Thousands of miles, churches visited beyond count, music of every conceivable style, stories from people who are still faithful to the vision of the Catholic Church – and stories from those who had abandoned their faith as well.
From the very beginning, we were on a pilgrimage, not a trip. And the distinctions between these two words are enormous. We have been looking for different things, listening to other stories, searching for experiences that the ordinary traveler might not be looking for.
Weeks and weeks ago, we were in Rome, having braved the summer heat and walked all the way from the Basilica of Saint John Lateran to the lovely section of the city known as Trastevere. We had gone there to visit two people with Notre Dame connections, Paolo Mancinelli and Charlie Gardner, members of the S'ant Egidio community in Rome.
Midway through a delightful evening dinner together, we got on to the topic of pilgrimage. And, true to the night's animated conversations, we all had things to say about what it means to be a pilgrim in contemporary Europe.
And at a certain point in the conversation, Charlie put forward this remarkable, simple observation: "Tourists," he said... "tourists demand, but pilgrims are grateful."
I've thought of Charlie's insightful comment a lot over the consequent weeks of our journey through Europe. Over and over again, we have seen this observation of tourists' demands played out. And we have also seen what jeopardy is before many places of pilgrimage at present, places like Notre Dame in Paris and Mont Saint Michel, both sites that are thoroughly inundated with tourists.
How these places continue to walk the line between an attraction and a place of prayer is not something I can influence. But what Michele and I could influence, every day of our travels, was the disposition we ourselves carried with us when visiting these holy places.
We kept Charlie's words before us, almost like a daily mantra. We remained dedicated to a daily stance of gratitude, whether it be for food (even though we didn't know what it was, or how to pronounce it), the weather, a crazy set of road directions, or a simple glass of red wine. "It's an adventure," Michele would exclaim, "Let's keep laughing!" Gratitude and laughter are close friends, and we made sure they stayed good companions through our journey.
In the end, we visited five different nations: Ireland and Scotland with the Folk Choir, and then, the two of us traveling to France, Italy, Switzerland, far into the West of Ireland and then back to Edinburgh. Throughout that time, I became convinced that, even in the midst of an overwhelming culture that speaks to the contrary, humanity cannot escape its need to make sacred journeys. I am more certain of this than ever before, and I saw signs of it, no matter how many tourists, no matter how spiritually compromised the environment. As my friend Jerry Galipeau puts it, simply and directly, "people still gotta sing, people still gotta pray." To that list I would add, "people still need to journey."
America has gotten pretty good, over the years, at stripping whatever is left of holiness and, instead, offering a cheap secularization of the same. Witness was has happened with many of our feasts: Christmas, New Year's, Easter, and the like. In their stead, we have been offered a cheap, one-dimensional, fast-food approach to festivity. Instead of a crèche, we get a weirdo in a red jump suit. Instead of the jaw dropping reality of an empty tomb, we get a bunny and some candy. And somehow, our culture accepts this.
The stripping away of the sacred could be said of journeying. In earlier years, we used to make pilgrimage. And now we travel. We travel as tourists, and, just as Charlie said, we simply make demands. But where has gone the sense of joy, the sense of wonder, the sense of gratitude in our movements from place to place? There is, indeed, much to ponder over this landscape.
I am going to continue to write. It has been a humbling thing to watch how so many people have been interested in my commentary. That commentary will shift now – back home to Notre Dame (though there will be another brief adventure with the Folk Choir in Dublin over the next ten days). My observations about young people and their hunger for a spiritual life is only heightened by the wanderings of the past few weeks.
So to all the Charlie Gardners of the world, I would offer this encouragement: let us keep making pilgrimage! Let us keep being grateful. And let us not demand... but be joyful along the way.
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