Will Peterson, center, walks the five-mile Way of St. Joseph in South Bend, Indiana, on May 1, 2021. Peterson is the founder and president of Modern Catholic Pilgrim, a nonprofit based in St. Paul, Minnesota, dedicated to walking pilgrimages and hospitality in the Catholic tradition. OSV News photo/Today’s Catholic from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend

How to Be a Good Pilgrim

Getting the most from the pilgrimage experience

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I didn’t go on pilgrimage until I entered the Dominican order. I went to Mass every Sunday and received fantastic formation from my parents and the Catholic schools I attended, but we weren’t pilgrimage types. Most Americans aren’t.

The superior of the community where I had been assigned as a seminarian during my first summer after the novitiate was a dyed-in-the-wool pilgrimage maniac. “Enthusiast” is far too weak to describe his passion for pilgrimages. He loves them.

As a young man, he had participated in the Polish Dominicans’ annual walking pilgrimage from Kraków to Czestochowa. He is full of stories from that first pilgrimage: how his feet were destroyed from the walking, how the pilgrims slept in barns or under the open sky, and what it was like to kneel before the holy image of the Virgin. It sounded painful. It was romantic. And I love those stories.

So when he proposed a pilgrimage for our community later that summer, I jumped at the chance. After not-quite-enough planning, we grabbed our passports and loaded ourselves into the car. The four of us friars were northbound.

We had mapped out quite an adventure. Our first stop was the stunning Abbey of Saint Benoît-du-Lac In Quebec. We met a monk friend, sampled cheese, joined the monastery to chant the Liturgy of the Hours and took in the extraordinary summer views of the lake. Then it was off to Trois Rivières to visit the Basilica of Notre-Dame-du-Cap. We lit candles, knelt before statues and prayed the Rosary. What had first felt to me like a college road trip began to feel like something else.

The goal of our pilgrimage was the beloved Canadian shrine, Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. It was the first time I stayed in a pilgrim hostel. The first time I joined a candlelit procession. The first time I saw piles of crutches and braces left behind after miraculous healings. The first time I saw hundreds, nay thousands, of ex-votos placed in memory of favors received.

It was the first time, too, that I knelt with others at the tomb of a saint (I had made an accidental visit to the tomb of St. Martin of Tours in college, but that’s a story for another time). The graves of François Laval, Blessed Dina Bélanger and St. Marie de l’Incarnation became the first tombs I knelt before, the first saints who accompanied me on pilgrimage.

And then I got it: the pilgrimage bug. Luckily it doesn’t seem to be terminal. But it’s clear that it’s not going away any time soon.

I love going on pilgrimage. I’ve since taken local pilgrimages, driving from Washington, D.C., to visit St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. I loved the summer I spent in New Haven, Connecticut, near the tomb of Blessed Michael McGivney. I’ve joined in seven church pilgrimages during Lent and on Holy Thursday, which allow the exploration of churches and chapels. And I’ve treasured my visits to Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary herself appeared and opened up a miraculous spring. I’ve offered Mass in the convent chapel where St. Faustina is buried. And I’ve wept at St. Peter’s tomb in Rome.

Taken by itself it looks like a strange catalog of travels — a bizarre collection of vacations and days off (and all done on a shoestring, because, well, religious life). But the most important part of that first pilgrimage was that I learned how to go on pilgrimage — that is, how to be a pilgrim.


Pilgrimages aren’t the same when you’re walking alone. It can be done, of course. Some would probably argue it has its own merit. I think they’re wrong. The value of companions on a pilgrimage is immeasurable.

I made my first trip to Mexico City this February with my friend Katie McGrady to visit Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was pretty curious as to how this was going to go because, given that Katie and I are both so young, we knew there would be a number of young people, specifically couples, joining us. We intentionally planned our pilgrimage to make it possible for them (it was a relatively quick, inexpensive trip).

But I wondered how these young couples would get along with — how do I say this gently — some of our more seasoned travelers. I quickly realized that fear was ridiculous. Crowded in the hotel bar each night, our pilgrims joyfully swapped stories of life’s sorrows, answered prayers and more. Age disparities, far-flung hometowns and vastly different fields of work faded into the distance.

By its nature, a pilgrimage strips away the everyday distractions and societal roles that often define and confine us. Pilgrims are brought together by a common purpose — becoming closer to God by embarking on a sacred journey. This shared intention lays a solid foundation for deep connections. And because pilgrims are even more willing to share with a priest than with one another, the priest has a special role in making introductions, sharing stories and fostering friendship.

Away from the familiar environments of home, pilgrims are more likely to step out of their comfort zones and reveal their authentic selves. Opening up is a gesture of trust, which is the cornerstone of any profound friendship.


By definition, pilgrimage involves penance. Maybe not formally, but I’ve never been on a pilgrimage that didn’t involve a great deal of penance, or at least discomfort.

