Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Loreto-Bound: The Experience of Pilgrimage

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

As young people return home from an invigorating World Youth Day in Rio, and as pilgrims trod the historic path of St. James, and as student groups return from pilgrimages within Canada, these mid-summer months seem conducive to a look at the hallowed Jesuit tradition of “the pilgrimage”. What follows is an account of this author’s first Ignatian pilgrimage, an eight-day foot-journey undertaken when he was a resident student of the Casa Balthasar in Rome.

The idea of making a pilgrimage, that is, journeying to some place of spiritual significance, is commonly understood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, but as to what may entail an ‘Ignatian pilgrimage’, would require further explanation. Such a pilgrimage is taken after the example of that perennial pilgrim, St. Ignatius of Loyola, who himself followed those first disciples of Our Lord (Mt 10:5-16, Mk 6:7-13, Lk 9:1-6), who were sent to preach without any provisions, to rely on whatever God would provide for them. Therefore it was in this ‘Ignatian’ spirit of trusting in Divine Providence, that a pair of students from the Casa Balthasar set out for eight full days without money, though with a razor and a toothbrush between them. This was also going to be an exercise in pushing the limits of one’s comfort zone.

Their destination was the hallowed Marian shrine at Loreto, situated close to the Adriatic coast in the region of Le Marche, and visited over the course of 700 years by a long list of pilgrims and saints, including St. Ignatius himself. At the beginning of their pilgrimage, the two young men stepped off the train at a town called Jesi, and immediately went to commend their endeavour to the Lord at the local cathedral, given that their purpose was primarily to seek the Kingdom of God, rather than merely find food and lodging each night. They would try to be conscious of this along the journey.

After having trod the streets of Jesi for some time, they met a husband and wife who were overseeing a kitchen for the disadvantaged (including in this case, our young pilgrims), and were given a warm supper and then, to their surprise, lodging at a local hostel, paid for by the couple. This proved to be a type of leitmotiv running through the length of the pilgrimage: a sense of acute vulnerability and even emptiness was often ministered to in unexpected ways, instilling wonder in their spirits in the face of such generosity.

The life of the poor pilgrim is not only one of simple joys, such as receiving from the goodness of others, nor that free feeling of being on the ‘open road’, but a certain humility in having to beg for one’s ‘daily bread’ and to accept matters when requests are turned down. After that first comfortable night in Jesi, the pilgrims experienced the desolation of having nowhere to sleep the second night, after having walked to the next town in the Italian countryside. So they continued to walk in pitch darkness, and eventually attempted to sleep on a piece of grassy slope beside the road. While the night was fairly warm, the incessant activity of insects and bugs kept them from sleeping soundly.

They woke the next morning to the sound of roosters crowing, and continued their trek in the now blistering sun. The day was to grant special insight into the hospitality of parish priests in that part of the world. One elderly priest greeted them at the door; with cassock and soutane, he appeared as if from another time there in the cobbled streets of a hilltop village. He allowed these two complete (and by now a bit scruffy) strangers into his home, eating with them and giving them rooms to sleep in. It was revealed he had been the pastor of that parish for more than 50 years!

Through all these contrasting shades of experience, the pilgrims sought to maintain their mutual co-operation and hope in the benevolence of God. At the end of the third day, they found accommodation at a friary in the town of Osimo (the resting-place of St. Joseph of Cupertino, the ‘flying friar’ of levitation fame). Among the narrow streets of the medieval city, they spotted an open door with the inviting sounds of festivity within. It turned out to be a parish centre, which was currently holding a party for its youth group, primarily composed of immigrant children. The two pilgrims (also technically immigrants) were invited to join the feasting and games of ping-pong and foosball that were being played with gusto. A component of the Ignatian pilgrimage is to look for opportunities to serve the local community hosting you, even if that simply means joining youth in their games; indeed, the next day they would play basketball at a public park in Osimo. A different type of service was on offer at the next port of call, the Marian sanctuary of Campocavallo, the pair were commissioned to dust and re-order an entire library for a small community of Franciscans, in exchange for room and board – a welcome bit of indoor labour.

By the end of the week, the two men again were asked to feel the discomfort of the road, when at Castelfidardo (the last stop before Loreto) they met little success finding shelter and food, but were given the donation of two cartons of milk and an industrial sized packet of biscuits. Homeless, but thus fortified, the intrepid pilgrims decided to make for their destination, even though it meant arriving in Loreto after dark. They strode towards the town in the dim light of the evening, the basilica of Loreto already visible on its mountain in the distance.

Exterior of Santa Casa (

When they arrived in Loreto, the pilgrims found that the hostels were like five-star hotels, and cost accordingly. Nobody could give them room free of charge. So they wandered back into the dark. Their beds that night were a couple of park benches, and after having awoken with the dawn chorus of birds, they made their way to the basilica. Inside it rests the tiny ‘Santa Casa’ (Holy House), believed to be the home where Mary dwelt in Nazareth. The structure is composed of 2000-year old bricks with tiny windows, and was transported to Italy during one of the Crusades, allegedly in some kind of miraculous or semi-miraculous fashion across the Mediterranean Sea. The awe-inspiring significance of this small atmospheric house was underlined by the Latin words inscribed above the altar within: HIC VERBUM CARO FACTUM EST (“Here the Word was made flesh”). The pilgrims sat on the floor and prayed.

Interior of the Santa Casa, Loreto

They remained in Loreto for two nights. They were eventually given the floor of a parish hall to sleep on (plus carpet for bedding) by a priest who was a bit concerned about the sunburn on one of them. Then, spiritually reinvigorated, they returned by train to Rome, after what had truly been a poignant finale to their year’s formation at the Casa Balthasar, having experienced the profoundly incarnate realism of an Ignatian spirituality.

John O’Brien joined the Society of Jesus shortly after this pilgrimage, while his travelling companion, Jonathon Rollinson, joined the Benedictine community of Belmont Abbey in England.

1 comment:

  1. That was a 'life' tale vividly told ... reads like out of a novel ... I very much enjoyed reading it. What strikes me was the act of surrendering. As to why one protagonist chose the Jesuit order and the other, Benedictine, ... wouldn't that be another tale to be told?