I have to admit, when I think “pilgrimage,” I think of throngs making their way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on their knees. I think of the steady flow of men and women into Santiago de Compostela, Spain, after weeks or months of hiking. I think of the seven-church walk in Rome and the inevitable blisters.
Frankly, I think of pain, suffering, sacrifice, hunger and thirst. I don’t think of a king-sized bed at the Holiday Inn Express, which is where I’m sitting after enjoying an all-you-can-eat pizza dinner.
Yes, I am on pilgrimage, but it’s one where the hardships have been subtle, less self-inflicted, and, for me, more about squashing impatience, annoyance, self-centeredness or sarcasm, in favor of a spirit of solidarity with those around me, whether they be fellow Minnesotans or from a continent on the other side of the globe.
They, too, arrived by plane. For others, it was train, bus or car, and it is no less a pilgrimage. But there is at least one group that is reclaiming a core aspect of the medieval pilgrimage on their journey to see the Holy Father — a long, hard walk.
On Sunday, a group of 22 left the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in downtown Baltimore, better known as America’s first cathedral. Wearing neon yellow shirts, they started walking north to Philadelphia. It’s a trek of 108 miles. At night, they rely on parishes and schools for shelter and showers, but it’s safe to surmise that when they arrive Sunday in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, they’re going to be sweaty and tired.
The leader is Father Jack Lombardi, a soft-spoken pastor from the narrowest stretch of Maryland’s panhandle. A frequent pilgrimage leader to Europe’s sacred sites, he decided to take up a U.S. cause in 2012 and gathered dozens of pilgrims to walk 100 miles from his parish in Hancock to Baltimore in support of religious freedom. The U.S. bishops, with Baltimore Archbishop William Lori at the helm, had taken up the fight against the federal health care mandate for all employers to provide insurance coverage for sterilization, contraceptives and abortifacients. The walk was Father Lombardi’s show of support and a fundraiser for local charities.
The following year, Father Lombardi led another pilgrimage, this time from Baltimore to Washington. In 2014, he brought a group to France, where they walked with shirts reading “We’re walking for YOU!” in English and French.
When Pope Francis announced he would be in Philadelphia, so close to Baltimore, there was no way Father Lombardi was going to turn down the chance to get to him on foot.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Father Lombardi several times as a staff writer for The Catholic Review, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, a position I left last year to return in January to The Catholic Spirit. One of my earliest assignments was in Hancock, where Father Lombardi, a respected retreat master, told me about his love of pilgrimage. Last summer, I sat on the porch of his parish house listening to pilgrims describe adventures in several of France’s holy sites.
This year, Catholic Review editor Paul McMullen will have his own tales, as he’s part of the pilgrimage to Philadelphia. He posted on Facebook yesterday that they had crossed into Pennsylvania and shared a story of the group comforting a woman who was shaken up after the group happened upon her car accident.
Calling their walk “A pilgrimage of Love and Mercy,” paired with a charitable “Feet for Francis” shoe drive, the pilgrims are keeping the intention of religious freedom in prayer as they make their way north. I’m hoping I’ll have a chance to be part of their welcoming committee when they break into the crowd before Pope Francis’ Mass Sunday on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
It’s a serious undertaking, this 100-mile walk, but it’s a reminder that pilgrimage is not a relic of the past. I was reminded of that last year, when a friend invited me on a pilgrimage to the Baltimore Basilica. At first, I thought it was odd. It was less than a mile from where I lived; I walked there regularly. But we did it, praying a rosary on the way there, asking for Mary’s intercession in the undercroft, and adding another rosary on the way back. It was so simple. And while we walked, it became clear that the pilgrimage was about disposition, not destination.
So, here am I, a pilgrim, who will sleep well tonight in a comfortable bed. And there’s Paul, who is likely on some mat on a parish hall floor. Hopefully for both of us there will be other pilgrimages, and among them, those that are physically demanding, and those that are emotionally demanding. Both can be spiritually demanding, and both can compel conversion.