.
Can this practice still be part of the Christian way? In recent years, Manila, Paris, Compostela, Denver, and Rome have all been pilgrimage sites for the youth of the Catholic world. So many young people gathered in Mile High stadium in Denver that their cheers literally buffeted the pope’s helicopter as it came in for a landing; so great a crowd assembled in Paris that young people, joining hands, were able entirely to circle the city; and World Youth Day in Manila constituted the largest single gathering in human history. The attractiveness of the pilgrimage seems not to have faded. And what is particularly powerful about these events is their public nature. Modernity, as we have seen, can tolerate religion as long as it is safely sequestered in the privacy of one’s conscience or practiced behind closed doors. What challenges modernity is a religion that shows up. A secularized culture wants us to believe that processions and pilgrimages are somehow inappropriate, sectarian, trouble-making. I think we should make a little trouble. . . .
[Pilgrimages] are embodied ways of centering our lives on Jesus Christ, all profoundly non-dualist means of walking the path of holiness.