Pilgrimage as journey of conversion

By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
The pilgrimage is an essential dimension throughout the Jubilee of Mercy. Our Cathedral of Saint Peter the Apostle, surrounded by a cluster of churches throughout the Diocese of Jackson, are a constant invitation to the faithful to make a pilgrimage into the heart of God’s mercy.
What is so special about a pilgrimage? Not surprisingly, pilgrimage has existed in all times, in most religions, and in cultures everywhere.  The people of Israel journeyed to the temple in Jerusalem. Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca. Hindus travel to the Ganges River, among other holy places. Buddhists travel from place to place to receive the mercy of Gautama Buddha.
Pilgrimage is an important symbol for Christians. As a member of the people of God, the Christian is on the road.  Pilgrimage is the symbol of the journey of the people of God throughout the ages, and the Christian way of life can be compared to a pilgrim journey. Thus, one can speak of Christians as being on pilgrimage.
The Catholic Church has always honored the journey of the pilgrim. A famous symbol of pilgrimage is the labyrinth of Chartres in France whose Cathedral was built around 1230.
The Middle Ages was a time of pilgrimage, but since it was not possible for many people to set out for Jerusalem, people instead went to cathedrals such as Chartres, where they could make the spiritual journey by following the path of the pilgrim’s labyrinth.
There can be many reasons for making a pilgrimage: to strengthen one’s faith, to pray, to do penance, to ask for the forgiveness of sin, to beg for a favor, to ask for physical or mental healing or to think about the big questions of life. Even if there are such personal reasons the pilgrim always joins the preceding generations of pilgrims and in this way, they step into a tradition with a large cloud of witnesses from generations past.
Pilgrimage means changing one’s mindset, the result of the experiences on the road. The pilgrim is like a stranger who is traveling in a foreign land. Along the way, purification can take place; something can happen and change occurs in the depths of the heart. In route, the pilgrim is confronted with himself or herself. Pilgrimage becomes the road to repentance, to a revision of one’s life. Saint Augustine encouraged his fellow Christians to develop a theology of pilgrimage of the heart.  “True pilgrimage is not undertaken with feet but with the heart, not with bodily footsteps but with the footsteps of the heart.” According to Augustine, the baggage for this journey is humility and love.”
Although most of us will not be walking a great distance on the pilgrimage to our designated churches throughout the diocese, the blessings remain the same as those of the classic spiritual journeys. A bond of solidarity, togetherness and unity grows. We share the same desire to arrive at the destination. We are called to bear each other’s burdens, to listen to each other’s personal story. Together we listen to the story of God through prayer and thanksgiving.
Once we arrive at our destination, we realize that life is not what it was before. We have changed. Through purification and repentance, we are drawn closer to each other. The arrival is not the end of the journey, but a new beginning.
All pilgrimages have common experiences and challenges related to the departure, to the journey itself and to the longing for the destination.  We are on a pilgrimage to the fullness of God’s Kingdom, a great trek to the heavenly Jerusalem, toward the One who calls us to communion, to unity in diversity.
As we begin our listening sessions throughout the diocese in order to develop a mutually shared vision and pastoral priorities, we do so in the heart of the Jubilee of Mercy at the beginning of Lent. As pilgrims we are journeying together in order to strengthen the Church of Jackson, the Body of Christ.
We are so blessed to be undertaking this journey under the gaze of God’s mercy. If at all possible, let us incorporate a pilgrimage into our spiritual discipline for Lent or at some point in the Jubilee of Mercy.