(Left) Thomas Merton in a photo taken in the 1960s. Everett Collection / Bridgeman Images. (Right) The painting of St. Francis de Sales by an unknown artist in Eglise St. François de Sales in Annecy, France. Renáta Sedmáková/AdobeStock

The Directive Power of Pilgrimage in a Priest’s Life

A way to energize prayer life and gain liturgical, sacramental and ecclesial insights

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Whether priests lead pilgrimages or travel to sacred sites for their own edification, memorable events like heartfelt confirmation of their own vocation can frequently occur. As a complement to their parish service and celebration of the Eucharist, their prayer life often takes a fresh turn. New insights — liturgical, sacramental and ecclesial — come to the fore in places dedicated to saints and martyrs, apparitions of the Blessed Mother or sites of Eucharistic miracles.

Seeing concrete evidence of natural intersecting from the supernatural can be life-changing. That is why being on pilgrimage enables priests to experience anew their longing to live in ways ever more attuned to the directive power of the Holy Spirit.

What matters is that they remain open and alert for any invitation the Lord issues, like the Desert Fathers of old whose goal in going on pilgrimages to arid places was to free themselves from attachment to all that is not of God. The flight from any remnant of self-centeredness was understood to be a flight to deepen communion with God. In short, pilgrim souls had to flee to be free.

Priests on pilgrimage to the desert with Jesus, in a sense know that their meeting with him in contemplative presence is but the beginning of a lifelong response to being commissioned to “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).

Every pilgrimage is as much an external as an internal happening. Priest-pilgrims go to places set aside by God to commemorate miracles and events of almost inexplicable efficacy, such as the stigmata of St. Padre Pio or the healing waters in the grotto where a peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous encountered the Virgin Mary.

Priest-pilgrims seek places where heaven touched earth and conversions may occur daily. I recall a priest telling me of a pilgrimage he made to the Holy Land where he said, “I walked in the footsteps of Jesus, little knowing that Jesus would walk anew into my heart.”

The theology behind pilgrimages can be found in biblical narratives of exile and exodus, where believers and sincere seekers were led to God’s dwelling places (cf. Ps 84:2). The New Testament theme of pilgrimage intersects with the call to discipleship and confirms the command to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus (cf. Lk 9:23).

Solitude, Silence, Peace

In keeping with the desert tradition, priests may experience, in the solitude, silence and peace of a pilgrimage site, a heightened sense of repentance for being too absorbed in a functionalized world, or from being more agitated and distracted by this or that pressing issue than they ought to be. Now is the time to be present to God in the here-and-now moment of self-emptying, in obedience to the will of the Father.

When priests journey to a place of encounter with the living God, they may experience more than his presence or a renewal of their inner life. Walking with Jesus, for example, on the Camino de Santiago, a renowned pilgrimage route from France to Spain, may become a metaphor of their intention to seek a deeper relationship with God.

One priest recalled how Scripture came alive for him. While on pilgrimage, he imagined himself accompanying Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem for the Passover. He joined, in his imagination, the first apostles on their missionary trips to spread the Gospel among the nations (cf. Mk 16:19-20).

Priest-pilgrims may also experience special touches of God’s grace that challenge their intellect (“How can this be?”) and uplift their emotions (“I never thought I would feel this way”). Consider what happened when St. Augustine went to Milan and heard Bishop Ambrose preach. Being there brought him closer to God and compelled him to change the direction of his life. He made an external journey to the cathedral and an internal one to his soon-to-be-converted heart.

Enhances Ministry

A pilgrimage offers priests much more than an itinerary. It not only confirms their theological training but enhances the quality of their ministry. Upon returning home, reflections on their travels with the Lord may inspire their preaching and help enkindle in their parishioners the longing for a deeper relationship with the Lord, thus drawing them to deeper adoration and awe.

A pilgrimage experience may also increase a priest’s receptivity to God’s will. With the excess baggage of a busy life left behind for a while, priests travel to their destination with a lighter heart, perhaps more open to God’s communications.


Thomas Merton on pilgrimage

“The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”

— “Mystics and Zen Masters” (Macmillan, $11.99)


Consider what happened to the future monk and priest Thomas Merton. At the age of 18, he found himself going through the motions of living as an exile and a stranger. He surmised that there was no purpose to his life until he decided to make a trip to Rome. In his own estimation, that journey marked his transition “from tourist to pilgrim.” In his autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain” (Harcourt-Brace), he wrote: “I wandered into one of the churches where there was a mosaic above the altar. I glanced at it, and I could not go away from it for a long time. … It held me there, fascinating in its design and its mystery and its tremendous seriousness and its simplicity … (there I beheld) the apophatic Christ: light that is not light, and not confinable within any known category of light.”

It was during this pilgrimage that Merton perceived the first movements of his call to become a Trappist monk, although it would be many years before this vocation came to fruition.

At the age of 25, Merton made another pilgrimage, this time to the Church of St. Francis in Havana. There, he experienced a truly dramatic epiphany. He heard a choir of children singing the Creed during the celebration of Mass. This event became for Merton what he referred to later in life as a “kiss from God.”

Reflecting on the purity and harmony of the children’s singing, he wrote: “Something went off inside me like a thunderclap. … I knew with the most absolute and unquestionable certainty that before me, between me and the altar … but directly before my eyes, was at the same time God in all his essence, all his power, all his glory. … It was not due to anything I had done for my own part, or due to any particular virtue in me at all, but only to the kindness of God manifesting itself in the faith of all those children. … [I experienced] a light that was so bright — yet It was a light that was offered to all, to everybody, and there was nothing fancy or strange about it. It belonged to the order of knowledge, yes, but more still to the order of love.”

