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That Lasting Spiritual Punch of a Pilgrimage Vacation

January 24, 2022


Like Clark Griswold from the Vacation film series, my dad was known for taking our Chicago suburban family on long, cross-country expeditions by car. We did this nearly every year, following my dad’s detailed itinerary to a tee. 

Thus, we were seasoned travelers. In 2001, we went by car to the Rocky Mountains. We took grandma along with us. The year before this my dad drove us to visit the Mixas in Florida, stopping at Walt Disney World along the way. We’d even traveled the East coast, from Boston to New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. through to Williamsburg. Each trip was exhausting, yet each had more or less a “sacral” goal: mountains, the Magic Kingdom, the ocean, the U.S. Capitol. But 2002’s excursion to see John Paul II and later to visit St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mont Royal in Montreal was on a higher plane. We were making a pilgrimage, a high expression of that sacral longing for beatitudo that is at the heart of all human activity. 

The 2002 World Youth Day was John Paul II’s last. My sister was already out in Toronto with a Catholic youth group partaking in the World Youth Day events leading up to the Papal Mass. My dad wanted us to join her for that Mass and to see the great Pope I heard about my entire life. It was a cloudy, rainy day when we arrived in Toronto, and it stayed that way well into the Papal Mass. But during John Paul II’s homily the sun came out, and the Pope, who did not see anything as mere coincidence, took it as a sign with heavenly significance. It was as if the Son (the true Light of the world) had appeared. The Pope preached that life in the Holy Spirit is not a condition of age but can begin at any age, inspiring many of the attending youth to follow Christ and take up their crosses. The Pope then put everything in the context of pilgrimage when he announced that the place of the next World Youth Day would be in Cologne. Because Cologne Cathedral includes the Shrine of the Three Kings, the Pope presented an icon of the three magi as pilgrims, following the heavenly light to Christ and calling us to follow their example. I started to see my life as such a pilgrimage. “JPII,” as we called out to him, told us to treasure the memory of Toronto, and indeed I have. 

The Pope’s final words about pilgrimage set the tone for the rest of our trip. From Toronto we drove to Montreal, primarily to see the majestic St. Joseph’s Oratory on Mont Royal. Along with my Walkman, I took a book my mom had recently bought that caught my interest. It was Romano Guardini’s The Art of Praying. I did not know who Romano Gaurdini was at the time, but his book was transformative for me, preparing my soul for the experience I would soon have at St. Joseph’s Oratory. 

The Oratory was like a mysterious temple perched atop a hill. You have to climb your way into it, as if ascending the mountain of the Lord, Mt. Zion. I decided to venture by myself once I got inside, offering prayers in the votive chapel with St. Joseph and contemplating the beauty of the  sanctuary and all the history of the faithful looking down at me. It was as if I was approaching the Holy of Holies with the Ark of the Covenant, finding and seeing the glorious stillpoint of all things in the Eucharist. This trip, which ended with our reception of the Holy Eucharist, became like an icon of the Mass for me—the source and summit of Christian life, a reminder of where we find our rest. Without this, I knew life would make no sense and become a restless flurry of activity with no ultimate end. 

There’s no way of living without something like pilgrimage. It’s inscribed in our nature, whether we express it by walking to Jerusalem or driving to Disney World. 

I don’t know if my dad realizes this, but that journey was the best, most efficacious religious instruction my parents ever gave me.

Almost all human cultures encourage pilgrimages of some kind. Pagan shrines dotted the landscape of the ancient world. Muslims are required to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lives. In fact, the direction of their prayer, and more basically their life, is pointed there. Jews used to make pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, and now many still go to the Wailing Wall. The Crusades began because of the disruption of pilgrimage in the Holy Land, and many of the shrines that popped up in Europe during the Middle Ages satisfied an essential human need for pilgrimage when pilgrimages to Jerusalem were no longer possible. Many nations in Europe and beyond betray their heart and soul in shrines that are the destinations of pilgrimage routes: Rome, Chartres (France), Altötting (Bavaria) Częstochowa (Poland), Santiago de Compostela (Spain), and Guadalupe (Mexico) readily come to mind, providing the faithful with the practice of pilgrimage that is a well-spring of meaning.

That trip to Toronto and Montreal changed my life. I don’t know if my dad realizes this, but that journey was the best, most efficacious religious instruction my parents ever gave me. It helped me to better understand myself as a member of the “pilgrim Church on earth,” making her way by the Spirit to the eternal banquet in the Father’s house. I learned more on that trip and others like it than I did from all the formal religious instruction I had received in school. Encountering the Pope, a man who saw all things through eyes of faith and heeding his call to holiness; walking through St. Joseph’s Oratory with all its religious symbolism—these things put me in greater touch with the supernatural element of faith than what I could glean from any book. It stuck with me, orienting me toward my goal in this life: union with God. 

Parents, take your children on pilgrimages, not only for the sake of handing on the faith, but to give them a rich experience of the faith journey and what it means to be a pilgrim. It can be exhausting and challenging, but the trip will be treasured for a lifetime. 

Be like Clark Griswold, ready to take your family station wagon out for a summer excursion across the country. Go to a shrine or two! Maybe you can stop by Wally World along the way. But I bet it’s closed, anyways.