Pilgrims at the Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth (courtesy of John Paul Lichon)
"To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art, or history. 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.”
- Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
As part of CORDA's "Matter Matters" series, I interviewed John Paul Lichon of Verso Ministries. He had his life forever changed while on pilgrimage, and now his life's work is to help others draw closer to God through these special journeys. In the interview below, John Paul shares with us an inside look at the importance of pilgrimages and how as Christians we are all called to be pilgrims.
What makes a pilgrimage a pilgrimage? Why do we make pilgrimages?
Personally, I have a pretty open-ended understanding of pilgrimage. Meaning, there are lots of ways to have a pilgrimage experience or make a pilgrimage. But simply put, a pilgrimage is a life-transforming journey where you encounter God's presence in the world today. As Catholics, we believe in a God that is incarnational and sacramental. God's presence is alive, active, and moving in our world today. When we go on a pilgrimage, we tap into that presence, making time and space to listen and be present to the Holy Spirit active in our world today.
How far back does pilgrimage go?
Journey is a central theme throughout all of Sacred Scripture. Obviously, we hear of the journeys of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, and the list goes on and on. The connection between our physical journeys on earth and our spiritual journey to heaven is quite simple - our physical journey sheds light on our spiritual journey. When we make pilgrimages, we create space to think and pray about our spiritual journey to God, Our Father.
What are some ways going on pilgrimage has changed you? Why did you want to start a pilgrimage company?
I started a pilgrimage company while I was on a pilgrimage! So the experience of pilgrimage definitely shaped my own life. You can read about the founding of Verso Ministries on our blog: Verso’s Startup Story
More broadly speaking, experiences of pilgrimage help me to broaden my perspective. They help me to get out of myself and out of my own routine, my own life, and help me see the world in a different light. And not just in a secular travel sort of way, but in a deeply spiritual way. Pilgrimage helps me to understand myself better, it helps me meet and connect with other people and cultures, which helps me to also understand God differently. In such a deep and profound way, the experience of pilgrimage can form you and shape you in very meaningful and profound ways, but you have to be open to it.
Pier Giorgio Frassati is a patron saint for both our businesses! How has he inspired your work with Verso Ministries?
Frassati was known for his adventurous spirit, his devout faith and prayer life, and his commitment to the poor. These are all things that we hope to embody at Verso Ministries. We want to help people to go out and discover the world, seek God in faraway and holy places, travel the world in order to help find their path back to God. Through this, we hope to form disciples for mission. People are alive with the love of God and want to serve the world and the Church with their gifts and talents.
Why does actually going to a particular place or pilgrimage site matter?
God's presence can be found anywhere and everywhere, but there are particular ways in which God reveals himself to us at specific times in specific places for specific reasons. The beauty of going on pilgrimages to lots of different holy sites throughout the world is that each holy site reveals a unique beauty, character, or "flavor" of God. For instance, if you want to experience God's healing, you might go to Lourdes in France or St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Canada. If you want to experience God in silence and in contemplative prayer, you might pray the Liturgy of the Hours with the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. If you want to understand the humanity of Jesus, you can head to the Holy Land to walk in the places and spaces where Jesus was alive and walking this earth. All of these holy places help us understand a unique charism of the mystery of God.
Sea of Galilee (courtesy of John Paul Lichon)
So, the physical place matters, but why is a pilgrimage first and foremost about the spiritual? What is the interior/spiritual side of being a pilgrim, that we are all called to in our everyday life?
A pilgrimage is simply a vehicle by which we can reflect on our spiritual journey home to God in heaven. We can think of our whole life as a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to heaven. So for this reason, a pilgrimage is definitely first and foremost about the spiritual, because the main goal is to grow closer to God - through our prayer, but also through our actions and our decisions in every day life.
I often ask pilgrims the "So what?" question when they are leaving a pilgrimage. So you had this amazing, wonderful pilgrimage - so what? What now? The most important part of the journey is the return home, because the aftermath of a pilgrimage is when the fruits of a pilgrimage would be born. So I often encourage pilgrims to ask themselves, "So what? What now? Where did I see God at work during this pilgrimage? And where or what did I feel God inviting me into on my return home?"
What ways can you prepare spiritually for a pilgrimage?
It's simple - pray. Pray for your pilgrimage. Ask people to pray for you and ask them if you can take any prayers for them. I always encourage pilgrims to bring at least one prayer intention with them on a pilgrimage. Maybe it's a prayer of healing for a loved one, maybe it's a prayer for wisdom or strength in a tough decision, maybe it's a prayer of thanksgiving for a recent blessing. Whatever it is, just make sure you bring along one prayer intention on your journey.
After a pilgrimage, how can that experience continue to bear fruit in your life?
And after the pilgrimage ends, again, I think it's about taking time to ask yourself that "so what" question. So what? What now? What invitations have been placed before me during this pilgrimage, and how will I now respond?
I once heard a seminarian talk about his morning "pilgrimage to the chapel" and it struck me because I associate a pilgrimage with a far-off place around the world. How can we find local places for pilgrimage?
Love it. You can do a pilgrimage anywhere and everywhere. All it takes is an open heart and the desire to see and hear God's movements around you.
On a more practical level, there are some great resources online to help you find a more "traditional" pilgrimage site nearby. A new friend, Theresa, just started an online ministry sharing all about American pilgrimage sites. Definitely recommend a follow on her IG page! You can find her @the_little_pilgrim.
Thank you, John Paul, for sharing so beautifully about pilgrimages!
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, "Pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer" (par. 2691).
I hope you are able to make a pilgrimage soon, whether near or far!
This interview is part of CORDA's "Matter Matters" series, reflections on the sacramental nature of our faith and the goodness of creation. Stay tuned for more posts coming soon.