Years ago I was helping an RCIA class and at the first session the leader made a few introductory comments. He spoke over and over about the “journey of faith” and how we are all on a “journey” and when we become Catholic that is not the end of the “journey” but just a step in that “journey.” Needless to say, he said “journey” a lot. I recognized that there was truth in what he was saying, but something about it rubbed me wrong. It seemed to me too nebulous and not very descriptive of the spiritual life.
Since then I have noticed that “journey of faith” is a very popular catch-phrase in Catholic circles, and everyone from catechists to priests to bishops use it frequently. Yet I’ve never gotten comfortable with the phrase. Then, I recently read Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos about St. Joseph. In it, JPII noted that St. Joseph – along with the Blessed Virgin Mary – was on a “pilgrimage of faith.” And it clicked: we are not simply on a “journey of faith,” but we are on a “pilgrimage of faith,” and there are important differences between the two.
A pilgrimage has a sacred destination.
I can take a journey to Disneyworld, to my uncle’s cabin in the woods, even to the bank. But a pilgrimage always has as its destination some sacred place, such as a shrine or the site of a martyrdom. This changes the whole complexion of the trip, for if one is going to a sacred place, how one gets there matters. And as the destination of our life is heaven, then our lives are surely pilgrimages, not just journeys.
A pilgrimage involves prayer.
When you go on a pilgrimage, you spend your trip in prayer. You are not playing with your gameboys on the way, or watching movies in your van. You recognize that you need to be spiritually prepared when you arrive at your destination, so you use the pilgrimage itself as an opportunity to draw deeper into God’s sacred mysteries.
A pilgrimage involves sacrifice.
Another way to spiritually prepare for your arrival at the end of a pilgrimage is through mortification. You specifically take on sacrifices along the way, such as walking instead of driving, and you accept any inconveniences with a resigned spirit. On a journey, you might get annoyed with the hotel worker, crank up the A/C in the van, and figure out the shortest way to get to where you are going. In a pilgrimage, you offer your sacrifices and inconveniences in union with Christ’s Passion, and put yourself on the Way of the Cross.
A pilgrimage eventually ends.
Sometimes it seems that the phrase “journey of faith” emphasizes the trip to the exclusion of the destination. Yes, we do journey through life, but there is an end-point to our travels that we must always keep in mind. Unlike just any journey, a pilgrimage revolves around the final destination, and so too should our lives revolve around our desired destination, heaven.
I know that many people who use the phrase “journey of faith” are good-natured and recognize that our lives are more than a mere journey. But for me, I’m going to follow Pope John Paul II’s lead and remember that my life is supposed to be a pilgrimage of faith, with all that entails.