Summer is the time for modern travel, and the time too for modern pilgrimage. Right now several of my parishioners have been at World Youth Day in Krakow, and another group have been in Lourdes. Both are excellent destinations; I have visited both, and want to do so again one day.
What is it about pilgrimage, and what should one take away from the experience of place? At this point one might like to think of the famous quote from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding, about coming to a place where prayer has been valid. What exactly this means, I have no idea – it strikes me that prayer is valid everywhere. People can pray in any place, and they do.
That is one of the essential data of Christianity: God can be accessed everywhere. This is one of the novelties of the Christian dispensation. For the Children of Israel, remember, Mount Zion was where God made His home, and the Temple alone was the place where sacrifice could be offered. Hence the necessity of going up to the Temple: but for us the Temple is every church, every home, and every place where mind and heart are raised to God.
For me, pilgrimage is about the people that were formed by the places one visits, for pilgrimages are essentially about the saints. Thus it is that in Lourdes one goes to hear the message of Our Blessed Lady at the place it was received, and to appreciate more deeply the person who received it, St Bernadette. The message is important, of course, but the means through which the message was made, the visionary St Bernadette, is an essential part of the message. Without Bernadette, the message of Lourdes would not be what it is.
One of the central things that Lourdes has to teach us is that God, when He speaks, speaks to everyone, and, in particular, to the lowly and unimportant. Of all the citizens of Lourdes at that time there were none lowlier than Bernadette Soubirous, a fact brought home when visiting the slum in which she lived, the cachot. It has been cleaned up now, but even so, the sense of the deprivation that the Soubirous family lived in is inescapable. Yet this was the Saint the Lord chose. The most important event of the Catholic nineteenth century happened here, not in Paris or Rome.
It was here that God gave us the necessary corrective we needed at that time, reminding us that the Church belongs to the poor, not the rich, so if you want to be part of the Church, be poor in spirit. And it was here too, on February 11, 1858, that God gave his answer to the errors of Karl Marx, published a decade earlier in the Communist Manifesto. Bernadette rebukes the materialism of Marx, and indeed the materialism of anyone who visits the cachot, with the assertion, surely true, that the best things in life are not material.
Krakow is another place that radiates the experience of the saints. Naturally one thinks of St John Paul II, rightly called the Great, when one sees the window in the bishop’s place from which he would speak. In the vast and beautiful town square, one remembers how this huge space was filled with protestors dressed in white shortly after the failed assassination attempt. Krakow mediates the unconquered spirit of the Polish people and their deep attachment to the Catholic faith, despite the persecution of Tsarist Russia, the persecution of the Nazis, and the persecution of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. That is a lot of persecution, and a corresponding heroism. No one has suffered more than the Poles in the defence of Catholicism, and to visit Krakow is a humbling experience.
One goes on pilgrimage, not just to see places, to see where it all happened, but to learn from the saints. Saint Bernadette and St John Paul II (along with all the other heroes of the Polish resistance) are great figures; we have much to learn from them. That is why, I think, Catholics will be going to Lourdes and to Krakow for many years to come.