On Pilgrimages in the Life of the Church in America

«There Is No Reason Why Shrines Cannot Be on the Ground Level of Promoting the New Evangelization»

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DOYLESTOWN, Pennsylvania, JUNE 11, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of an address given by Monsignor Walter Rossi, rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., to the national convention of the Polish American Priests Association.

The April 28 address was titled «Pilgrimage and the Role of Shrines in the Life of the Church in America and the New Evangelization.»

* * *

Niech bedzie pochwalony Jezus Chrystus.

As you just heard, I am the Rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. A number of you have been to the Shrine and some of you may know that the National Shrine is the largest Catholic Church in North America and among the 10 largest Churches in the world. We seat over 4,000 comfortably, and during this past Easter weekend we welcomed over 15,000 people. And so, I’m used to speaking before a large number of people. But I have to tell that even though there are only 100 people here, I’m more nervous than when I speak in front of 4,000!

I’ve been invited to speak with you tonight because I am the rector of the patronal Church of the United States and our nation’s preeminent Marian shrine and also because I happen to be the president of the National Association of the Shrine and Pilgrimage Apostolate, not because I’m an expert in running shrines or an authority on the pilgrimage apostolate. If the truth be told, I really think that I was invited this evening because my mother is a first generation Polish American! In addition, I am honored to say that my third cousin, Tadeusz Dulny, is among the martyrs of Dachau, prisoner 22662, declared «Blessed» in 1999, by the soon to be «Blessed» Pope John Paul II.

More to the point, with you I am a worker in the vineyard and like you, I am always learning and seeking new ways to promote the ministry of shrines and the Pilgrimage Apostolate.

The topic I have been asked to address is «Pilgrimage and the Role of Shrines in the Life of the Church in America.»

Pilgrimages have always been a significant component in the life of the Church. Pope John Paul II believed the pilgrimage to be a privileged moment in the Christian life. I am afraid however, that not enough American Catholics understand or appreciate the great spiritual treasure found in making a pilgrimage or visiting a shrine. Our «tourist mentality» limits our experience of travel to simply making a trip for vacation or sometimes even business. Rarely do we take the time to make a spiritual journey; a pilgrimage that opens the way to God. 

To go on pilgrimage seems to be more of a European phenomenon. Just look at the hundreds of thousands of people, especially those of Polish decent that will make a pilgrimage to Rome this weekend for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. 

Almost a half million people make pilgrimages each year to this National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa and five million individuals travel annually, from all over the world, to make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Jansa Gora, in Poland.

During his own pilgrimage to Jasna Gora in 2006, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, compared the Shrine of Czestochowa to the «upper room» where the Blessed Virgin Mary «teaches us how to pray … shows us how to open our mind and our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit» and teaches us «how to live from faith, how to grow in faith, how to remain in contact with the mystery of God in the ordinary, everyday events of our lives.» 

It is not at all uncommon for us to make secular pilgrimages; journeys that we set upon in order to see some place or some thing that holds a significant meaning in our nation’s history. Just think of the many people who come to Washington, D.C. to visit the various monuments, especially the capitol building. Ever since 9/11, people want to go to «Ground Zero» in New York. Some do so out of curiosity, others visit in order to pay their respects, still others set out for «Ground Zero» because a loved one died during that tragedy and «Ground Zero» is their immediate connection with this person.

Then, of course, we have the scores of people that come to Philadelphia, the birthplace of American Independence, and trace the foundation of American Freedom from the Betsy Ross House to the Liberty Bell and then on to Valley Forge. 

Pilgrimages are a mode through which we deepen our connection with God and shrines provide an environment which is conducive to the cultivation of this great moment of prayer. 

I am reminded of the numerous commercials for wireless phone carriers. People walk around looking for the right zone in order to get a clear connection with the person to whom they are talking; then they yell that familiar phrase: «Can you hear me now?!» 

Pilgrimages are the moment and shrines are the place where we deepen our connection with God and have the opportunity to hear his voice clearly. 

The concept of making a pilgrimage and that of a shrine as a pilgrimage destination pre-dates Christianity. Christians, Catholics in particular, do not have a corner on the market when it comes to the tradition of pilgrimage. A cursory look at some world religions shows that the pilgrimage is an essential part of their faith tradition; in some religions, making a pilgrimage is an actual requirement. This is seen most clearly with Islam. The Koran requires its adherents to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their lifetime. Hindus living in India make an annual pilgrimage to the Ganges River during the month of August in celebration of the Monsoon Festival. In Judaism, the annual religious feasts of the Israelites were typically celebrated in the context of an elaborate pilgrimage to Jerusalem. If we look through the Old Testament, we discover additional pilgrimages to places such as Bethel, Shiloh and Mount Sinai, just to name a few. In the Gospel of Luke, we read of the Holy Family participating in the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. 

Although Christian pilgrimages became part of our religious practice after Constantine ended Christian persecution in the 4th century, as early as the second century, the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul, were venerated in Rome. 

