Philip O’Reilly on the important role of pilgrimage in facilitating church growth

It has taken until the beginning of my third decade of ordained ministry to achieve it, but during the autumn term of 2013 I finally had a sabbatical. I was extremely fortunate in being generously supported by the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith and other Catholic Charities within the Church of England and was able to spend much of my time at Pusey House, Oxford as well as making pilgrimage to Walsingham, Lourdes and Rome and visiting brother priests in the Catholic Tradition whose parishes are experiencing growth. All of this being done to the end that I might be able to draw some conclusions about what is working within Catholic parishes ahead of sharing that good news with the wider church.

The Message of Lourdes

The first tranche of my time was spent on Pilgrimage to Rome, Lourdes and Walsingham and I was perhaps struck most by my time in Lourdes. The celebrated story of Lourdes is well known. The official website for the domain rehearses the glad tale:

‘On 11th February 1858 Bernadette, her sister Toinette and a friend of theirs, Jeanne, went looking for wood on the meadows and led towards The place where the canal rejoins the River Gave’. They were in front of the Grotto of Massabielle, Toinette and Jeanne crossed the icy water, crying out with the cold; Bernadette hesitated to do this because of her chronic asthma, She heard a noise like a gust of wind’ but none of the trees were moving’ Raising her head, she saw, in a hollow of the rock a small young lady, who looked at her and who smiled at her. This was the first Apparition of the Virgin Mary,’

The Message of Lourdes, the gestures and words that were exchanged between Virgin Mary and Bernadette Soubirous at the Grotto of Massabielle, have redounded through history. Those who make the Pilgrimage to Lourdes find themselves, through the times of prayer, procession, sacramental encounter and fellowship, to be drawn very close to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Maternal Care of the Blessed Virgin.

‘Come here in processions’

Perhaps this is not so surprising because having declared that `I am the Immaculate Conception’ Mary also said in the 13th Apparition: ‘Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and build a chapel here: The domain website reflecting upon this Apparition states:

‘Come here in procession’ means always moving, in this life, towards others, `Build a chapel here.’ In Lourdes, chapels were built to receive the crowds that came here. But these chapels are only the signs of the communion based on the love to tivhich we are called. The chapel is the `Church’ that we want to build where we are, in our family, at our place of work, in our parish, in our diocese. AU Christians spend their lives building the Church, living in communion with others.’

These words ring very true for me. I have experienced for myself the renewing and energizing impact of pilgrimage to Lourdes and Walsingham and have observed the same effects among other people. This leads me to a firm conclusion and one that has been borne out in my conversations with brother priests as a part of my research. The conclusion is that going on pilgrimage is a feature of Catholic parishes that is experiencing numerical and spiritual growth.

An investment

Therefore, in our local context, what we are doing when we organize pilgrimages to Walsingham is something that is of high importance in terms of the promotion of church growth. Parishes would accordingly be very well advised to be much more ambitious and creative in finding the funding to enable more and more children, young people and adults to go on pilgrimage. This is because it is an investment that will repay itself many times over in terms of both spiritual and, eventually, numerical growth because people who are more alive spiritually are more willing to turn their hands to the crucial work of mission and evangelism in their home parishes. For as our Lady has said: ‘Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and build a chapel here’.

Give it a go

I would also add that the Children’s Pilgrimage in the spring, the Youth Pilgrimage in the summer and the autumn Families Pilgrimage to Walsingham are all fruitful and productive ways of revitalizing and sustaining parish ministry to children and families. Many dioceses will be willing to help with the funding if an imaginative case is put forward and clearly linked to mission objectives. So please think about giving it a go and making pilgrimage a priority if you really are serious about facilitating church growth within our Tradition. It has worked for my parish and for many others too.

In my next article I will be thinking about my time at Pusey House and the witness of Dr Pusey and what this can tell us about promoting the growth of the Church in parishes of our Tradition.