by Michael A. Six
The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence,
and the violent do bear it away. Mt. xi: 12
Know you not that the unjust shall not possess
the kingdom of God? Nor the soft …. I Cor. vi:9-10
Imagine people young and old (but mostly young, very young) up at the crack of dawn, kneeling on the cold earth at holy Mass, taking meager breakfast almost as an afterthought, then walking all day long: confessing, singing, reveling and finally – exhausted – sleeping under the stars. Imagine three more days of the same.
A chapter from a story book of long bygone days in a land far away?
Imagine again. It happens every year since 1996, in the Adirondack wilderness of New York State.
Hundreds, now thousands of youngsters and twenty-somethings have called it ‘the time of their life’. Tracing the footsteps of the North American martyrs the Pilgrimage for Restoration is a time when vocations are heard, and souls of every age and background are transformed, restored by grace: middle-age pilgrims and young parents pushing strollers, their children, seasoned-citizens and support crew: all living the penitential life, together, on the pilgrim’s way to Ossernenon (today’s Auriesville), where St. Isaac Jogues & Companions were martyred in 1642.
Sound pretty dreary? Far from it! Even in the midst of blistered feet and tired legs they are still full of smiles and good cheer. As I stand by the side of the road and watch wave upon wave of them striding past, I hear snatches of hymns in English, Latin, even French. Some groups are reciting, others singing, the prayers of the Rosary. One of the priests uses a megaphone to give a talk to another band of pilgrims. Silence after a meditation reigns in one group while in yet another, new-found friends are chatting. Discreetly spaced between groups, I see priest and penitent in a ambling confession. These Catholics really know how to sing like saints and pray like sinners!
David Bryan of New Hampshire is especially drawn to the combination of the physical and spiritual exercise of the pilgrimage. “It is great to spend so much quality time with like-minded people who are striving to get to heaven.” Over the past eight years most of Mr. Bryan’s ten children have joined him for at least one pilgrimage, “and they all come back with different memories and stories.”
Each of these groups of a dozen or more, called a brigade, is named for a saint. Some brigades are made up of pilgrims from the same parish or school – like the IHM Brigade – while others are formed on the spot. The Brigade of St. Joan of Arc, the first to form years ago, is made up of young women ages 15 and up. Similarly, young men make up the Brigade of St. Isaac Jogues. This year a newer brigade, dedicated to St. Benedict, has re-formed with pilgrims from a chapel in the Richmond Diocese.
Most surprising is the Brigade of the Holy Seers of Fatima, composed of 8 to 14 year-olds. Their courage and spirit is contagious, but it is their dogged determination that is truly amazing. Despite their short legs they keep to the quick pace and just flat-out refuse to quit. Their ‘brigadier’, Dr. Agnes Berki, epitomizes the officers who lead the brigades. She is full of joy and encouragement as she selflessly gives of herself to the youngsters in her charge. When complimented, she points to the children saying “I have been so touched by their enthusiasm; they want to walk every step of the way. They want to offer this pilgrimage as a sacrifice to God through Mary.”
A talent show has become a tradition at camp on the second evening. How can such tired pilgrims find the strength to delight one another, after another 20-plus miles walking? Individuals and groups of children as well as adults, cleric and lay, sing songs, play instruments, tell jokes, and perform skits. From serious to silly and restrained to riotous, the talent show is just one example of Catholic culture that permeates the pilgrimage.
Even a week after pilgrimage Moira and Magdalen Grenier, teenage sisters from upstate New York, are still abuzz with excitement. Says mom, Deborah, “the girls keep singing songs and talking about friends from the pilgrimage. It is such a great place for them to meet like-minded people their own age. The whole atmosphere is Catholic!”
Retracing the steps of the Jesuit martyrs Isaac Jogues, René Goupíl and companions, the pilgrimage begins at the Lake of the Blessed Sacrament (Lake George) and ends at their place of martyrdom in Auriesville. The route winds some 70 miles along back roads and trails with overnight stops at two campgrounds.
A crew of dedicated volunteers, known as the Company of St. René Goupíl, provides material support along the way. There are teams to haul gear and set up the common areas; cooks to boil the morning water and make the evening soup; drivers in vans to provide weary pilgrims with an occasional ride back to their brigade or on to camp. First-aid is provided by nightingales with cars full of bandages and tape, leap-frogging to the next pull-off to set up their aid-stations. Coordination is given by a team, walking and in vehicles, with ham radios.
“The organization and pilgrimage was next to perfect”, writes veteran and sometime volunteer Ted Amberg. “The whole conduct, on the spiritual as well as the physical level, showed an extraordinary amount of devoted professionalism.”
After three days of steady walking, this hearty band has reached the Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda. Many are limping, a few propped up between fellow brigadesmen like wounded soldiers: arms draped over stronger shoulders. Tears well up. Having listened to St. Isaac Jogues’ account of the martyrdom of St. René Goupíl they wonder if they have what it takes to finish the race and fight the good fight. Here at the village where the first Native-American Blessed lived much of her simple life, our pilgrims beg her for the grace of final perseverance. Now they are just a few miles from the final destination – the Shrine of the North American Martyrs.
The last day of pilgrimage, a Saturday, is a short seven miles. The families with strollers, working men and women, and grandparents swell the ranks to double yesterday’s numbers. The newcomers bring a renewed vigor and sense of purpose. By the end of these last three hours a jubilant, festive air freshens the pilgrims. We have come to the end of our exertions.
A final, crowning act remains. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Coliseum church. But this one does not repeat the simpler style of the Roman Mass offered in the wilderness along the way the three previous mornings. Like those it too is in the forma extraordinaria, the traditional Roman usage. But it is a solemn high Mass, ‘pulling out all the stops’.
By the time that the glorious organ processional ends, the celebrant, deacon and sub-deacon are all in the sanctuary with full complement of altar servers. We hear the simple rise and fall of the as well as the soaring beauty of the polyphonic choir. The rising cloud of incense brings offerings heavenward. We have stepped out of the mundane and into the threshold of eternity. Here follows the liturgical encounter with the Source of Faith for Whom the martyrs were willing, eager, to die in order to communicate His transforming Goodness to His enemies, who, like us, were also once far away from Him by miles and worlds of sins. Our connection to them as fellow members of the Mystical Body of Christ, becomes yet clearer. We must return to the world to work out our salvation and to bring Christ to our country: but we have been restored for it by His grace, given during this unique journey of days, miles and spiritual exercise.
My pilgrim friends have returned to their homes in Wisconsin, Texas, Maine, Indiana, New Jersey, and ten other states. Will I see them again this side of heaven? Only God knows, but Pilgrimage 2011 already is calling me back to mark with them the feast of the martyrs who inspire us.
How about you?
(The author has served as “Chief of Brigadiers” for many years.)
Visit www.national-coalition.org/pilgrim/ for more information and to register (click here) for Pilgrimage 2011.