In this Easter Week it is appropriate for us to consider Egeria the virgin, whose 4th century diary documents her pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the services which took place during Holy Week and throughout the Easter Season.

During the preparation for and the celebration of the Great Jubilee Year 2000, the Christian pilgrimage experienced a resurgence, a revival if you will. Pope John Paul II called for «conversion and interior renewal,» stating that «pilgrimages reflect the final destiny of man,» and emphasized «how all our life is a journey to God.» 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that «pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey toward heaven» (2691) and during his own pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mariazell in Austria, Pope Benedict XVI reflected, «This is what pilgrimage is all about … our lives have a deeper purpose. We need God … » Pilgrimages and shrines assist us along the path to fulfilling our purpose in life and to fulfill our need for God and to be filled by him. 

To make a pilgrimage means to set out in a particular direction towards a specific destination. The ultimate destination is heaven and shrines help us to get there. Pope John Paul II thought of a shrine as being like an «oasis of the spirit» and I like to think that shrines are the portal to God. The actual pilgrimage itself, the journey from one place to another, is the bridge over which believers walk to find their way to God, to see the face of God more clearly, to understand more fully who God is, to come to know his Son, Jesus, more intimately, and to know who they are in relationship to God. I believe this to be the role of the shrine in America; in the life of the Church in

Marian shrines like Czestochowa, Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe, Doylestown, and Washington, D.C., have an advantage, because as Pope Benedict XVI has expressed «Shrines are a source of life and faith» for the Church and that as «pilgrims go on foot to our Lady,» Mary guides us and teaches us to speak personally with her Son and come into «profound contact with God.» 

Shrines dedicated to the memory of the saints, such as those found here in Philadelphia in honor of Saint John Neumann, Saint Katherine Drexel and Saint Rita of Cascia, testify that holiness, that sanctity of life is possible. The saints, who are visible, real-life examples, serve as an inspiration for those of us struggling along the path to holiness. Their shrines illuminate the way for everyday people to walk the road that leads to perfection.

In his letter to the Second World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Pilgrimages and Shrines held at Santiago de Compostela last fall, Pope Benedict counseled that the role of shrines are to be «sacred places» where «the Word of Christ, the Son of the living God, can ring out clearly and the event of his death and resurrection, the foundation of our faith, can be proclaimed completely.» 

Recognizing that the world is gradually becoming more secular and less faith oriented and that the people of the world are experiencing a crisis in being and living the Christian faith, since the pontificate of the Servant of God, Pope Paul VI, the Holy Fathers have identified a need for the re-evangelization of today’s world. 

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have addressed the call for a «new evangelization.» The «vital core of the new evangelization» Pope John Paul expressed, «must be a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ, that is, the preaching of his name, his teaching, his life, his promises and the kingdom which he has gained for us by his paschal mystery … everything planned in the church must have Christ and his Gospel as its starting point.» 

Recognizing this foundation, Pope Benedict XVI articulated that the thrust of the new evangelization is «to propose anew the perennial truth of Christ’s Gospel.» We are challenged not to proclaim a new Gospel; the Good News of Jesus is the same «yesterday, today and forever» (Heb 13:8). But our challenge is to present this message anew, once more, in a new way, a different way, with a «renewed missionary drive» «that truly makes an impact on people, awakens and transforms hearts.» As Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington has succinctly summarized, «the new evangelization is not a program … it is a mode of thinking, seeing and experiencing. » It is «a lens through which we see the opportunities to proclaim the Gospel anew.» 

There is no reason why shrines cannot be on the ground level of promoting the new evangelization. In preparation of the Jubilee Year 2000, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, which is the Vatican dicastery that oversees the ministry of shrines and pilgrimages, issued a «reflection» on the nature and function of shrines. In this document, the Pontifical Council clearly states that a «shrine can become an excellent place wherein to deepen one’s faith, in a privileged place and at a favorable time, different from the ordinary. It can offer occasions of new evangelization … capable of leading to a dialogue with God and to contemplate the immense mystery that enfolds and attracts us.» 

For centuries, shrines have assisted pilgrims in their spiritual life by providing a place of respite from the challenges, struggles and busy-ness of contemporary society. Shrines provide an environment where God’s spirit awakens and transforms hearts; where the message of the Gospel is proclaimed and God’s voice is heard. Through personal and communal prayer, through the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, shrines provide the avenue, which Pope John Paul II called, «an opportunity for the faithful to encounter the living Christ» and ultimately, achieve the fullness of life in heaven with God. 

The work of the new evangelization is the seed for the renewal and revitalization of faith in the Church. I truly believe that the ground is fertile to receive this seed. Our people are thirsting for a deeper faith, a more secure faith, a stronger faith, and greater meaning in their lives.

For over 2000 years, Jesus Christ, through the grace of the sacraments, has been present in the life and growth of his church. Shrines and pilgrimages help to foster and deepen this life of faith through prayer, meditation, and the sacraments. It is our challenge to assist people in coming to this wellspring, this unlimited source of life and renewed faith and hopefully, our ministry will also assist us through the gates of heaven.

Dziekuje bardzo.

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