When Merton entered the Trappists, he kept a journal of his novitiate experience. Knowing that he had pilgrimaged to a true dwelling place of God, he wrote in his diary, “The Sign of Jonas” (Harcourt): “I have got in the habit of walking up and down under the trees or along the wall of the cemetery in the presence of God. And yet I am such a fool that I can consent to imagine that in some other situation I would quickly advance to a high degree of prayer. If I went anywhere else I would almost certainly be much worse off than here. And anyway, I did not come here for myself but for God. God is my order and my cell. He is my religious life and my rule. He has disposed everything in my life in order to draw me inward, where I can see him and rest in him. He has put me in this place because he wants me in this place, and if he ever wants to put me anywhere else, he will do so in a way that will leave no doubt as to who is doing it.”

Pilgrimage Perfects a Priest’s Life

Additional proof of the way in which a pilgrimage perfects a priest’s life in Christ and seals his vocation can be found in the experience of St. Francis de Sales. Born Aug. 21, 1567, in Savoy (in what is today France) to an aristocratic family, Francis was the eldest of six sons. His father desired that he prepare himself for a distinguished career as a magistrate; he enrolled his son, at age 8, in the Capuchin college in Annecy. A few years later, Francis moved to Paris to study rhetoric and humanities at a Jesuit institution and to perfect his skills in fencing and horsemanship. On his own initiative, he also enrolled in theology courses and began his study of Scripture.

During the remainder of his years in Paris, Francis became vulnerable to the enticements of the city and the adolescent escapades of his companions. Pilgrimaging to the wrong places left him in deep despair; he fell ill, and was unable to eat or sleep, knowing in his heart that he was at odds with the morally disciplined life he had intended to cultivate.

This crisis flowed into another journey, this time to the University of Padua. There he immersed himself in the heated theological debates of the time, triggered by a spiritual crisis related to the doctrine of predestination in contrast to his having enjoyed since childhood a radiant sense of loving and being loved by God.

Then one day at St. Etienne-des-Grès in Paris, he prayed with all the fervor of his pilgrim soul before the statue of Our Lady of Good Deliverance, offering her a prayer that became essential to his healing: “Whatever may happen, Lord, You who hold everything in your hands. … I will love you, Lord; I will love you here, O my God; I will hope always in your mercy … you will always be my hope and my salvation in the land of the living.”


Our Lady of Good Deliverance

The statue of Our Lady of Good Deliverance is connected not only to St. Francis de Sales, but also to St. Vincent de Paul, St. Sophie Barat and St. John Bosco. The gothic statue depicting the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus is often called the Black Madonna of Paris. The current statue dates to the 14th century and is a replacement of one from the 11th century.

Since the 14th century, many pilgrims have reported graces from praying before the statue.

Father Jean Olivier, the founder of the Sulpicians, organized the Fraternity of Our Lady of Good Deliverance in 1533. The fraternity included Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. Most of the 12,000 members, however, were common people. The fraternity organized processions and aided prisoners, paying their debts when possible, and invoked Our Lady of Good Deliverance in all needs, tragedies and sufferings.

St. Francis de Sales prayed before the statue, which was located for centuries in the Church of St. Etienne-des-Grès in Paris. The church was destroyed during the French Revolution and its contents sold. Madame de Carignan bought the statue and took it to her private home. She and the Sisters of St. Thomas were imprisoned during the Reign of Terror. They prayed to Our Lady of Deliverance and were freed in 1806. Madame de Carignan retrieved the statue and donated it to the Sisters of St. Thomas Villanova.

The sisters pray on behalf of families, the sick, religious vocations, for peace in the world, and entrust themselves to the Virgin Mary.


The grace of this experience would remain with Francis for the rest of his life. At this pilgrim site, he came to understand the profound implications of God’s mercy; he knew that it was greater than any choices human beings can make, ever loving and ever forgiving.

Francis continued his studies at the University of Padua for the next three years, receiving in 1592, at the age of 25, a double doctorate in canon and civil law. He prevailed on his father to permit him to pursue holy orders, only to return home to find that his father had secured for him a senatorial appointment and an arranged marriage. Francis promptly revoked his title and passed his right of succession onto his younger brother Louis. His pilgrim soul came to rest when he was ordained in 1593 at the age of 26.

Over time, his sermons and writings witnessed a restorative and unitive faith in a region splintered by warring religious factions. It was said that even militant fanatics yielded to his gentle and persuasive preaching. As if his and their life were one long pilgrimage, he counseled the faithful: “Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering, or he will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, putting aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations. … Say continually: The Lord is my strength and shield: my heart has trusted in him and I am helped. He is not only with me, but in me — and I in him.”

Over the next several years, Francis’ fame as a spiritual director and writer grew. He promoted the embrace of the “devout life” — an aspiration for Christian perfection — as being amenable to everyone’s calling, attainable for laity as well as for clergy and consecrated religious.

From these experiences of a contemporary, Thomas Merton, and of a saint and Doctor of the Church, Francis de Sales, it is clear that pilgrimage sites exercise a directive power in the lives of priests. Their travels address their thirst for God and its increase with each passing year. Their experience of encountering the mystery in mundane places of pilgrimage validates their vocational surrender to the transforming power of grace. Whether at home or away from home, their aim as priestly servants of the Lord is to follow him wherever he leads them and, by so doing, to form, edify and inform the People of God entrusted to their care.

SUSAN MUTO, Ph.D., is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and author of “Enter the Narrow Gate: Saint Benedict’s Steps to Christian Maturity” (OSV, $15.95).

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