I am doing this for religious reasons: to honor both my patron saint, Joseph, and St. André Bessette (1845–1937), the religious brother who inspired the largest shrine to St. Joseph in the world, St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal.
In Montreal I expect to meet other pilgrims arriving from other directions by other means. But I plan to walk most or all of my own path alone.
It’s a quixotic idea. I realize that. In darker moments I wonder if there’s any point to it. What is a pilgrimage anyway? Why does one make a pilgrimage? Was pilgrimage only a medieval custom, now outdated? Does pilgrimage matter any more?
Well, it matters to Muslims, of course. Every free, sane, able, accountable Muslim male is obligated to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in his lifetime.
What about Christians? What is the meaning of Christian pilgrimage?
A pilgrimage is neither a quest nor a walkabout, the pilgrim neither hero nor wanderer. The pilgrim is not searching for something, whereabouts unknown, like, say, a knight in search of the Holy Grail. A pilgrim is going to a known place because there is something there he wants to be close to, and because others have gone there before him and reported back about it.
A pilgrimage on foot may be solitary, like mine, but you are effectively walking with the thousands of souls who have made the pilgrimage before you. This is one of the most striking facts about walking the Camino de Santiago, which I did with my daughter in 2012. By walking the Camino, you are joining hands with twelve centuries of Christianity. It is a vivid illustration of the communion of saints.
The Camino de Santiago used to be a true pilgrimage route. Now most who walk it do so as a healthful hike with a dash of cultural tourism. Once the typical modern way-walker has reached Santiago de Compostela, it’s generally time for him to go home.
He or she may take a moment to watch the giant censer (botafumeiro) swinging at the “pilgrim mass.” Maybe he will stand in line to pass behind the high altar and “hug the Apostle,” as a popular guidebook advises. But if my experience is any guide, very few Camino “pilgrims” even see what the Camino was meant to put them in contact with in the first place: the remains of St. James the Apostle. On the day my daughter and I visited the crypt beneath the cathedral, we were the only pilgrims kneeling before the silver sarcophagus, while the aisles upstairs were mobbed.
Montreal may not have quite the same presence. When St. André Bessette was alive and thousands were claiming miraculous cures at his hands (he credited the intercession of St. Joseph), Montreal was considered the Lourdes of North America. The miracles may be down since Brother André died, but that won’t stop me from walking to his final resting place.
I will do it to honor him and St. Joseph. I will do it because it seems reasonable to take five weeks from a long, happy, very blessed life and offer them as a sacrifice for something I believe in, no matter how quixotic or unreasonable that effort may seem.