The graces of pilgrimage
By Jean Torkelson
It’s almost an axiom: People who go on pilgrimage come back, surprised.
Whether the journey is through the mountains of Spain, a cathedral in Denver, or into a small parish church on the Colorado plains, a pilgrim finds the movement toward God, and away from self, invariably leads to something unexpected—whether it’s a quiet insight, an answered prayer, a humbling moment, or a grace received.
The role of pilgrim has become familiar to Father Brady Wagner, parochial vicar at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Littleton. Well before his ordination in 2011, Father Wagner had made pilgrimages to many of the world’s most beloved sites. His growing list now stretches from Poland to the Holy Land.
Last June, he and some fellow priests launched what they hope will become an annual 20-mile pilgrimage from Cabrini Parish to Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden. Even for a seasoned pilgrim it’s a unique opportunity.
“You almost never get the chance to do this—to be able to go from the parish of the patronal saint, to the place where the saint actually lived and worked,” Father Wagner said.
Now the Cabrini pilgrimage even has a name—Camino Colorado, borrowed from the name of Europe’s famous and ancient pilgrim trek, Camino de Santiago. This year’s pilgrimage is June 7, the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was a special devotion for Mother Cabrini. (For information on taking part, call Cabrini Parish at 303-979-7688.)
Year of Faith/Year for pilgrims
This year Colorado Catholics have an array of pilgrimage opportunities within the state. As a complement to the Year of Faith, Archbishop Samuel Aquila has designated eight pilgrimage destinations in parish churches and a shrine accessibly placed throughout northern Colorado.
Whether the destination is near or far, pilgrimage is natural to the human heart, as Father Wagner explained in an interview about the pilgrimage experience to the Denver Catholic Register.
“Pilgrimage—that’s our whole life, actually,” Father Wagner said. “We are a pilgrim people—the profound beauty of pilgrimage is that you go to seek something and you encounter someone.”
And the encounter can happen on the other side of the world or in a neighborhood church in Colorado.
“It becomes a pilgrimage by way of intention, when you seek to make it a prayerful experience and encounter the Lord,” Father Wagner explained. “Oftentimes, the grace comes in the journey, just as much as in the destination.”
As on most journeys, a pilgrimage requires simplicity.
“When you go on a pilgrimage there is only so much you can take with you—you leave a lot behind,” he said. “You go into the silence, to be stripped of all of the noise, distractions and entertainment of our world.”
A pilgrimage is also a time for giving and receiving love, but sometimes not so easily.
“A lot of times you end up suffering a little bit—say that someone is not able to walk very well and is having a difficult time—it’s a great metaphor for life, that you take on someone’s else’s burdens,” Father Wagner said.
Pilgrimage is often humbling.
Father Wagner recalled how his hardy, athletic brother, an accomplished backpacker, set off on the arduous Camino de Santiago, the famed pilgrimage trek leading to the tomb of St. James in northwest Spain.
Suddenly, “his knee gave out and he wasn’t able to walk,” Father Wagner said. “It was a huge surprise—feeling dependent on everybody. To be totally humiliated in a way, to have to receive the charity of others—that was a huge grace for him.”
Expect the unexpected
Above all, pilgrimage offers unexpected moments of joy and grace.
Father Wagner recalled his own pilgrimage, as a seminarian in 2005, to the Our Lady of Czestochowa shrine in Poland. The feast of the Assumption loomed and hundreds of pilgrims lined the route.
“To see people coming out of their houses, offering food and water, to see the excitement, to be singing, praising God” was unforgettable, he said.
Following tradition, the future priest dropped to his knees to pray as they came in sight of the monastery.
“I had been waiting the whole pilgrimage for that moment—to seek out Our Lady as my mother and my queen,” Father Wagner recalled. “Then came this beautiful grace, this simple and subtle voice: ‘It was not you who was looking for me; I was looking for you.’ That was a beautiful grace.”
And sometimes, a pilgrimage offers a moment that leaves pilgrims shaking their heads in awe.
In the Holy Land last May, Father Wagner and fellow pilgrims were visiting the very shoreline where the risen Jesus had called on Peter to “Feed my sheep.” As they stood there, they received word that Fargo Bishop Samuel J. Aquila had just been appointed archbishop of Denver.
To hear the news of Denver’s new shepherd, standing where the Good Shepherd had commissioned the Church’s first shepherd?
“That was extraordinary, to say the least,” Father Wagner said.
On pilgrimage, those moments, whether quiet or extraordinary, always seem to come.
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3262; www.twitter.com/DCRegister