Franciscan Formation – Inspirations (Part 21) 

“The friars are to remember that they are poor men and pilgrims in this world…”[1]

As a child I used to go on pilgrimages to various shrines in Poland. At that time I understood absolutely nothing about the trips my parents took me on. I usually got sick after these trips, because we would sleep anywhere and eat anything. I remember crowded squares and churches and being lost in the midst of all this, not understanding the purpose of it all. Even as a young friar, I was amazed to see pilgrims on pilgrimage to various shrines stopping at rest areas to treat the blisters on their feet. For a long time this kind of piety was foreign to me. Therefore, I want to focus on the Franciscan identity of the pilgrim. Why? Because today I am more aware of the blessings associated with going on a pilgrimage. I have made my own long journey of reflection on this topic.

Going on a pilgrimage is a practice found in many world religions. It is an important element of religious worship. It can be defined as praying with your feet. The Bible describes it as a believer’s journey to a place sanctified by God’s special presence. A pilgrimage is carried out as an act of searching for God and desiring union with Him. Therefore, it is necessary to prepare adequately. This happens by purifying one’s heart; directing ones thoughts and desires toward God, turning away from evil and sin, and stopping one’s excessive concern about current affairs. A pilgrimage is carried out for reasons of worship or penance. The purpose of a pilgrimage is to speak with God, and it includes giving alms to the poor as an offering to the Lord or making a contribution toward the upkeep of the sacred place. Some go on pilgrimages as a matter of tradition. In such cases, the pilgrimage is a formal act and usually does not change anything in the spiritual life of the pilgrim, a fact that was criticized by the prophets (cf. Is 1:10-20). The history of pilgrims in the Bible shows us that when God chooses a man, he gives him a vocation and going on a pilgrimage becomes a matter of course for him. In responding to the Lord, the one who is called must start walking down that path as he steps away from his old reality. In God’s plan, the destination of the pilgrimage is important because it establishes the direction of the journey. However, reaching that destination is merely the icing on the cake. The most important thing is one’s relationship with God. This, in fact, develops over the course of the pilgrimage. It is never too late to step away from what is comfortable, organized and familiar. In the spiritual journey, a covenant with God develops, and this becomes a process of continuous self-giving to Him. Scripture tells us about the nature and events of the pilgrimages made by Mary, Joseph, Jesus and even the Apostles. The Lord’s final pilgrimage to Jerusalem concluded with His passion, death and resurrection. This caused His disciples to focus on the new temple, not an earthly temple, but the person of Jesus Himself. To His disciples, Jesus became the new Sanctuary. Consequently, those who accept Him as their Lord experience life as a pilgrimage, a Lord-led outing that leads to Him. The Apostles experienced the labors and joys of being on a pilgrimage with Jesus. After the resurrection and after they received the Holy Spirit, another pilgrimage destination arose: the mission and proclamation of the Good News[2].

The daily life of a disciple of Jesus is understood as a spiritual journey that leads to Him, and brings others to Him. An external pilgrimage resembles the devotional practice of a Christian. Moreover, it revives devotion in him, namely, practicing asceticism, doing penance for human weaknesses, devoting oneself to fervent prayer and renewing one’s spirit. These things remind us that we must always draw upon the strength of the Holy Spirit when we go on a pilgrimage following Jesus to the Father[3]. This was an experience St. Francis of Assisi shared. Going on a pilgrimage was an important way of practicing the evangelical ideal that he lived. It is likely that before his conversion, he became familiar with some pilgrim routes during his travels as a merchant. He made a pilgrimage himself, to Rome, where he decided to experience the life of beggars. After his conversion, he moved from restored church to restored church and from hut to hut. When the number of friars who wished to follow him increased, he went to the Bishop of Rome to discern the vocation of his small community. For the rest of his life he would go on pilgrimages to various places: the tombs of the Holy Apostles in Rome, the Holy Land and probably the tomb of St. James as well. He would go there to ask for special graces for himself and his brothers. These journeys allowed him, through the practice of poverty, to experience the blessings and protection of the Almighty; they were an opportunity for him to change himself. They were an opportunity to meet people and evangelize them. Through his kindness and peace, he would proclaim what he himself experienced during his pilgrimages: the need to do penance and conversion. Guided by his own experience as a pilgrim, he obtained from the Pope the grace of an indulgence for those who made a pilgrimage to the Portiuncola. He believed that the grace of the Church, granted through pilgrimages, could be made truly available to all.

