As I write this, I am on my way home from a pilgrimage that our parish members took to many holy places in central and Eastern Europe. We prayed in the Divine Mercy Shrine, Our Lady of Czestochowa, the parish Church of Wadowice where St. John Paul II was born and reared; the great Cathedrals of Krakow, Prague, Vienna, and Munich; the shrines of Our Lady at Mariazell, Salzburg; the Monastery of Melk; the Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague; and many more places of holiness and inspiration. We also visited a place of unholiness: Auschwitz, where millions of innocent men, women and children were systematically murdered in that godless fury of the Nazi Holocaust.
It was an emotional 12 days of which I have mentioned but a few moments of grace. Why do we do such things? Why do we go on pilgrimage? Could we not try to understand and appreciate these things through books and the tales of others?
Those questions could only be asked by people who have never been on pilgrimage. Those who have gone of pilgrimage need not even bother to ask. Pilgrimage is not a vacation nor are pilgrims tourists. We became a community in sharing our faith as we meditated on our history as Catholics and tried to enter the experience of faith that only a rich tradition can give. Faith must be experienced and that is why we walk and ride and walk again, sometimes exhilarated, sometimes exhausted, and insert our very selves into God’s history, our history and all that has made us Catholics, Christians and truly human beings.
It is hard to communicate to someone who has not been on pilgrimage what happens to a group of believers who walk the walk of faith. Many of us have been on other Immaculate Conception Parish Pilgrimages as well as this one. As a community of faith here at Immaculate Conception, we have walked where Christ walked in Galilee, Bethlehem, Jerusalem (First Pilgrimage). We have seen the Faith grow through the missionary journeys of St. Paul at Corinth, Athens and the Mediterranean (Second Pilgrimage). We have seen the faith rooted in Europe in Rome where we visited the tombs of Peter and Paul and were in the presence of our own Pope Francis (Third Pilgrimage). We have seen the faith spread through Europe to Venice, Florence, Assisi (Third yet again), and then to the countries in Europe mentioned above (Present Fourth Pilgrimage).
It has not been difficult to see the God-given movement of the faith that we share here in Astoria. We are not alone. We are a global Church that has been proclaiming the Gospel of Christ though two millennia of history.
But we have also seen contrary trends that are saddening and stand as a warning to us against assuming that we can do no wrong. There has been a widespread abandoning of the faith. Evidence of this is so permeating as to seem to be irrefutable. Churches that were the glories of faith now exist as historical curiosities and interesting destinations. Once receptacles of high art glorifying God, they have now become museums and concert halls. Small groups of pilgrims are sometimes besieged and sidelined by hordes of tourists who just want to take selfies to post on Facebook.
These Cathedrals of Faith are floating in a sea of unbelief. Yet the freedom still exists both in personal and in political terms to have faith and, even if it is a small group of believers from Astoria, we can still believe and express our faith freely because of the separation of Church and State that we Americans have pioneered. I will take, therefore, the current apostasy of faith over another faith (or even my own faith) forcing others into the one mold that I see God calling us to. Theocracy does not work for it eventually has to combat the freedom that is important to true belief.
This is why the Christian faith first grew in the Roman Empire, which made room for all faiths as long as they were politically open to others. Persecutions began when the Romans forced Christians to accept the Roman Religion of the gods. Until that time, St. Paul saw no conflict with being a Roman citizen and a Christian believer.
So how do we correct what is going on? The answer is not to join a movement or give support to an ideology of the past. It is simply what it has always been: “Be Holy for I, the Lord am Holy”. We need to become saints. Sounds impossible? It is not. We have been given all we need in the Church’s teaching and in Holy Scripture. We just need to do it. That is why we don’t stay home and think and pray. Among other ways, we go on pilgrimage, not just the exterior trip to other lands, but that which this journey symbolizes: the interior pilgrimage of the heart and its outward manifestation here in our families and in Astoria. We are all on pilgrimage! Most of us just don’t know it!