Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (CPR)
This relatively new Confraternity (www.pilgrimstorome.org.uk)was born just four years ago, sprouting as an independent association from the Confraternity of St James (Camino de Santiago). I went to my first meeting with them at the weekend, which took place in the conference room of St James’ Church, Piccadilly, a basement room within earshot of the Christmas markets taking place in the street above. Some of the people assembled there were known to me only as names tagged onto emails or message boards, so it was good to put faces to them. Others came from a variety of backgrounds with a fascinatingly motley interest in the Via Francigena, some as pilgrims, writers and researchers, others who were simply drawn out of curiosity and wanted to learn more.
The focus of interest was much wider than the implications of the VF. We were treated to a fascinating visual account of the meaning of Buddhist pilgrimage, by a couple (Ian Brodick and Rosemary Norton) who had experienced the challenges of the Kailash Kora, a high altitude venture in a remote part of Tibet. Jim Brodie brought us further west and took us along part of St Paul’s journey through modern Turkey, finishing at the site of historic Antioch. Walking the route solo, he vividly focussed on the thrills and spills of venturing into remote areas in search of a destination.
The final session, which had the challenge of re-awakening the audience’s attention after generous servings of wine at lunch, really caught my attention. Ian Holdsworth, an Anglican priest, talked about his sabbatical year when he walked to Santiago de Compostela, and how that ignited his interest in restoring the historical significance of the Camino in this country, and re-establishing a route through middle England connecting several St James’ churches, thus linking Northampton with Portsmouth, where a ferry can be boarded to northern Spain, to resume the journey to Santiago. Check out his webpage here
I liked his distinction between a pilgrimage of journeying (where it is the journey that counts) and a pilgrimage of destination (where the arriving is the key thing), and I applauded his acknowledgement that the most important consequence of pilgrimage is how it changes us as people when we get back to where we started (ie home). In other words, pilgrimage is all about leaving your front door, travelling to a distant place of spiritual or personal significance and returning to your starting point with a new pair of eyes. To quote T.S.Eliot again: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding Quartet).
The Testimonium. It was time to do battle with the crowds in St Peter’s Square and get into the Basilica and find the obscurely located office of Don Bruno Vercesi, the priest in charge of dispensing the official Vatican stamp on your pilgrim’s passport and rewarding you with the Testimonium of completion of the VF. Brandishing my pilgrim’s passport, I dared to ignore all the long queues and rapidly made my way into the heart of the Basilica. I discovered how recondite this office was because several of the security staff were unsure as to its whereabouts. I forged my way into the sacristy, ignoring ‘no entry’ signs until I was stopped by security. I held out my passport to him and his attitude changed immediately. He ushered me into the innermost recess of the sacristy where I was met by the man in charge (but not Don Bruno, who could dispense the Testimonium). I was told that he was only available Monday-Friday, and that I should return on Monday. Of course, I protested, and tried to insist that he could dispense it……but I knew he was going to win. So I got the stamp, but will have to return on Monday.
The road less travelled? The VF, in comparison with the route to Santiago de Compostela, may be the road less travelled, but it is amazing how VF travellers manage to locate each other. The group of four UK cyclists that I first met in Piacenza crossing a piazza, I met several times en route, once we stayed in the same hostel, and once they saw my name in the visitor’s book of a hostel I had just left. Now, amidst the thousands of tourists milling around St Peter’s, apparently they bet each other a beer on who would see me first. I think it was Mike who will be drinking several free beers tonight, paid for by his friends Laurent, Nick and Tim. You can’t see Tim in this photo, because he is outside St Peter’s looking after the bikes!
Teaching English to the Italians? Would you recommend that Italians should learn the English spoken by this gentleman? Or is it, now that he has lost his place in the England team, that he’s having to sell his time at 8euros an hour to make ends meet?
Pilgrimage in the modern world. I know what I am about to say may be controversial, but it might get people thinking. In the Catholic world places like Fatima and Lourdes are much visited shrines, and people talk about going ‘on pilgrimage’ to these places. Given that most get there by plane, train or coach, this is not ‘pilgrimage’ really, it should be called ‘paying a visit to’ a shrine. Now, that is not to devalue the experience, but just to correct the use of language.
However, I also want to ‘correct’ our idea of the medieval notion of pilgrimage. Although I am a committed Christian, I do believe that the major religions of this world have ‘hijacked’ the notion of pilgrimage, and made it fit their own purposes for spiritual advancement. In the Christian world, the 13th and 14th centuries were notorious for this promotion and, amongst many things, the sale of indulgences did much to discredit the value of the journey. The basic meaning of the term ‘pilgrim’ is one who ‘wanders, travels or journeys to a destination’, and in medieval times that was an arduous undertaking usually done on foot. People travel the ancient ways for a variety of reasons, and not necessarily religious ones. Pilgrimage should be seen as a journey with a purpose, and that purpose could be anything. I’ve met people trying to resolve personal situations (marriage, family, friendships), celebrating coming through an illness or serious operation, or simply wanting personal time with their own thoughts as they travel along. One Dutch pilgrim I met, on the way to Santiago, had no belief whatsoever in the hereafter, and when I asked him “why to Santiago?” his response was illuminating: “well, any destination will do, it’s the journey that counts”.
And that, for me, is the nature of ‘pilgrimage’. Arriving in Rome was an exciting conclusion, but the journey was the thing that really counted: what I learned about myself, disconnecting from the ordinary things of life, and the things I learned from those I encountered on the journey. The journey is what you make of it yourself. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado included the following lines in a famous poem: “Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, nada más; caminante no hay camino, se hace el camino al andar” (Traveller, the road is made up of your own footprints, nothing else. Traveller, there is no road ahead, you make the road as you go along). And closer to home, in the poem Little Gidding, T.S.Eliot wrote these famous lines: “We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time”.
For me, that is the very essence of ‘pilgrimage’. Neither poet even mentioned the term ‘pilgrimage’, but they understood it. If, after a long journey like a pilgrimage, you begin to see your own everyday life with new eyes, then your journey has been a success. In some small way, your life will be changed forever.
Haiti. Once again, thank you to all who have donated to the re-building of the Claretian school in Port-au-Prince. Fr Anistus is immensely appreciative, and the money is going to an extremely deserving cause.