In the above photo: Seminarian John Upton pauses to take a selfie in front of the Spoleto Cathedral in Italy. This church was consecrated by Pope Innocent III in 1198.

Wikipedia says: “A pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphorical journey …”

There are many opportunities to satisfy one’s spiritual wanderlust. A pilgrimage always seems available through various group travel trips offered by different entities within, as well as outside, the diocese. Going with a group offers some advantages: the planning is already done! Many times there will be someone who serves as a spiritual leader for the trip such as a priest or deacon. Once at your destinations, knowledgeable guides will highlight the significance of sites. Group travel takes some of the stress of planning away so you can focus on the spiritual aspect of the trip.

But for some, group travel is not their personal choice and therefore go on their own, such as Father Ryan Humphries, pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Church in Tallulah, who has just embarked on a three-month personal spiritual pilgrimage to Europe. The main feature of his trip will be to hike the Camino de Santiago that traverses the length of Spain. The Camino de Santiago is also known as “the Way” and is a popular route for pilgrims.

Before leaving, Fr. Ryan said his day-to-day life as a pastor is relatively predictable and stable but that in the last few years, he has noticed a clear change in the world and in the Church and that change means that priests move around more. It means that priests are less stable and have to be more ready to adjust rapidly to changing situations. His hope is to build up his capacity for the unexpected. He believes he will be in a near-constant state of instability, staying in a different village every night and meeting new people every day.

“There’s a lot to be said for the value of hiking in itself,” Fr. Ryan says. “A journey is a journey, after all. The Camino is different for it’s over religious themes, it’s historicity, it’s hikers and it’s destination(s). Religiously speaking, basically all of Northern Spain is Catholic and every little village has an historic Church with strong ties to some specific and unique saint or event in Church history. There are hundreds of buildings along the Camino dating to the 13th and 14th centuries.”

Plaza de San Jose, Pamplona, Father Ryan Humphries shares a photo the day before he embarks on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Click on the image to enlarge.

Diocese of Alexandria seminarian, Thomas Kennedy, spent a few weeks this past May on a pilgrimage to Ireland, Scotland and England where he was able to visit Saint Andrews, Durham Cathedral and the relics of Saint Bede and Saint Cuthbert, and the site of the martyrdom of his patron, Saint Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral.

“For me, this was a significant spiritual journey in which I brought many prayer intentions, including those for family, friends, our diocese, and my summer assignment at Saint Edward’s in Tallulah. It was also significant for me because the last time I was in England I was an Episcopalian, so to be there now as a Catholic is a special opportunity. It was also a genealogical journey for me, as many of my ancestors are from these three countries.”

One of the spiritual highlights of his pilgrimage was the opportunity to pray Morning Prayers in the chapel in Scotland where his ancestor, Bishop James Kennedy is buried and though, not planned, was there on the anniversary of Bishop Kennedy’s death.

Another moment of grace which he said was unplanned happened when kneeling to pray vespers on the site of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket, they saw a sign that indicated that on that very day, May 29, 1982, Saint Pope John Paul II knelt and prayed at that same spot asking for the intercession of Saint Thomas Becket.
When asked how his trip influenced his faith he replied: “Yes, I think the pilgrimage made a great difference in my faith. It really solidified to me, who I am as a person. My family and my faith come from these countries and the Catholicism as it was practiced there at that time and seeing my faith and family roots helps me know who I am in a more profound way.”

Seminarian Thomas Kennedy stands next to St. Edward the Confessor’s Tomb at Westminster Abbey in London. Click on the image to enlarge.

Another seminarian of the diocese, John Upton, travelled alone to Europe this past June. John hiked over 100 miles on foot during his pilgrimage.

“I chose to go on my pilgrimage alone. This particular pilgrimage is not as famous as others (such as the Camino in Spain), and I only met four other pilgrims on my entire trip. This led to quite a bit of solitude.

“I truly cherish the opportunity for solitude for a couple of reasons. The first, and probably most obvious reason, is so that I could open my ears to the Lord and spend ample time in prayer and meditation. The solitude also allowed me to truly cherish the human interactions that I experienced. It reminded me not to take my relationships at home, which are truly gifts from God, for granted.

“Probably the biggest take away from my pilgrimage, as a whole, was the realization that our entire lives should be viewed as a pilgrimage. We should live for God in everything that we do during our short time here on earth. Our entire lives should be viewed as a journey that is undergone completely for the sake of our devotion to Christ.

“My trip was in many ways a metaphor for life. Things didn’t always go as planned. I was uncomfortable at times. I got lost on several occasions. However, God always provided in unexpected ways. I truly felt like I was often walking by faith and not by sight. One memorable example of this would be when I walked into the small town of Piedeluco. I was looking for the pilgrim’s hostel in town, but I did not know where to go and the hostel was not answering their phone. Not knowing where I’d stay that night, I decided to seek out the Church in town. Above the church, I noticed a statue of the Blessed Virgin, so I walked towards it, fully confident that my heavenly mother would take care of me (even if not on my terms). As soon as I reached the statue, a priest from Romania appeared out of a building nearby and seeing that I was a pilgrim, asked if I needed a place to stay.”

The Way of St. Francis takes the pilgrim between Florence and Rome, passing through many holy sites, including cathedrals, basilicas, convents, and monasteries. It also brings the pilgrim to many beautiful forests, mountains, and landscapes that St. Francis of Assisi traveled through during his lifetime.

So, for those seeking to enrich and strengthen their faith, perhaps a pilgrimage is the answer. Length of time, destinations and especially cost are things to consider but ultimately it would no doubt be a trip of a lifetime and the spiritual benefits will extend far beyond the end of the journey.