Followers of St. Francis adopt a pilgrim lifestyle modeled after our founding father. This is expressed in a constant missionary attitude to go forth into the world and preach the Gospel. The friars, as they went around the world, had to do penance, that is, undergo conversion. Their approach was to be devoid of any desire to dominate or command. The friars were to be peaceful, modest, not quarrelsome, courteous, cheerful and able to accept the various foods and living conditions offered to them: there was no complaining about not having their morning coffee, or their favorite yogurt for breakfast, or hot water in the shower, etc. Their pilgrimage was to bring peace and to be carried out in the Church, in fraternity with all of creation. They had to entirely entrust their lives to Divine Providence. The itinerant life of the friars therefore had a theological meaning, it taught them to look at the reality of this world as a transitus towards a celestial reality.

In the early Franciscan community, the possibility of any kind of appropriation or settlement was ruled out. Even if the friars stayed in a hermitage for a while, ultimately the purpose of that time was to return among the people. The purpose of the pilgrimage was to evangelize themselves and the world. In their first outing, the friars went to Christians. The aim was to help them deepen their relationship with God and the Church. When the Friars Minor went forth to the Muslims and non-believers, the pilgrimage was strictly missionary in nature. Their way of being thefriars with the cord “was first and foremost evangelical: to bring the Lord to others in an atmosphere of peace and fraternity. This is the difficult part of such a pilgrimage: connecting it with one’s own life so that it is itself a proclamation of the Good News. For many friars it has been, and still is, difficult to be a witness of the reality of God among people without undertaking some pastoral, charitable or cultural activity. Just being a sign for others was sometimes seen as a waste of time. Francis saw that in this fraternal pilgrimage, erecting friaries and building churches was inevitable. He desired that the friars doing all this should be simple and poor, that they should always be like pilgrims and strangers (cf. Later Rule VI, 2-3 FF 90; Testament 24 FF 122).

Francis feared a stable lifestyle; among other things he thought it was a threat to the spirit of poverty. He knew that focusing on various forms of appropriation: papal permissions, privileges, financial stability, etc., went against poverty. A lack of poverty undermined the living and traveling dynamic, which was based on one’s work and the Lord’s table, meaning, the alms that were to be received and given. Over time, it became a problem for the community that the friars were too freely able to go on pilgrimages. It seems that in more than one case the Superiors lost sight of to whom and to where the free Franciscan spirit led. Wanderlust was seen as one of the most destructive things for the community. It was strictly forbidden to go on pilgrimage without permission[4]. It is important to remember that we are to discern the reason for setting out on the road and to determine the purpose of the journey itself. This is true for going on a pilgrimage, both in its internal dimension, which concerns our vocation, and in its external dimension, which is related to moving to different places. In both the first and second dimension, going on a pilgrimage is not tourism or wanderlust. Discernment means listening to what the Lord wants us to do, where to do it, and what to avoid. The Franciscan pilgrimage has a certain style: we also listen to what the Church says, we accept the voice of the community ( the Constitutions, the Statutes, etc…). We listen to the Lord in our own hearts and share it with the appropriate people, accepting what our Superior decides (he often makes the final decision, but he also has to listen). Everyone on this journey can make mistakes, but not when we are obedient[5].

Looking at our lives in terms of trends, each of us is a kind of homo viator [man on a pilgrimage]. Going on pilgrimages is, so to speak, written into the DNA of our human identity. Embarking on a journey is related to the laws of human development: those who do not fly out of the nest do not mature. Some people express this in their desire to move from one community to another. Others have the opposite tendency: they enjoy their fireplace and warm slippers. They are more affected by having to move to a new place and easily become attached to their home, the people around them and the work they do. There are also those in the middle, who may enjoy the warmth of the fireplace but can also courageously endure the hardships of the journey. What are my own tendencies? None of them are bad or good, but knowing them makes it easier to be aware of the temptations that are constantly with us. Going on a pilgrimage is part of our Christian and religious formation. We therefore need to have the Spirit of the Lord and Its holy activity (cf. Later Rule X, 8 FF 104) in order to walk the paths of God. Going on a pilgrimage is not about wanderlust; it is a journey of spiritual growth. In all situations it is necessary to ask the Lord what he wants us to do; because I think as individuals, and as a community, we are eager to get going.

General Delegate for Formation

[1] Friars Minor Conventual, Constitutions, Rome 2019, art. 16, §1.
[2] Cf. Słownik teologii biblijnej, edited by X. Leon-Dufour, Poznań 1994, pp. 660-662.
[3] Cf. Katechizm Kościoła Katolickiego, Poznań 1994, nos. 1198, 2691.
[4] Cf. Lázaro Iriarte, OFM Cap., Pielgrzym, in: Leksykon duchowości franciszkańskiej, edited by E. Kumka, OFM Conv., Cracow-Warsaw 2016, pp. 1227-1238.
[5] Cf. Maksymilian Maria Kolbe, and Antonella Di Piazza The Writings of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe. Volume 1. Letters. To Br. Alfons Kolbe, Cracow. Rome, April 21, 1919. Rome Nerbini International, 2016, pp. 379-81.