By Father Thom Hennen
Last week five students from the Newman Center in Iowa City and I returned from a 12-day pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain.
We traveled with a group of more than 50 pilgrims organized by the Diocese of Des Moines. It was truly a blessing to be gathered with so many Catholic youth from across the globe.
Before leaving for the pilgrimage some people told me, “Have a nice vacation, Father!” Others would say, “I hope it’s a nice retreat.” I just smiled and nodded, but I knew that it would be neither of those things. Yes, it would involve travel, it would be a break from the routine, and it would be fun, and in that sense it would be like a vacation. Yes, we would do a lot of praying and have time for serious reflection on where God was leading us in our lives, and in that sense it would be like a retreat. But really, a pilgrimage is in a category all its own. It is a physical journey that represents the spiritual journey that is the Christian life. We are truly a pilgrim people. We are a pilgrim Church.
One morning I took my little group of students from the Newman Center to the famous Prado Museum. I’ll admit, we skipped out on one of the catechesis sessions to go, but it was not hard to catechize when looking at some of the greatest art on the planet. One of the many paintings we saw was a painting by Goya of a pilgrimage. We saw in this painting everything that we ourselves had experienced: large crowds, long lines, and yet people playing instruments, singing and smiling. Not much had changed it seemed from the time that Goya was painting. Despite the little sufferings that we all endured there was a prevalent sense of joy in the Lord. To me, this is at the heart of the pilgrimage experience.
The plane ride back gave me an opportunity for further reflection. It occurred to me that it was at once an experience of the “bigness” and the “littleness” of the Church. Obviously, it was an experience of the “bigness” of the Church as we saw 1.5 million pilgrims gather for these events, and a sea of over 2 million for the final Mass with the Holy Father. And they came from every nation, ethnic group and language group. It is very easy sometimes to feel alone as a Catholic in the United States, but here you knew that you were one of a billion, and that is a very reassuring feeling.
At the same time, it was an experience of the “littleness” of the Church. For me personally this was true because each day that we were in Madrid I ran into somebody I knew — now that’s providence, not coincidence. But also, despite the vast crowds there was a sense that we really were one family. Whatever the color of our skin, whatever our language, whatever flag we were waving, there was a powerful sense that we were about the same thing. We were disciples of Jesus Christ, Catholics united with the successor of Peter, pilgrims on a journey to our heavenly homeland.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Diocese of Davenport.)