The challenges of a pilgrimage begin before the trip even begins. People make real sacrifices of time and money to go on pilgrimage. Then, when you’re finally traveling, airlines, rugged or cobblestone paths, and inclement weather pose their own challenges to pilgrim resilience. And because you’re with companions, those thresholds for tolerance vary widely among groups. Some people bear them better than others. That’s all part of a pilgrimage. Taken in the right spirit, it’s part of the self-mortification that’s woven into the fabric of a pilgrimage.

I was once crossing Paris with a group of pilgrims. The pilgrims were college students. To make it possible for them to travel, we were scrimping every last penny. At one point, we had to get from our hostel to a train station. It probably looked closer on the map to our trip’s young organizers, but it was over a mile. With luggage. In August. When it was more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

So our motley crew is struggling along when one of the pilgrims drags her bag off a curb and destroys one of the bag’s two wheels. Looking at the disaster, she collapsed to the curb and began to cry. Inconsolably. Just then, two young men on the trip took her bag and laid it flat. They stacked their bags on top of it. Then, one on each side, they picked up the stack and kept walking.

Pilgrims walk across a tidal causeway during the final leg of their Good Friday pilgrimage in Northumberland, England, March 29, 2024. For nearly 50 years, Christians have taken part in the pilgrimage to Holy Island. (CNS photo/Lee Smith, Reuters)

In shared trials and triumphs, pilgrims more easily see one another not as strangers but as fellow travelers on the same path, each with their own vulnerabilities and strengths. It belongs in a special way to the priest on a pilgrimage to be patient and to remind his fellow pilgrims to offer up the discomfort that comes.

The English Dominican Bede Jarrett, in the spring of 1932, traveled to Our Lady of Victories Church, located off the southwestern corner of Hyde Park, London, to deliver a series of Lenten conferences. He took as his theme, “Here we have no abiding city” (cf. Heb 13:14). We often try to live this life as if we could settle down permanently, he explained, but this is not so. We are only travelers. And “if you are traveling, the whole secret of a happy journey is to remember always that you are a traveler.” If the traveler knows he is going to have inconveniences and sacrifices to make along the way, those become easier to make.


Learning to treasure the friendships made on a pilgrimage, and relishing in hardships overcome, is all well and good, but the best thing I learned is how to pray on a pilgrimage. We Catholics are people of tradition and ritual. And heading to venerable shrines is a way to experience and celebrate the richness of our faith.

Some of the gestures are silly, like rubbing the foot of the statue of St. Peter in Rome’s greatest basilica. But other customs, like approaching Our Lady of Czestochowa on your knees, are far more moving.

At Lourdes, the first time I entered the healing baths, I was completely overcome. I led the Rosary for our group while waiting to enter. The repetitive nature of the Rosary gave plenty of time and space to prepare for what was to come. Then, with several of the men in our group, we were plunged into the miraculous water.



Pope Francis shared the following audio message on June 6, 2015, with participants in the 37th walking pilgrimage from Macerata to Loreto, Italy: “Pilgrimage is a symbol of life. It makes us imagine that life is about walking, it is a walk. Should a person not walk, and stand still, he is not of service, she does nothing. Consider water, when water isn’t in a river, it doesn’t go ahead, but stands still; it goes bad.

“A soul that doesn’t walk through life by doing good, by doing many things that one must do for society, to help others, and also who doesn’t walk through life seeking God and for the Holy Spirit to move from within, is a soul that ends up in mediocrity and spiritual poverty. Please: do not stand still in life!”


The volunteers who assisted were prayerful. Again, in the baths, I led prayers of preparation and thanksgiving. We had been in Lourdes for several days at that point. We learned about the life of St. Bernadette. We studied Our Lady’s words. We visited the grotto. We lit candles. We joined in processions. The baths were all that remained.

And precisely because we had been immersed in the love of Our Lady and the devotion of St. Bernadette, our descent into the waters abounded all the more with grace.

On a pilgrimage, the priest must prepare, as much as he is able, to preach well on the saints whose tombs will be visited. He needn’t be a tour guide, but he must be a spiritual guide. He must be a father. Pope Francis said in a talk in 2016: “The reality is that the pilgrim carries within him his own history and faith and the lights and shadows of his own life. Each person carries within his or her heart a special wish and a particular prayer. Those who enter the shrine immediately feel they are at home, welcomed, understood, and supported” (Vatican Information Service). The priest is the one who offers the pilgrim welcome, sets him at ease and makes him feel that he is at home.

To offer that welcome, the priest must encourage devotion. He must narrate the encounters with the sacred. He must teach the customs of a place, so that his fellow pilgrims may easily enter.

I’ve since traveled many times with my Dominican brother who was my superior that first summer. We’ve visited sites dear to each of us, shrines and tombs near and far. In part, our friendship was forged by his joy in being a mentor. Not having ever been on a pilgrimage, I needed someone to show me how to be a pilgrim. And when I was ordained a priest, I needed a priest to show me how to be a priest on a pilgrimage.

FATHER PATRICK BRISCOE, OP, is a Dominican friar and the editor of Our Sunday Visitor.

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