The pilgrim’s journey is one that continues to attract people of all ages and life experiences. It is an ancient practice shared across time and cultures. The simple act of setting off for a location somewhere ‘other’ - a place of special significance or spiritual importance. Pilgrimage is a surrender to the possibility that the journey itself will hold as much meaning as the destination.
On Thursday evening, our Diocesan Council for Ministry with Young People (DCMYP) gathered for a meal and conversation with a few of the returning World Youth Day pilgrims to hear of their experiences. What struck me as I listened to their sharing was the simplicity and beauty of what excited them. For our young pilgrims, the things that were most attractive in the pilgrimage experience included: just the opportunity to have time out; being outdoors and in nature; being around people; being open to the experience; visiting places of spiritual and historical significance; celebrating Mass together each day; taking time at the end of the day to reflect on the day that has been; sharing in small groups; and music, music, music!
Our conversation also included a couple of participants from our local WYD pilgrimage that trekked around the Maitland region at the same time our international companions were sleeping outdoors in preparation for the final Mass with the Pope. What emerged from the local sharing was the knowledge that we are blessed with the opportunities for similar experiences right here in our own communities. Every community has a story to tell and riches to share. At the end of a long day’s journey from Morpeth through Largs, Bolwarra and Maitland, the local pilgrims ended their day at the East Maitland youth Mass where the worshipping community shared the significance of their church and the early ministry of Fr Therry before praying over and blessing the young pilgrims.
This story of journey, discovery and transformation is echoed in Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 16:13-20).
Jesus had taken his disciples for a long walk (one might say pilgrimage) to the base of Mt Hermon in the far north of Israel, to a place noted as being in ‘the region of Caesarea Philippi.’ Such a description may mean little for us, but for the people of the time, this area was known for its temples dedicated to various Greek gods. It had a grotto of Pan, a temple of Zeus, and a dark cave entrance regarded as the gateway to Hades. The religious sites were set into an imposing rockface. For those who visit the places today (as did our WYD pilgrims) it is possible to get a sense of what it might have looked like all those years ago.
It is here, surrounded by the marketplace noise, surrounded by the popular religious enterprise of the region, far away from the security of their own culture, that Jesus asks Simon the question, ‘But you, who do you say I am?’ Simon could have played it safe, given the potential threats around him. And yet, something had happened over those days, weeks, months of journeying far from home comforts with this man, Jesus of Nazareth. A journey that brings Simon to this amazing place of realisation and deep encounter – ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’
And something changed.
To be a little free with Jesus’ response - ‘Don’t pay attention to these imposing structures, this big rocky cliff. You are Rock. And on this Rock I will build my community of people, and the gates of Hades will not hold against you.’ The landscape, the setting, brings much more meaning to Jesus’ proclamation.
So it is for us. We too encounter something greater than ourselves when we set out to unknown territory, when we open ourselves to the possibilities of the journey.
The invitation to journey, to encounter, and to be transformed, finds its expression in many forms. As I engage with communities across the Diocese, it is exciting to see bulletin notes for retreats, excursions, and reflection days being offered as the weather gets warmer. And it doesn’t take much to create a space that’s attractive. A local ‘walk and talk’ could be tailored for new school families, as an experience for staff or parish teams, or an open day to the wider community. This is the attraction of our own aMeN Camino, crafted to connect with the beauty and spiritual stories of our Diocese. We live in a world of seekers and searchers for whom the pilgrim’s journey is a welcomed invitation.
This is when we can be at our invitational best. Who else might we ask to join us on these journeys? Who in our neighbourhoods, our families, and our circle of friends might be waiting for someone to simply ask them to come along and be open to whatever the journey may hold?
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