“When your pilgrimage is ended”
Last month, our Novitiate and Postulant community returned from a week-long Christmas pilgrimage.
Although shortened and altered due to COVID-19, we were still able to visit three communities of our sisters (Philadelphia, Avondale, and Thurmont), pray at six different Shrines (St. Anthony, St. Rita, St. John Neumann, Our Lady of Czȩstochowa, the Miraculous Medal, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton), two Cathedrals (Philadelphia and Baltimore), explore several historical sites in Southern Maryland where the first footholds of our Catholic faith took root, venerate more than 30 relics including the True Cross, the twelve Apostles, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and the grave of Fr. Walter Ciszek. We also visited with four of our sisters’ families in the Maryland area..
Although there are so many moments and memories to reflect on there are three aspects which really stood out on our journey: the people, the saints, and the families.
Day one we went to St. Anthony’s shrine in Ellicott City, MD and met Br. Paschal, a religious brother. Reading from handwritten notes he had prepared ahead of time, he generously shared the history of the Shrine where he entered as a novice 45 years ago, and went up to their cloister to retrieve the rare 1st class relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe for us to venerate. He offered the religious name “Paschal” because he said he could not have the name “Eucharistica” but he wanted to honor the Eucharistic feast in his name. He wears an optional Franciscan Crown, which is basically an extended rosary with added mysteries such as the encounter of Jesus and Mary after the Resurrection. When he told us it was optional to wear, he said, “yes, it is optional, but I could not be without it.” He asked us to pray for an increase in their community’s vocations since this year they did not have any postulants because of COVID. He encouraged us to persevere in our vocations, saying, “the cross is going to come, so don’t be surprised when it does…just persevere, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
From there we continued to encounter so many more religious whose vocations continue to inspire us, such as Fr. Bob, at the St. Rita’s shrine, who has been an Augustinian for 50 years, and the Polish priest at the Shrine of Our Lady of Czȩstochowa who blessed us and shared a story about JPII. Also, the young rector at the Basilica in Baltimore (the city that has the 2nd highest crime rate of the US) who boldly exhorted the people in his homily on the Solemnity of Mother of God, telling them that what Baltimore needs most is prayer, particularly a perpetual adoration chapel at the Basilica Cathedral. He laid out all the lies that seem so familiar to missionaries; “it’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of money, who would want to come in the middle of the night, you can spend your time and money making an actual difference, etc.” The Basilica is hoping to open the first perpetual adoration chapel in the city of Baltimore on May 13th.
At some of our stops there was not an opportunity for a tour because of COVID, but we managed to end up with “unofficial” tours due the generosity of others. At St. John Neumann’s Shine one of the tour guides/historians, providentially ran into us and decided to give up part of her day to open the upper church and share with us the story of St. John Neumann. She has done her research on the Saint and referred to him simply as “John” as if they have been lifelong friends. And when one of us asked a question that she was unsure of she managed to find the answer and return to us with it before we left.
Each person we encountered at every Shrine or Church exemplified generosity, but perhaps the most memorable example of heroic generosity was on New Year’s Eve. We rang in the new year at Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian with Eucharistic Adoration. The pastor offered confessions during adoration. At midnight, the church bells rang as we all sang the first and last verse of “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” while the pastor himself played the organ so magnanimously (we had to be louder than the fireworks). After benediction, he returned to the confessional for those who had not had the opportunity to go, and one of the parishioners yelled out from the back, “we love you Father!” She spoke for all of us as he walked back into the confessional…still shoeless from playing the organ for us.
It’s easy sometimes to forget that Saints were real people with real lives with real impacts in the world and in our own country. Most places we visited were busy loud cities where the Shrines of the Saints provided a quiet refuge of prayer amidst the chaos outside. It was a good reminder of how we are called to live our lives as “another humanity for Christ.” Whether it was St. John Neumann as Bishop of his people, who literally died on the streets of his city, or St. Elizabeth Ann Seton converting, raising five children, and starting a religious order all around the same time; the lives of the saints continue to inspire us; and the grace of praying at their Shrines was a tangible witness that we do not need to wait to be Saints…or wait to make vows to be Saints.
From the example of one of our sisters that first day at the Shrine of St. Anthony boldly asking to venerate the relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we were not afraid to ask whomever we thought might have access to potential relics not generally open to the public. Some we knew of, such as a large 3-inch piece of the true cross at St. Ignatius in Southern Maryland, some we asked for in hope, like potential relics of the North American Martyrs at the same Jesuit parish…which we were able to venerate. And some were total surprises such as the twelve apostles at Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral Basilica in Baltimore.
How often we may need to be reminded of the grace of venerating relics and the gifts that come, especially in this particular time.
For two nights we were generously hosted in Southern Maryland by the family of one of our sisters who literally gave us their house as they all found places to sleep with relatives in the area. Tucked away in the country, these people from the parishes who are family of our sisters or family friends, provided us with breakfast and homemade brown bag sack lunches for our historical Southern Maryland field trips.
Heading back up north we also stopped in on another one of our sister’s extended family reunion. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, nieces and nephews…
Along our way we surprised some other local families of sisters with Christmas carols and joined another sister’s family for lunch on our last day before heading home.
Every family welcomed us with open arms, open floor space, bedrooms, plates, and more; most especially our sisters in the communities of Philadelphia, Avondale, and Thurmont. As Novices and Postulants, it is extremely edifying to spend time with our older sisters living in the missions. To share stories, recreation, and life together and to see the non-negotiable element of ‘biting into reality’ played out really stamps the heart in growing in virtue for the glory of God and salvation of souls.