If you haven’t seen The Way, a 2010 film featuring Martin Sheen as his character journeys along the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), log into Netflix and click play. However, once you hunker down to watch the movie, don’t expect perfection from the plot, soundtrack, or its depiction of Catholicism. Instead, allow yourself to encounter four characters – fictional though they are – on an imperfect journey, certainly to the Cathedral of St. James, but more importantly to the heart of the Father.
“We go on pilgrimage to put ourselves in a moment of crisis.” These were the words with which Fr. Don Brick, OCD, Rector of the Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians at Holy Hill addressed to us in his Sunday homily. His homily came after four days of walking almost 50 miles through, and praying at almost of 20 churches, chapels and shrines in, southeastern Wisconsin. Beginning on July 28th, twenty-two pilgrims – including Fr. Luke and myself – participated in the Vocation Office’s “Pilgrimage of Mercy”. We desired to be in solidarity with the pilgrims heading to Kraków for World Youth Day (especially those from Milwaukee), and to seek a deeper encounter of the Father’s mercy.
But “crisis”? Why would twenty-two people – with one coming from as far away as Iowa – voluntarily insert themselves into a moment of crisis? It certainly didn’t feel like we were in a four day crisis period. We weren’t mendicant pilgrims. There was no begging for food, drink, or shelter. People along the way were incredibly generous to us. We may have even seen the new Bourne movie for one of our evening activities… So, save a few hours of heavy downpour on Friday morning, it certainly didn’t appear that our Pilgrimage of Mercy was in any risk of being in crisis.
“The wise are the poor in spirit, the ones who return to the Father with the Prodigal Son” (Wilfrid Stinissen). To the untrained eye, it might appear that our pilgrimage was one of mere adventure. We knew our destination, our meals were scheduled, and the parishes where we would stay the night had already been contacted. In this light, it might appear that any possible “crisis” situations had been strategically avoided. Yet, to reduce this pilgrimage to one more opportunity for adventure would be inappropriate. Our journey to Holy Hill, in fact, was a retreat first, and a pilgrimage second.
“The Lord meets us at the place we don’t want to be” (Fr. Luke Strand). With this understanding in mind, it becomes possible to relate our experience to Fr. Don’s explanation of a pilgrim’s motive, namely, to put ourselves in that moment of crisis. Speaking from experience, a crisis – be it spiritual, emotional, or physical – is often embarrassing, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking. In those times of crisis, our independence is stripped away, and the messiness of our very lives seemingly is put on display for all to witness (and maybe even gawk at). It is precisely this stripping away which allowed our pilgrimage group to encounter, if even for a fleeting moment, the reality of the Father’s mercy.
“To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself” (Pope Benedict XVI). Now in a moment of crisis – having removed ourselves from the noise and demands of the normal routine – an invitation was given to us to stop, and rest in the arms of the Father. Even in our weakness and shame. Even in our anxiety and distress. Even in the unknowns of our vocational discernment. As Fr. Luke reminded us, it’s precisely in these crisis moments that our concerns and challenges need to be “turned ardently over to God.” For it’s there where we encounter the Lord’s mercy, and only asked to rest in Him.
For those reading this who weren’t on our pilgrimage the other week, #youwere. In an interview about The Way, Emilio Esteves (its director) revealed that at the conclusion of the premiere, one of Spain’s archbishops who had been attendance uttered, “This film is a gift.” Why a gift? Probably because in the movie’s story (and imperfections), it helps reveal the necessity of our Christian journey – our primary pilgrimage – back to God. So, even if you didn’t walk the almost 50 miles with us, we were united as pilgrims on the way back to the Father.
I’d be the last person to claim that this pilgrimage is easy, and the first to admit that since our walking pilgrimage has ended – now just over a week ago – I have failed (a lot) in trying to rest in and rely only on the Father’s mercy. Yet, even in this temptation to hide from our prodigal God, it seems to me that the lasting lesson of our Pilgrimage of Mercy to Holy Hill becomes even stronger – to endeavor, even in our poverty, to remain with the Father.