GOING on pilgrimage, it seems, has become a high tech and undemanding affair. We can wing our way to Lourdes in the comfort afforded by modern jet travel, take up residence in a luxury Pyrenean hotel, eat at upmarket restaurants and, as if by way of an afterthought, make the occasional sortie into the actual sanctuary area for a look at the grotto.
In times past pilgrimage has always been associated with penance and the expiation of sin. Henry VIII's penitential pilgrimage barefoot to Walsingham was testimony to this, and Scottish history buffs may recall that Robert the Bruce, after doing away with his enemy Black Douglas, was ordered to go to the Holy Land in order to redeem himself.
Whereas it has always been understood that sacramental confession dealt with the guilt due to sin, temporal punishment still remained to be accounted for, usually by going on pilgrimage. It is because of this that the shrine at Lourdes includes a gruelling Stations of the Cross situated on a sizeable hill up which pilgrims struggle barefoot, usually carrying the sick between them on stretchers. It has always been understood that the pain and suffering endured whilst going on pilgrimage is an instrumental part in gaining access to its benefits. The crusaders knew that by suffering the attendant trials that went with opening up a path to the Holy Land, they were also atoning for sin.
Because of all this I would say that it is more spiritually rewarding, and more in the spirit of going on pilgrimage, to join one of the diocesan pilgrimages which make their way by boat and train to Lourdes each year.
With large numbers of sick and handicapped in need of nursing and care during the 16 hour train journey to Lourdes from Dieppe, the demands on the pilgrim are at times harsh. Once there, hospital duty, unearthly hours and the anguish of being closely involved with those suffering and close to death give rise to a penance that is never negative, but rather selffulfilling.
This is not to say that we should deliberately seek suffering when on pilgrimage. We should rather tune into the penitential side of our faiths, make use of the sacrament of reconciliation, fast, and where possible, recite the Stations of the Cross. Thus we bring about the powers of intercession that come with being in a holy place and acknowledging our sinfulness.