Pilgrimage is an interesting experience, and it is definitely not the same as a tour or a vacation. One has no idea how things will be on a pilgrimage, though you do know the destinations along the way. One learns to go with the flow in ways that even the most rigorous of schedulers and lovers of control have to flow with. The way of the pilgrim is one of simplicity, since pilgrims only have the things they have taken for the journey. And the goal of the pilgrim is to seek and find God not just at the destination, but all along the way. If one only seeks God at the destination, one misses Him not only along the way, but often misses Him altogether.
Upon returning, aside from the effects of jet lag, it was difficult at first to put into words what was touching in each of the sites we visited. There was a definite high point for me on the first day of the pilgrimage, in Fatima. While standing just feet away from the site of Mary's appearance to three shepherd children in 1917, I was able to proclaim the Scripture reading at Mass. It struck me that I was indeed standing on holy ground. I was filled with wonder and awe that this was a place where Mary revealed herself and cared enough to intercede for us, bringing a message for people to pray in order to save us from the effects of sin.
In 1916 three shepherd children, Lucia Santos and her two cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, were shepherding their sheep when an angel appeared to them three times over the course of the year. The angel taught them a prayer, gave them Communion, and told them that the Virgin would soon visit them. The following year, on May 13, 1917, Mary appeared to them in that same spot, the Cova da Iria as it was known, and delivered a series of messages to them, telling them to return on the 13th of every month. Her visits culminated on October 13, 1917 with a visual miracle validating her appearances to the unbelieving authorities and those who came to the Cova that day. The children were subjected to taunts and abuse, even from their own families who did not believe their story of the beautiful lady from Heaven. Lucia's mother was most insistent that this was a fabrication, even though she knew her daughter was not one to tell lies. She withheld her affection from Lucia and treated her coldly for many months, which caused much suffering for Lucia.
The messages were of penance and the need to pray the Rosary for the reparation of sin. The children had no way of knowing what was going on in the world politically, but the Lady was warning them of a worse war than the one that was finishing in Europe, and that if people did not pray, there would be terrible consequences from this war. Some of what she said was to be made public and some was for the children alone. Two of the children, Jacinta and Francisco, were told they would soon be in Heaven; they accepted the burden of suffering in reparation of sin, that is, as redemptive suffering, for the sins of the world. Both of the children died a few years later, succumbing to the influenza epidemic in 1919. Lucia went on to live until 2005. She lived the life of a cloistered nun, but wrote about her experiences when asked to do so. Her ministry of prayer was no doubt very important to fulfilling the mission given her by the Lord through His mother.
It is important that we still heed the messages from the Blessed Virgin, delivered to us by those three children. Our world is no less complex than it was during their lifetime. Our world is still sorely in need of prayer and penance. Praying the Rosary, as Mary indicated we do, is a beautiful way to pray. Through this prayer we enter into the mysteries of the life of Jesus and Mary, all these mysteries from the Scriptures, in order to offer prayer for our world which is rather fragile and in turmoil. There is much of good and beauty in our world to celebrate, but there is much need for prayer for conversion and peace.
So what do we take away from all this? For me, it really clicked into place this morning as I was reflecting upon the pilgrimage. I think a pilgrim does not stop being a pilgrim in some sense. It is not something one turns on and off. Pilgrims are seekers, but they are also finders. That is, we are a pilgrim people, seeking the Lord all around us, and if we open our eyes, we find Him all around us. I realized this morning that what happened in Fatima, or at least my personal experience there, is really of no use if it was simply a spiritual high come and gone. I realized that what happened in 1917 did not happen for Fatima alone. And therefore my experience there did not happen for me alone. The presence of the holy is noticeable in places like Fatima and Lourdes, but the challenge is to find that the presence of the holy is not simply confined to a place. Fatima is here, wherever here is for you and for me. Our Lady's presence is with us wherever we are, as she is indeed our Mother, entrusted to us by her Son when He was dying on the Cross. (See John's Gospel, chapter 19:27 when He said to the disciple John, "Behold, your mother." Jesus gave her to us, as mother to the Church, the body of believers.)
God is present all over the world, not just in one spot. He is not confined to a building, or a tabernacle, or a sacred place. He is not even confined to a sacrament insofar as a sacrament is not a static moment, come and gone. His grace becomes part of us and goes with us where we go. He is present within us through those vehicles, and becomes one with us. There is a saying found in Celtic spirituality that goes like this:
To go to Rome
Is much of trouble, little of profit;
The King whom thou seekest there,
Unless thou bring Him with thee, thou wilt
The pilgrim seeks Christ in the journey, not simply at the destination. In that way, the journey never really ends. That is, it does not end until we arrive at our heavenly home with God forever. And pilgrims do not only seek and find. If that were so, it would be a "me and Jesus" spirituality, which is not at all what Christianity calls us to. Our faith is one in which we are called outward toward others to share what we seek and find. We are called to bring Christ to others, especially the lonely, the sick, the poor, the marginalized, the suffering, and all those brothers and sisters we meet along the way. If we are truly Christian, we are pilgrims. And if we are pilgrims we see Christ all around us, including within ourselves. We try to see all as gift, and in thanksgiving we share the gift with others. That is the message of Fatima and Lourdes, and that is the message of the Scriptures. It is the message of Christ because it is a message of love. If we see Love all around us and within us, even in our brokenness, we can then embrace the brokenness of others. And when we do that, we can be instruments of healing and of hope, which is what Fatima and Lourdes are all about.
Let us embrace the call to be pilgrims, opening our eyes to the healing presence of God all around us. Let us trust that He is indeed present, even when we cannot feel that presence or see Him all around us. Let us come to know that all places are sacred places and the way to find them is to look within, and then to share it with those around us. May God bless you richly with the grace to be a pilgrim! Let us meet in the Heart of the Lord, journeying together as pilgrim people.