May 2, 2011
When the prayers began before the Mass of Beatification, the sky was a steely grey. That morning at 5 a.m., the outlook had been grim, with heavy clouds threatening the hills outside of the city. But, away we went, fortunate in some ways to not have been required to keep vigil all night, and in other ways somehow missing the experience of remaining awake in prayer, as did our Lord so many times. The air was chilly, but not uncomfortable.
No matter the expectation ahead of time, there is nothing I can recall quite as awe-inspiring as the sight of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims filling St. Peter’s Square and the Via Conciliazione at seven in the morning. I had been out the previous evening, wandering around the streets near the Vatican. Originally I had attempted to take a bus across the city, returning from an evening with a pilgrim group from the United States, but the streets were so congested that it proved faster — and more rewarding — to walk.
Groups of pilgrims were filing calmly down the streets of Rome, many with candles in their hands, singing songs in languages I knew not and praying rosaries. Somehow in the few days before the Beatification, all of the hotel rooms in the city had filled to capacity, and yet Rome had never been more courteous. These were not crowds of tourists; they were pilgrims on the journey to see the last step before that supreme crowning of glory which is sanctification.
St. Gregory of Nyssa once wrote a short treatise on pilgrimages. In it, he is a little severe on pilgrims. He considers the problem of being overly attached to places and to things, arguing rightly that any spiritual benefit that can accrue to a person from a pilgrimage is perfectly available through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in the normal life. He even warns of the spiritual dangers in pilgrimages, especially that a person overly concerned with traveling to holy places or holy events can lose their own soul by externalizing their faith too greatly and forgetting the eternal indwelling of the Spirit in each person. Every time I make plans to make some pilgrimage, however great or small, Gregory of Nyssa’s words creep into my mind.