I just returned home from leading a large group of youth and young adults from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to World Youth Day in Lisbon. While I have led many pilgrimages, there is nothing like the experience of a pilgrimage to World Youth Day.
I had watched many other WYDs from afar: reading the Holy Father’s speeches, watching television coverage, looking at pictures. Nothing prepared me for being there, but it was powerful to see the images I once only saw on a screen, now in person: The youth running to catch a glimpse of the passing Popemobile. The flags and the joy of the crowds. The sunset and sunrise over an epically-large mass of people. The World Youth Day cross being carried by the youth.
One image struck me differently in person as it did on a screen: the human chains. In pictures, the chains of people look beautiful and inspiring. In real life, they are annoying and often dangerous. For practical purposes, holding on to the person in front of you is often an act of sheer terror as you try not to get separated from the person in front of you! In practice, it can often harm other people and prevent the crowd from moving safely.
But let’s simply stick to the idea of it, minus the dangers and annoyance, and think about that image: Youth holding on to each other, chains of people leading others in a certain direction. It has a spiritual dimension.
That is the journey of the Christian. Any Christian pilgrimage is supposed to be an image of the great pilgrimage of our life. They are moments where we step out of our comfort zone, out of our routine, to encounter the living God.
Pope Benedict pointed out that pilgrimages are not just to see art or historical sites. “To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.”
A pilgrimage is full of hardship and joy, sacrifices and blessings, focused simultaneously on the journey and the destination Beginning with our baptism, we are on a pilgrimage through this temporary homeland, our eyes set on our heavenly home. Pope Francis reminds us, “Always remember this: life is a journey. It is a path, a journey to meet Jesus.”
These pilgrimages through life are not accomplished alone. And this is why that image of the young people joined together, journeying as one, hand in hand or hand to shoulder, was the perfect image of our Christian life. The life of a Christian is not the pursuit of a private relationship with Jesus Christ, but a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And this personal relationship is found alongside others.
It’s not about Jesus and me. It’s about Jesus and us. That is what I saw in that image from World Youth Day. The Mystical Body of Christ, traveling together towards its final end.
We see it again and again in both the New Testament. The images for the Church are not of individuals, but those of a community. The Body of Christ. The People of God. The net of fish. Fields of grain. The Vine and the Branches. Even in the Old Testament, we do not see individuals being saved alone, but families and nations.
This is why Pope Francis said, “It is not possible to find Jesus outside the Church.” It is a personal quest, a personal journey, but not one made alone or in isolation.
How are you going to live a holy life? Thanks to the prayers of the community that surrounds you. You don’t know at this moment who might be praying for you. Perhaps it’s a friend or relative, or perhaps it is a cloistered nun in a convent far away. Through our prayers, our acts of service, and our witness, we help our brothers and sisters on their journey to heaven. And they help us in the same way.
Pope Francis reminds us, “It is impossible to believe on our own. Faith is not simply an individual decision which takes place in the depths of the believer’s heart, nor a completely private relationship between the ‘I’ of the believer and the divine ‘Thou’, between an autonomous subject and God. By its very nature, faith is open to the ‘We’ of the Church; it always takes place within her communion. We are reminded of this by the dialogical format of the creed used in the baptismal liturgy. Our belief is expressed in response to an invitation, to a word which must be heard and which is not my own; it exists as part of a dialogue and cannot be merely a profession originating in an individual. We can respond in the singular — ‘I believe’ — only because we are part of a greater fellowship, only because we also say ‘We believe.’”
Let us walk together, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand. At times our grip on the person in front of us is a little tighter. Other times we feel like we are holding up the person behind us. The entire chain is held by Christ, and together we move forward.
Let us pick up those among us that have fallen and entrust their wounds to Christ the healer. Let us be encouraged by those who have walked in front of us and have reached our goal already. Let us reject the selfishness of Cain who denies he is his brother’s keeper, and let us accept the command of Christ to Peter to strengthen our brothers. Let us be encouraged to live lives of hope, knowing that we do not walk this pilgrimage alone.
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