Constantinople / Istanbul - Ancient and Modern - Crossroads of the World

Constantinople / Istanbul - Ancient and Modern - Crossroads of the World
Istanbul/constantinople - Ancient/Modern - View of the Old City from across the Golden Horn, atop the Galata Tower.

Pilgrimage: What and Why?

It’s a spiritual journey in which we open ourselves to the God who is ever-alive among us in all times and places.

It’s a journey of discovery to places made holy by the encounter between God and his people.

It’s a journey of understanding where we can learn and appreciate the hand of God working among many people.

On our Early Christian World Pilgrimage, we will visit wonderful places, in the comfort and security of modern travel, be led by an expert tour guide, enjoy wonderful food, and stay in excellent hotels.

But this is not a vacation; it is a pilgrimage. It's more like a retreat than a sight-seeing tour.

We will celebrate Mass whenever we can, sometimes in ancient, historic churches. Every day will also be punctuated by brief morning and evening prayer, and appropriate prayers and reflections at many significant places.

Both our guide and I will speak about the spiritual meaning of the sites we will visit and the sights we will see, in addition to their history and culture.

We will study and reflect on relevant passages of Scripture, and probe other historical documents to shed light on the development of our faith.

We will have many opportunities to learn about the Catholic and Orthodox Byzantine churches and their unique spirituality, as well as the faith and practice of Islamic traditions and present-day Muslims.

And . . . not least . . . we will get to know one another in new ways and form wonderful new and lasting friendships.

Why is this important?  It all began September 11, 2001 . . .

Each year I join in spirit with every other American to pray and ponder with great sadness the continuing echoes of the unspeakable tragedy of September 11, 2001.  A few years ago, something dawned on me that was so obvious it hadn’t occurred to me before.  My own personal commitment to leading and promoting the Early Christian World Pilgrimage to Turkey has its roots in the events of 9/11.

Neither retaliation nor revenge can provide a real solution to the conflicts that plague our world.  Destruction continues to spawn destruction.  Nor can the ultimate answer to perceived threats be to retreat behind a wall of self-protection.

What then is the answer, or at least a viable and moral direction toward an answer, in the dangerous and difficult world we face?

The second Eucharistic Prayer for Masses of Reconciliation accurately sums up our faith focused on the reality of our world:
Your Spirit is at work
when understanding puts and end to strife,
when hatred is quenched by mercy,
and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.
There are today between 1.4 and 1.9 billion Muslims in the world—estimates vary, and comprehensive figures are hard to come by.  Most population estimates count Christians, at about 2.1 billion, as still outnumbering Muslims.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, both through conversion and a high birthrate among  predominantly youthful populations.  Trends indicate that by 2020, the ratio of Christians and Muslims worldwide will be reversed.

Islam is not going to go away.  Neither is Christianity.  

The history between the two religions has never been easy, but times of violent conflict have more often arisen from political, cultural, ethnic, economic, and social differences rather than purely religious.  And there have been times of relatively harmonious relations, e.g., the convivencia that characterized much of Medieval Spain and the Ottoman Empire of the fifteenth to the nineteenth century.

One of the most difficult elements of understanding “the other” is that it demands understanding of oneself.  Aydın Eroğlu, our Pilgrimage tour guide, often laments that the biggest problem with Muslims is that they don’t know their own faith.  Sadly, that is so true of us Catholic Christians too, isn’t it?  We can only have the kind of dialogue that leads to mutual understanding if we, first, make the effort to understand ourselves!

Do we have the courage to commit ourselves to seeking the kind of understanding—of self and of “the other”—that can lead to true dialogue?  We have a lot to learn.

When I went on a “mini-sabbatical” study tour of Turkey and Greece in 2005,  I was struck by the unique position of present-day Turkey in the history of both Christianity and Islam.  It is the perfect place to study, and come to understand, both our own faith and life as Christians, and the faith and life of Muslims, as both have developed through the past two millennia.

