Posted On August, 31 - 2018
Photo Credit: Maeve Boyle
Loath as I am to admit it, I remember Pope John Paul II visiting Drogheda in 1979. I was a small child and vividly recall the excitement and preparation in our school as we scrapbooked and coloured furiously in anticipation.
The day itself is burned into my memory. We headed south – a convoy of cars and extended family. I remember the picnic on the ditch, the endless, unmoving queue of traffic; the sight of my uncle who, fearing he was too late to concelebrate the Papal Mass, went tearing down the wrong side of the carriage-way to the sound of blaring sirens and the flashing blue lights of his Garda escort. It was a rite of passage for both me and Ireland.
Much has changed since that visit. So when I received my ticket for Pope Francis’ Phoenix Park Mass, I wondered what to expect – what would have altered.
I was on the yellow route – coming in from Castleknock. As most of the roads around had closed, the only option was to go on foot. So in the warm and humid air of a late summer Sunday morning, I set off with backpack, baseball cap and earphones. And then it struck me; the crowds ahead of me were not simply a mass-going congregation, these were people on a pilgrimage.
“This was a proper pilgrimage,” said Fr. Colin Crossey. He led a group of 63 pilgrims from Newcastle, Co. Down. “There was a real penitential sense to it; the walk, the preparations and the rain. I knew it was going to be a long day what with the walk and the weather,” he said.
“Something about pilgrimage appeals to our modern sensibility,” Fr. Crossey said. “You understand it at some level. The joy and laughter, the beautiful touches of connectedness mixed with profound moments of discussion. That sense of ‘opting in’ and all being in the same boat together and of a sea of life just moving towards a destination; walking, talking, sharing, and seeing things from a different perspective – slowing down noticing things you might have missed” he said.
As I thought about this, I began to think of my elderly mother who would not be able for the walk to Phoenix Park and chose to watch it on the telly. Was she too a pilgrim? Do you actually have to go anywhere to go on pilgrimage?
Fr Crossey thinks not necessarily. “It can be a movement of the heart. A pilgrimage can be made within the confines of one’s own house and community. Isn’t that what Jesus says, ‘go into your own room and pray’? So it’s a journey of the heart, a journey within. Through your own prayer you can unite yourself to the sufferings of others. The Church has a great tradition of that,” he said.
Ken Browne agrees with this view. He watched the Festival of Families with his mother in Carrickfergus. A former director of the London Centre for Spirituality and an ecumenical spiritual director of St Marylebone’s Counselling and Healing Centre, he pointed out that as long as the essential preparations for pilgrimage were met – that quality of moving towards a goal, arriving, withdrawing and processing - then you are on a pilgrimage. Good news indeed for the many millions who could not make the Phoenix Park Mass.
About three quarters of way back home on Sunday, I spotted a Guard, wearily looking down the road towards the trickle of straggling returners. “I can’t feel my feet anymore,” I told him. “Oh you’ve not much further now,” he replied.
And that got me thinking again. For although a pilgrimage need not be an actual journey sometimes the physicality – the pain and discomfort of the actual moving - speaks to our soul. It creates what Fr. Crossey describes as a “keenness in the body, an alertness, a purifying.”
Often times it’s best in company; friends and companions sharing the highs and lows, the laughs and sorrows; the burdens of the journey. But when alone, the encouraging words of a stranger, like that Guard, are all we need to keep us moving forward. Pilgrimage can simply be about putting one foot in front of the other and getting on with it. That being so, it occurred to me that his Holiness, Pope Francis, was also on a pilgrimage on Sunday.
My journey was very different this time round. For one thing I didn’t have my parents with me and for another, I walked 20km through Dublin to get there. I walked alone – so I didn’t experience that walk, talk and share piece that Fr. Crossey spoke of like last time. Happily, though, I had that when I arrived in Phoenix Park to my cousins.
And I suspect that for me, my Mum and the countless thousands of other people watching the Mass live in the Park, on TV or online, that all-important processing is yet to come.
27 August 2018