Pilgrimage as a Social Justice Practice

Why is the ancient practice of pilgrimage enjoying new popularity?

Recently I was invited to speak at a colloquium breaking open the Lineamenta for the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization. I was given the topic Bringing Forth Treasures Both Old and New which prompted me to reflect on the ‘old treasure’ of pilgrimage. Why does this practice appeal to people in a post modern, secular society like my country of Australia?

Maybe it is because it is such a tangible, material and experiential thing. The pilgrim goes on a physical and spiritual journey. It is a quest that engages all of our senses and invites us into the Christian story through the people, places and events of history. It is not just a cognitive exercise. It reminds us that spirituality is not primarily a thing to be understood but rather something to be experienced. Faith is not just a matter of accepting teachings but having a relationship with Jesus.

Pilgrimage is a time honoured metaphor for our journey towards right relationship with ourselves, others, and God. Like a physical journey, our path can meander, we can be distracted and take wrong turns, and we can give up and turn back. Or we can meet fellow travellers who become companions with us on the journey, encouraging and supporting us, sharing the ups and downs.

A pilgrimage is never entirely an individual thing. Even when we are walking alone, we are part of a great community stretching both backwards and forwards in time. Others have trod this path before, and others will come after us. In fact, we are never really alone in the present. We live our response to God in our relationships with others, in the way in which we relate to the rest of creation, and in how we work for justice in relationships between different groups in society – or not.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola was fond of the metaphor of pilgrimage for our journey of faith, referring to himself only as ‘The Pilgrim’ in the account of his life which he rather reluctantly dictated to his companion Goncalves da Camera.

The sites that one visits on pilgrimage are not always linked to happy events. At the cave in Manresa we remember Ignatius’ struggles with scruples and the entertainment of false consolations as much as we recall his mystical experience of the Trinity nearby on the bank of the Cardoner.

In the lead up to the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 I recall being very struck by an instruction on The Pilgrimage in the Great Jubilee. It encouraged pilgrimage to ‘places desecrated by sin’ (n 31) such as Auswitch and Hiroshima. Pilgrimage to these difficult places can be a way of healing memory. Visiting and praying at such sites of evil, may help communities to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and re-member them more constructively for the future. If we acknowledge what happened, and the role our community played in allowing or actively committing such acts, we can put our history together again in a new and more positive way. Evil and wrongdoing need not have the last word in our shared story. We can write another chapter together and reposition suffering in a transformative context.

It is my hope that in time to come pilgrimages to sites where Aboriginal people were massacred, and to the institutions where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were held after being removed from their families to be ‘integrated’ into white society, will receive as many visits from pilgrims as the sites associated with Australia’s first Saint, Mary of the Cross MacKillop. I dream of a national pilgrimage which starts at the Reconciliation Church at La Perouse, the point of first contact between the British colonisers and the Aboriginal people. Where such a pilgrimage would end I am not yet sure.

For Reflection

Imagine that you are planning a pilgrimage for young social justice activists in your country. Which places would you visit, and why?

Sandie Cornish

About the author: Sandie

3 comments to “Pilgrimage as a Social Justice Practice”

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  1. Sandie - Oct 14, 2011 Reply

    I’m looking forward to seeing the video series Tony. Sounds like a great tool to share the experience more broadly.

  2. Tony Robertson - Oct 13, 2011 Reply

    Thanks for this reflection Sandie. I regularly get to lead a group of Catholic High School students around South Brisbane when they visit to provide a BBQ at the Brisbane Homelessness Service Centre.

    It is something of a pilgrimage as I take them to places where people have been dispossessed from traditional ownership to the more recent movement of those who were moved to make way for Expo88 along the Brisbane River at Southbank.

    We stop at the abandoned hall of Queensland Patriots to reflect on war and peace. We visit a new housing project, Common Ground which will provide housing for some of the most vulnerable people who have been living rough in our city.

    We pass boarding houses and the Ozcare residential centre for homeless men. We also ponder the impact of gentrification on this community hub.

    I am currently doing a video series on this “pilgrimage” as it has probably had as much impact on me as the staff and students who walk this journey with me.

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