Could pilgrimage be the new evangelization?
The Catholic faith is an incarnational faith. It is a faith of stuff and places in which we hold relics and sites of pilgrimage in extremely high regard. The Pilgrim Project is a young organization designed to help Catholics encounter the reality of Catholicism in a physical way and grow in their faith.
Founded in 2015 by a group of young professionals from Washington, D.C., the Pilgrim Project was the result of transformational, life-changing experiences on pilgrimage. These friends saw an opportunity to evangelize young adults through pilgrimage.
The seed was planted in Rome. James Uthmeier, who is now the director of the Pilgrim Project, was a law student working in Rome for a legal fellowship. He became friends with Legionaries of Christ seminarian Mark Thelen, who was studying in the Eternal City, and who had become a sort of unofficial tour guide after his years studying there. Thelen would arrange pilgrimage itineraries and logistics for guests visiting Rome, often working with Uthmeier and other young American professionals.
Over time, they noticed a few trends. For one, pilgrimage is a strong tradition in Europe and Latin America, but not so much among Americans, and certainly not among young Americans. Additionally, older pilgrims often said they wished they had gone on pilgrimage at a younger age and prayed for their young adult children. They realized that, even when young adults do go on pilgrimage, they do not often have the chance to go with other young people, on more dynamic and adventurous pilgrimages. This all led to the founding of the Pilgrim Project.
Growing in faith
“Working on the Pilgrim Project has strengthened our faith,” said Uthmeier. “Not just because of the pilgrimages that have positively impacted and shaped us, but also because of the incredible conversions and experiences that we have witnessed.”
Uthmeier said that they have seen young adults encounter Christ on pilgrimage; they have welcomed multiple people into RCIA and into the Church following pilgrimage. “The Holy Spirit’s presence in these places is undeniable,” he said.
“It is important for all Catholics — young and old — to take time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” Uthmeier said. “Even those of us who regularly attend Mass and actively practice our faith fall into complacency as we go through life’s daily routine. The Pilgrim Project takes people away from home, where sometimes it’s easier to see God’s presence and listen to his calling away from the noise.”
It must be understood that pilgrimages are so much more than sightseeing tours and snapping a few photos of historic Catholic locations. It is about evangelizing.
“Most importantly, we have seen that it is sometimes easier to reach young people on pilgrimage than at home,” said Uthmeier. “They see the Church in a way that is present and tangible. We believe pilgrimage is the new evangelization.”
Since its inception, the Pilgrim Project has gradually grown and developed. Initially, the idea was to focus on taking young Americans to Rome. However, as unplanned aspects of the Pilgrim Project became evident to the organizers, the organization’s mission has become much broader than that.
After the inaugural pilgrimage to Rome brought applicants and interest from multiple countries, Uthmeier said, the Pilgrim Project team witnessed how the bridging of cultures and backgrounds stimulated pilgrims’ excitement to meet others and develop friendships while sharing faith-filled experiences.
“It makes the trips quite fun,” he said. “Incredible bonds have been formed between pilgrims, and the true universality of the Church has been very evident.”
An international component has become a staple of the Pilgrim Project, and most of their pilgrimages now aim to connect young Americans with young people from other countries.
“Though practices, language, terminology and upbringings are often different for pilgrims, we all celebrate the same Mass in communion with the saints, and that is powerful,” said Uthmeier.
The Pilgrim Project has organized, or is in the process of planning, pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, England, Spain, Fátima, Poland and France. Rome is the flagship pilgrimage, and they try to have a pilgrimage to Rome every year. In addition to these, they organize annual mini-pilgrimages within the United States that reunite past pilgrims and welcome new pilgrims who may not have the time or financial ability to go on full international pilgrimages. To date, the Pilgrim Project has helped more than 150 young people go on pilgrimage, according to Uthmeier.
The Pilgrim Project remains a young organization, being founded just three years ago, and they have faced a number of challenges in that short time.
For one, the cost of pilgrimages can be quite high. International travel associated with pilgrimages is very expensive. The Pilgrim Project endeavors to provide scholarships and other means of defraying the costs, such as discounts, partnerships and donations.
|Popular Pilgrimage Sites|
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Source — CTS Catholic Compass
Even with such efforts, the average pilgrimage to Europe or the Holy Land is about $3,000 per person. The Pilgrim Project does everything it can to assist those who cannot afford these costs.
“Often, the Pilgrim Project has dozens of interested participants that cannot afford to participate, and we’ve seen that young adults of means are the most likely to join for pilgrimage,” Uthmeier said. “Accordingly, we work hard to raise money for scholarships that might enable those in need to experience pilgrimage.”
In addition to the regular efforts to reduce cost, they provide partial scholarships where needed, which can range from 5-75% of the cost.
“When providing scholarships, we always incentivize recipients to raise a portion of the cost themselves, ideally 50% or more,” said Uthmeier. “From our experience, when pilgrims have some ‘skin in the game’ and pay for much of their own ticket, their hearts are in it for the right reasons, they get more out of the experience, and they are more likely to give back and serve the Pilgrim Project in the future.”
“The Pilgrim Project presents a simple thesis: The true power of pilgrimage is revealed when buffered selves mingle with the thin spaces of the Christian world,” said Shawn Affolter, chairman of the Pilgrim Project Board. “Bringing them together addresses an urgent need of the Church and uniquely responds to a deep longing, that ongoing hunger, in the hearts of today’s young people.”
The term “buffered selves” comes from the philosopher Charles Taylor, and it refers to people who have placed distance between themselves and God. “And yet,” Affolter continued, “the Celtic Christian tradition offers a keen insight: There are certain places in which the boundaries of this world give way to the transcendent. These are places like Jerusalem’s holy sites, Rome’s majestic basilicas, Spain’s well-worn Camino de Santiago and France’s Lourdes Grotto, among the world’s many Catholic treasures.”
Encountering these places “leads the wayfaring pilgrim to encounter Christ, from whom all beauty comes, and the saints, from whom we see how true beauty comes about when life aligns and realigns with the divine,” Affolter said.
Encountering God, others
Father Mark Thelen, now a priest of the Legionaries of Christ, is the Pilgrim Project spiritual director and has been there since the beginning.
“For me, pilgrimage has always been an encounter,” said Father Thelen. “We enter into contact with ourselves, with others and with God in a new and deeper way.”
Encounter is about creating context, Father Thelen said, and giving meaning to the journey.
“Pilgrims are not tourists,” he said. “They recognize that their journey is truly a response to an invitation more than just a personal whim. They recognize that Jesus Christ has invited them to walk with him in a special way.”
In many cases, pilgrims at the end of their pilgrimage lament having to return to “real life.”
Father Thelen likes to remind them that “real life is in fact what they have lived on pilgrimage because it helps to get down to the essentials of life and see what is truly important. Pilgrimage should help us to transform our lives.”
“When faith is alive, when we act with leavened virtue, our ability to bring witness and mission to the world is unmistakably enhanced,” Affolter said.
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.