by Dan Kitzhaber
“It’s a pilgrimage not a vacation.” These are words that I have spoken many times while leading groups to a World Youth Day gathering. However, I learned a deeper understanding of these words in 2011 during what has proven to be “one to remember.” I think we all have moments like this in our lives when we look back and realize “that was something special.” You may be wondering, “where did you go, or what did you do?” Let me emphasize, that what made this pilgrimage so special was not the where or the what but the how. (Though you will see in the text box a listing of locations we went and Saints whose shrines we visited.)
World Youth Day events are international gatherings of young people with the Pope which occur every two to three years. I have been blessed to participate and lead a group on pilgrimage to seven gatherings around the world during the past 25 years. On this pilgrimage leading up the gathering in Madrid, Spain, it seemed everyday, we were at the shrine of a spiritual giant of the Catholic church. This incredibly list and experience were only possible through the grace of God.
“So, what makes it a pilgrimage?” I will list some of the elements that are part of a pilgrimage and make it different than a religious trip or a vacation. Just as you would not run a marathon without proper preparation, so too it is important to prepare yourself spiritually for this spiritual journey.
PRAYER & SACRAMENTS:
From the beginning, prayer must guide the plans leading up to as well as be an intentional part of every day. Liturgy of the Hours / Rosary / Divine Mercy Chaplet / Angelus / song … The types and amount of prayer must match those on the pilgrimage. Though daily Eucharist is indispensable. While this might be a stretch for some, the grace it provides predisposes one to benefit from all God provides.
- St. Catherine Labouré
- St. Vincent de Paul
- St. Joan of Arc
- St. Benedict
- St. Dominic
- St. Thomas Aquinas
- St. Bernadette Soubirous
- St. James (the apostle)
- St. Ignatius of Loyola
- Bl. Jacinta, Francesco & Lucia
- St. John of the Cross
- St. Therese of Avila
- St. Isidore
In addition to a priest, I have been amazed by the impact of consecrated sisters with the group. I have had Nashville Dominicans join us. Their life in community brings a natural ability to lead a group in prayer – joyfully! Seminarians also add another witness of young adults who are actively discerning the possibility of the priesthood.
You may think food, but it is more so fasting from other material comforts with the intent of disposing us for a greater good. On WYD pilgrimages, people are encouraged to stay in simple accommodations, often sleeping on the floor of a school. In the heat of Madrid many in our group slept outside every night on the ground. Due to the overflow of people at this type of gathering, it also necessitates walking most places. Some days 10 miles. This “deprivation” is crucial to the “elevation” one experiences on a fruitful pilgrimage.
Looking back, what made this one so special are the fruits in the lives of those pilgrims. A couple notable examples of this fruitfulness are one priest and another in major seminary and two young ladies joining religious communities: one Dominican and one Franciscan. While I’m not claiming that this pilgrimage is the sole reason for the vocations chosen by these young adults, I am convinced this experience was a profound encounter with Christ and His church for these and the others who experienced “a pilgrimage and not a vacation.”