Immersing ourselves in the complexities of the past and present of this land is the core of our Pilgrimage.

What is a Pilgrimage?  And how does it differ from a vacation, a tour, or even an academic travel program?

I’ve been doing a fair amount of background reading on the history and spirituality of pilgrimage in order to get a clearer idea for myself.  In the literature, three things seem to characterize pilgrimage, making it different from any other kind of journey.

First, on a pilgrimage on goes away from one’s accustomed place and normal routine.  It’s a step outside the ordinary, into something new.  Anthropologist Victor Turner described pilgrimage as “going to a far place to understand a familiar place better.”

Secondly, the destination of a pilgrimage is contact with the person or event that makes the “far place” holy.  In visiting the tomb of a saint, for example, one touches the life of that saint here and now, and drinks from his or her spirit.

Thirdly, a pilgrim always returns with a deeper sense of his or her relationship to the community. While it is an intensely personal experience, a true pilgrimage can never be simply for one’s own private benefit.  Having experienced a sense of the larger, more universal community, one brings that awareness back into the day to day life, responsibility, and interaction with one’s own community.

Pilgrimage is always a life-changing experience.

My own conversion experience through pilgrimage has given me a passion to share, especially with my fellow Catholics, the treasures of what it means to be a Catholic Christian: to value a heritage rich in diversity, and to gain from that heritage insight into how to  live in the challenging world today.  The enemies of such a conversion can be things like the humdrum of routine that dulls our interest and enthusiasm, and the fear-induced ideological battles that narrow our vision.

The Early Christian World Pilgrimage is a unique and captivating experience.  The pilgrims themselves most often describe it as “life changing.”  This is why I continue to be passionate and enthusiastic about promoting it.

This is why, I have felt it so important to encourage especially teachers—those who help to form our future world. And this is why I have successfully pursued getting the Early Christian World Pilgrimage accredited for Continuing Education units by Loyola Marymount University.  Teachers will benefit immediately from the opportunity to earn these credits, but it is the children they teach and our families who will be the ultimate beneficiaries of their participation.  (Contact me for more information on this.)

I want to make it clear that this is not a vacation.  If you want to relax o have a nice time, take a cruise, not a pilgrimage!  The pace is very intense and steady from morning till evening every day, and there is not much free time.  Not only do we visit a lot of places and see and do a lot of things, but much of our time on the bus is devoted to talks and discussions that are relevant to the pilgrimage.  These are be led by Aydın and me, and also include some presentations by participants, in addition to DVD videos on various subjects.

Yes, there’s a lot of walking, a lot of praying, and many opportunities for learning.  That’s why we emphasize that it’s a pilgrimage.  Spiritual exercise on wheels.  If you just want to see new places or enjoy new experiences, and have a restful time, find another kind of tour.

Unlike most pilgrimages, which concentrate on a particular shrine (e.g. Lourdes)  or a theme (e.g., Footsteps of St. Paul) we are visiting a wide range of places, as you can see from the itinerary.  We seek to discover the hand of God in the great panorama of history and culture that makes up our heritage.

We celebrate Mass on many days—in some locations daily Mass is just not possible.  We also pray morning prayer on the bus each day, and read relevant sections from the Bible, the Qur’an, and other spiritual writers, especialy those connected with the places we visit.

There are times of fun too, such as the early morning balloon ride over Cappadocia, shopping opportunities, the Turkish bath, and some really great meals.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I have become deeply committed to making the concept and the reality of pilgrimage an integral part of  the life of the parish where I serve -- first Our Lady of the Assumption, and now Good Shepherd.  I do this realizing that 95% or more of the people of any parish cannot now, and perhaps never will, actually be able to go on such a pilgrimage—a journey to a far, holy place precisely because it is a holy place.  And yet, the benefit of the pilgrimage experience must be in some way available to all without exception if its purpose is to be fulfilled.

If you can come, believe me, you will find ways to enrich others because your own life will have been changed. You will be eager to share the fruit of the experience with everyone.