Novelists, playwrights and screenwriters are some of our culture’s most prominent storytellers, and as such, they are sometimes asked to define what makes a good story. A common response is that a good story traces a character’s journey as they undergo some kind of change or transformation.
It’s not hard to see the truth of this. Even tragedies fall within this definition, though the characters are changing and transforming in ways we don’t want them to.
Of course, there are obvious exceptions—the crime writer Lee Child, for example, has famously said that one of the reasons his books are so popular is because his main character, Jack Reacher, doesn’t change (even though the events and crimes depicted in his novels do), and many readers find this sense of continuity and familiarity deeply satisfying.
But many of the stories that strike a chord deep within us, and that last, can be categorised as classic stories of transformation. Usually these stories recount intense personal journeys. They draw us into a series of often harrowing situations, causing us to become deeply invested in the characters and fuelling our hopes of a transformative outcome. Characters who return to their starting point completely unchanged tend to leave us feeling intensely dissatisfied—as though both writer and audience have wasted their time.
Reflecting on this notion of story—and on the kind of journey a good story takes us on—might help us to understand what the Christian tradition means by ‘pilgrimage’.
One of the things a good story does, other than entertain, is to distil the essential elements of life into a more structured experience. The rhythms and events of real life are often slower and seem more random than those of a good story, which tends to be a more intense and vivid experience. A pilgrimage does something similar: it concentrates the essential elements of Christian life into a more structured and intense experience.
The Christian life begins with our response, our ‘yes’, to Jesus’ invitation to ‘follow me’. Although these words are simple, they ask a lot. This isn’t a request for us to give him only a small part of who we are; it’s a request for everything. And the one who makes it turns out to be a more surprising character than we might have initially realised. Jesus tells us that ‘the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Luke 9:58), and he asks us to be the same.
Central to the Church’s self-understanding, then, is the idea that we are a pilgrim people. Ultimately, we are not at home in this world. We are like strangers or pilgrims, passing through and never settling down. The aim is to store up ‘treasures in heaven’, as this is the only treasure that will last (Matthew 6:20); everything else fades.
This is not a calling to disengage from the world, but it is a call to protect our hearts. ‘For where your treasure is, there will your heart be too’ (Matthew 6:21). What are we giving our hearts to? Are we giving them to the only one who can truly satisfy them? Or are we giving them to things that will rust and break with time, things that turn our hearts away from the calling of immortality and eternity?
Going on pilgrimage is an opportunity to be reminded of this.
A pilgrimage uproots a person, setting them on a path, turning them from being at home to being a stranger and a foreigner. It gives them a destination, too, a future point on which to set their eyes and their hearts. Along the way, they may encounter personal challenges and struggles; at times they may wonder what the point of the journey was. But they will discover sources of deep refreshment—in sacred shrines or in other people—to keep them going.
And along the way, they will experience something deep and constant about the human condition, something too easily forgotten by those of us settled in the cosy corners of our own little worlds: that life is so much bigger than we understand, and it is going somewhere.
The pilgrim knows there is an endpoint, a future they are called to keep in their heart and not stray from. On the way to their destination, they might have to ‘rough it’, passing up cherished pleasures and comforts, but the reward is an eternal glory that makes everything worth it.
The pilgrim’s story is an epic tale, and it is a story made for sharing. As any novelist or screenwriter will tell you, a story becomes a richer experience when it is shared, when it can be read or watched or listened to. A shared story enriches the life not only of the creator but also of those who participate in it as its audience. It connects us.
When St Paul talks about the Church, he often uses the analogy of a human body to describe our connectedness. ‘If one member is suffering,’ he says, ‘all the members share its suffering. And if one member is honoured, all the members share its joy’ (1 Corinthians 12:26). Not all of us have the opportunity to go on a physical pilgrimage, but this doesn’t mean we aren’t able to be a part of it. We can share in the experience too because we are all joined together in the Body of Christ.
When those among us embark on pilgrimage—whether literal or metaphorical, physical or spiritual—our prayers can keep them going; we can listen to their stories of change and transformation, finding in them inspiration and refreshment for ourselves; their journey becomes, in an important sense, our own journey, a shared experience. The call to follow Jesus, after all, is also a call to share the road, to experience together the greatest story of our lives.
In less than two months, more than 500 pilgrims, from more than 50 parishes and 40 schools across the Archdiocese, will be joining 1.5 million other pilgrims for World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. You are invited to accompany our pilgrims by praying that World Youth Day might be a time where they encounter the Lord in a new way and return ready to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Bishop Shane Mackinlay26 September 2023