A pilgrim church
November 7, 2018
Last month’s Synod on Youth, in which I participated, gave the church an opportunity to reflect on what it means for us to be a pilgrim people, marching through time to proclaim the kingdom of God. After all, the word “synod” derives from the Greek words “syn” and “hodos,” which mean “traveling on the way with others.” At one point in our discussions, it was suggested that we actually make a pilgrimage as a group in the city of Rome.
About 200 bishops and young people started out early one morning on a five-mile walk. That experience provided a chance to think about how the various aspects of a pilgrimage have much to say about the church, particularly in this shameful moment in the life of the church.
Striking out on a new journey means leaving the familiar behind. We left the Vatican by bus and were taken to the top of Monte Mario, a hill that overlooks Rome.
A pilgrimage by definition is an experience in which participants form a new community. We had to leave behind our desire to walk in our own ways, ways that make us feel secure. This cost each of us something, but we soon realized that there was much to gain from the experience of forming a community, relying not on familiar ways but finding a new kind of consolation as a result.
In this uncertain time for the church, the Lord is calling us to take up new ways of being church, which will mean leaving behind the familiar. One of these new ways involves a deep sense of co-responsibility for the church, one that is marked by accountability. It is a church in which leaders put into practice the words of Jesus, that they have been sent to serve and not to be served.
On our synod pilgrimage, we traveled along rocky paths, steep inclines and narrow roads. We had to help each other, to accompany each other, realizing that we travel at different paces, but that we needed to stay together. Such an experience opens a new way to understand the meaning of unity, one that appreciates that differences do not have to divide us but can actually show us how we enrich each other by complementing our strengths and weaknesses. In fact, being one is the first mark of the church, as we say in the creed.
This does not mean that people do not have a right to be angry and upset. Those are righteous feelings. But those feelings should be channeled in a way that brings about a new kind of unity that leads to real reforms in the life of the church. We have some difficult roads ahead, but remaining together, accompanying each other, is the way of a pilgrim people, a pilgrim church.
Our pilgrimage in Rome, while difficult at times, opened new vistas as we came to spots overlooking the entire city in all its splendor. The panoramas offered gave us a sense of anticipation about what was waiting for us at the end of our journey, encouraging us to keep moving forward.
Beneath the anger of many over the present crisis is a deep sadness. It is a sadness that the church they love is better than this. That “better” needs to be kept before us, as beacon to move toward with hope. We have so many glimpses of the “better,” in our charitable works, our schools and parishes, all of which do so much good each day. Pilgrims are people of hope because of these glimpses of the “better” draw them forward, one step at a time.
Finally, when we reached our destination, St. Peter’s Basilica, we celebrated the Eucharist in the presence of the Holy Father. We were not dressed as a typical group who come to St. Peter’s for Mass, but as pilgrims who showed the dusty signs of the journey we had taken together. It did not matter. We were together as one family and we knew we were home.
As we work toward necessary reforms in the church, as we deepen our commitment to keeping young people safe, we will have to bear the challenges of pilgrimage. But I am encouraged to keep moving ahead, confident that Pope Francis is dedicated to bringing about reforms that make us a church that holds itself and its leaders accountable, a church that values the baptism and gifts of every member and defines leadership not as a matter of serving by governing, but governing by serving.
Being on pilgrimage will cost us something, but there is so much to gain, and that gives me hope.