If you've ever gone on a pilgrimage, you know the routine. Pack the essentials.
Change of clothing? Check.
Comfortable shoes? Check.
Yes, the Virgin Mary.
With May, the Month of Mary, upon us, consider a pilgrimage with Mary. There are many shrines throughout North America to choose from that have a strong Marian devotion, including the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, in Stockbridge, Mass. (Check out the Shrine's daily schedule and special upcoming events.)
I have to admit that the first time I heard the expression "going on pilgrimage with Mary," the image that came to mind was of heading off on a road trip with a statue of the Virgin Mary buckled in the passenger seat. (Figuratively speaking, maybe that's not so far off the mark. After all, Mary is always by our side, right? And who knows the way to salvation better than Our Lady!)
But buckling in a Mary statue is not the idea. Let me explain: The other essentials we carry with us in a bag, but we carry Mary in our hearts.
Help for the journey to God
But why Mary, and why pilgrimage?
We turn to Mary because, first, we can learn from her. She is the one who always loved God with an undivided heart. And what is a pilgrimage if not a concerted effort on our parts to unite our divided selves to God!
Unlike many of us, Mary never let the din of her daily life stand in the way of her relationship with God. He was always front and center. "May it be done to me according to your word," she said to the angel (Lk 1:38).
A pilgrimage gives us the opportunity to stop, to put our lives in freeze frame, and, like Mary, say "yes" to God.
Secondly, through a pilgrimage, we have a perfect occasion to gratefully accept the gift Jesus gave us in the revelatory moments before His death. "When Jesus saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing near, He said to His mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then He said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!' " (Jn 19:26-27).
Here, Jesus establishes Mary's role in the life of the Church. She is to be our mother, too, our spiritual mother.
"I get everything I need when I go on a pilgrimage," says Agnes Haverty, of Melrose, Mass., who has made pilgrimages to Marian shrines throughout Europe and North America, including the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy. "You're able to get to a place, spiritually, where you feel closer to God. And Mary helps me get there."
Help is the key word. Through a pilgrimage, we allow Our Lady to help us — to protect us and to escort us to her divine Son, our Lord.
"Our Lady makes our hearts ready to receive grace and ready to receive forgiveness," says Fr. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, director of Evangelization and Development for the Marians of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge, Mass. "She offers us special assistance to be renewed."
Visit a 'spiritual clinic'
Ever since the Magi journeyed from the East to adore Jesus in Bethlehem, pilgrims have sought out holy Christian places out of love for Jesus and Mary. Shrines have traditionally been the destinations of choice. They allow us to leave the familiar in order to find God.
Pope Paul VI called shrines "spiritual clinics." That's an interesting choice of words that can help us to understand what a pilgrimage with Mary entails.
When we think of clinics we may think of facilities designed for diagnosis and treatment. Spiritually speaking, we already know what ails us: Our separation from God. We — all of us — have fallen from grace. And when we allow ourselves to live day to day without God front and center, we grow weak in so many ways. Our hearts grow impure. We are not always as compassionate and merciful as the world needs us to be.
We become trapped in a me-first malaise, neither tough enough to endure turmoil, nor tender enough to appreciate the beauty in our lives.
The "treatment," if you will, is twofold. The first involves prayer, deep prayer — particularly the Rosary. The second involves the Sacraments, particularly of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.
Such "treatment" is available at most shrines on a daily basis. Most are far removed from the hustle and bustle of the world and, thus, provide an atmosphere that makes deep prayer possible. Many have daily Mass, opportunities for confession, and recitation of the Rosary.
By bus, car, and foot, tens of thousands of pilgrims each year visit the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, which serves as an oasis for contemplation and prayer.
Surrounded by more than 350 acres of unspoiled landscape, known as Eden Hill, the National Shrine was built in honor of Jesus — The Divine Mercy — and Mary Immaculate.
And Mary's presence is felt nearly everywhere on Eden Hill — in the statuary, in the candle shrines built in her name, in the Lourdes Grotto, and in Our Lady of Mercy Oratory at the Marian Helpers Center. She stands ready to hear our prayer petitions and to draw us into a deeper relationship with her divine Son.
Like most Marian shrines, the National Shrine is a center of intense Christian life that promotes the liturgy and the Sacraments.
Through homilies at Holy Mass and the daily recitation of the Rosary, the Marians strive to cultivate sound devotion to Our Lady, who serves as the model par excellence for a God-filled life. Eucharistic Adoration and confession are available daily.
As for prayer, turn to Mary throughout your pilgrimage. Ask her for help with whatever you may need. Talk to her naturally. She's a great listener. She wishes to intercede for us.
"Mary has helped me do things that I know I could not do on my own," says Robert LaVoie of Fall River, Mass., who makes pilgrimages to the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy.
The most powerful prayer to Mary, of course, is the Rosary, which allows us to gaze at Christ's life through Our Lady's eyes. Mary promises us special graces when we pray the Rosary. It draws us close to Mary in our need.
"On a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Lourdes in France, what really drew me to Mary as my spiritual mother was praying the Rosary to her during an evening, candle-lit procession around the Shrine," says David Came, executive editor of Marian Helper magazine. "I remembered praying the Rosary every night as a child. Now, I was Mary's child as I joined thousands of other pilgrims from various countries in praying 'Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.' "
"We turned to the Rosary as a family when our son got sick," says Rose Stueck of Point Pleasant Borough, N.J. "We used the Rosary as a tool for healing. Prayer can turn everybody around. My son is well today. He's married, with a child. He should have never walked out of this. But the Rosary protected him."
Through our prayers to Mary, we prepare our hearts for the second "treatment" shrines provide: the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.
While on pilgrimage, go to confession. An amazing thing happens when we seek atonement: We find the merciful Lord waiting to embrace us. Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Remember when the father catches sight of his son returning home? What does the father do? He rushes out to embrace his son and to kiss him, then he quickly arranges a feast of celebration. That's the glorious Good News of God, our Father — that He won't turn us away!
Now, after receiving God's forgiveness in confession, receive the Eucharist with joy. Through the Eucharist, we celebrate nothing less than the conversion of our hearts. We celebrate Jesus' presence within us and the fulfillment of the promise: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20).
Through Mary, graces come
What a promise! And here's another promise, from the Book of Jeremiah: "When you seek Me with all your heart you will find Me, says the Lord, and I will change your lot" (29:13-14).
Since I work at the National Shrine, I have the privilege of meeting many people on pilgrimage seeking God with all their hearts. Some come in spiritual crisis. Some come to pray for a loved one. Others come simply to give thanks for the presence of God in their lives.
I can tell you: Pilgrimages work!
Many who have fallen from the faith are converted. I even know pilgrims who were unemployed and soon found jobs. Most pilgrims return home with a greater awareness of God's voice calling them. They feel more empowered to carry out their duties at home and in the workplace.
Helen Hurley, of Franklin, Mass., makes frequent pilgrimages with Mary to the National Shrine and other Marian shrines and always returns home with a "renewed spirit and a closeness to Mary," she says. She attributes her cure from depression to this closeness.
God uses Mary to save souls. She knows our needs. She answers our prayers. We can depend on her. She's our mother, after all.
With Mary in our hearts, we can make our pilgrimage journeys with hope and trust of the unimaginable graces our Lord has prepared for us. No matter how far away we feel we are from God, Our Lady, who loves us dearly, can serve as our co-pilot, pointing us safely toward salvation.
Through Mary, God will, indeed, change your lot!