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Catholic Activity: Making Pilgrimages

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Pilgrimages, much neglected in our day, are an ideal way to renew one's faith as a family. Maria Trapp describes her family's favorite pilgrimage site in Austria, but also emphasizes the importance of making such spiritual journeys.

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In Austria, the main part of our family celebration of the feasts of the Blessed Mother would be a pilgrimage to "Maria Plain." If the weather permitted, we would walk from our home down to the river and along it, an hour and a half, to the foot of the mountain on which the three-hundred-year-old pilgrimage church stood at the edge of an old grove. All the way we would say the rosary, one rosary after the other. At the foot of the mountain we would light candles which we had brought along. With burning candles, we would say one more rosary, singing the pilgrimage hymn after each decade. Then we would attend Holy Mass, receive Communion, place our candles on the big stand where many, many others were burning already. After Mass and Communion we would kneel for some time in front of the picture of the Blessed Mother for a heart-to-heart talk. And then one felt wonderful — light-hearted, strengthened, happy. Outside again we would invariably pause and take in the marvelous view across the ancient city with the high mountains in the background. But then one of the children would remind us that we had prayed now for a solid three hours on an empty stomach! For just such people was the Kirchenwirt, the Church Inn, very conveniently located a few hundred feet below on the slope. On the way to the inn we passed stands where they sell postal cards, candles, and more or less trashy little souvenirs. We all bought a few postal cards which we would write while waiting for our breakfast.

When we found ourselves in America, this was one of the things we missed most — that there were no famous old pilgrimage churches dotting the landscape, no wayside shrines to which one could make a pilgrimage as we were used to doing.

To make pilgrimages to hallowed places is a custom as old as mankind. We find it in India, China, with the old Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. It comes from an urge that is deeply rooted in the human heart to worship God in holy places designated by Him. For the Christian Rome and Jerusalem are the holiest places, and for two thousands years they have been what Mecca is to the Mohammedan: at least once in his lifetime he wants to go to the holy place!

Of course, these thoughts did not come to us as long as we were in Austria. There we just took pilgrimages for granted, like so many other things. But in America, when we started to wail and complain about the absence of hallowed shrines and our new American friends said, "What is all this talk about pilgrimages?" we found ourselves forced to do some thinking on the subject. It was then that we discovered that a pilgrimage is not predominantly a Catholic custom. Archeology has shown that certain places seem to have been hallowed throughout the ages — different peoples thousands of years apart choosing the same spot for their worship, whether they were Etruscans, Romans, or Christians.

Everybody knows about Lourdes and Fatima, but in addition to these world-famous shrines of the Blessed Mother, there are thousands of other places scattered all over the Christian countries where exactly the same thing happened a soul in great distress prayed fervently to the Mother of God and, in a miraculous way, the plea was answered. In such places of miracle, churches were erected later. This is the usual origin of the pilgrimage centers as we know them all over Austria. From our home outside Salzburg there were as many as seven different ones which we could reach by bicycle or, in very grave necessity, on foot. In the old country, a hike of several hours is essential to a true pilgrimage. It is a very moving thing to have taken part in a pilgrimage of a whole village. The people would collect at one place (a custom that always reminds me of the statio of the daily Lenten Masses and of the time when the people of Rome used to meet in one place and walk in a solemn procession to the church where the day's Mass was to be celebrated). There the procession would form, led by an altar boy with a crucifix and guided usually by one of the parish priests. The people would alternately say a decade of the rosary and sing a hymn along the way until they reached a certain point in the vicinity of the shrine — usually at the foot of the hill or at a wayside cross if there was no hill. There they would all light their candles. The last part of the pilgrimage would be a crescendo of prayer and song. The inside walls of the pilgrimage churches are usually crowded with votive pictures and crutches, wax models of hands, arms, legs — indicating the cures that have been obtained in this holy place — and it is written in stone and wood and scribbled in ink and pencil all over the walls: Mary has helped, Mary will help again. This creates such an atmosphere of trust and confidence that merely to be there is soothing to the soul. As many people have said, returning from a pilgrimage, "Even if I hadn't received what I have asked for, the Blessed Mother has filled my heart with gratitude and happiness. Now I suffer gladly." This is one of the main secrets of Lourdes.

Another origin of a place of pilgrimage is very often the vow somebody took in a moment of great danger: If the Blessed Mother helps me through this, I am going to build her a chapel or a church. When the boys in our family went abroad as soldiers in the American Army, one of them took such a vow during the heat of battle: If he came home safely, he would erect a chapel to Mary, the Queen of Peace, on the highest point of our property. He did return safely, and for several years now he has been working on his chapel. It is a labor of love. Soon we hope to celebrate the blessing of the little sanctuary and then we can continue making our pilgrimages, either privately or in groups, lighting our candles at the foot of the hill, saying the rosary and singing hymns and obtaining graces through Mary who is called "Mediatrix of all Graces."

As our concert tours took us all over this vast continent we learned that the new world also has its holy places. "Good St. Anne" attracts the multitudes to Ste. Anne de Beaupré, St. Joseph to Montreal, the North American Martyrs have their shrine in Auresville, N.Y., the Indian martyr, Kateri Tekakwitha, has hers in Caughnawaga, outside Montreal. The bodies of St. Rose and Blessed Martin de Porres attract pilgrims to Lima, Peru. But most of all the Blessed Mother hallowed a spot of her own choice by making Guadalupe the Lourdes of the new world.

Activity Source: Around the Year with the Trapp Family by Maria Augusta Trapp, Pantheon Books Inc., New York, New York, 1955

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