The Pilgrim Pope

Many times when we hear the word ‘pilgrim’, we resign ourselves to the recent history of the Puritans journey to the America’s and their founding of Plymouth around 1620. But the word pilgrim, or ‘peligrinus’ (latin), is more than a group of people who landed on the shores of America; it more so describes a person who sets out on a journey to a destination as a ‘pilgrimage’, a religious quest, for interior renewal in their faith.

I wanted to write this post simply about the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and his making ‘the way of a pilgrim’ to the ‘House of Saint James’ in Compostela. But as I began to reflect on his role as a pilgrim, I began to see that he is much more. He is also setting an example for all Christians through his words and deeds of our own call to be pilgrims in this world. Pope Benedict describes our pilgrimage in this way:

To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe. Above all, Christians go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to the places associated with the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. They go to Rome, the city of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, and also to Compostela, which, associated with the memory of Saint James, has welcomed pilgrims from throughout the world who desire to strengthen their spirit with the Apostle’s witness of faith and love.

In this Holy Year of Compostela, I too, as the Successor of Peter, wished to come in pilgrimage to the “House of Saint James”, as it prepares to celebrate the eight-hundredth anniversary of its consecration. I have come to confirm your faith, to stir up your hope and to entrust to the Apostle’s intercession your aspirations, struggles and labours in the service of the Gospel. As I embraced the venerable statue of the Saint, I also prayed for all the children of the Church, which has her origin in the mystery of the communion that is God. Through faith we are introduced to the mystery of love that is the Most Holy Trinity. We are in some sense embraced by God, transformed by his love. The Church is this embrace of God, in which men and women learn also to embrace their brothers and sisters and to discover in them the divine image and likeness which constitutes the deepest truth of their existence, and which is the origin of genuine freedom.

In the Holy Father’s words, he shares with us how he sees himself. Yes, he is a pilgrim in the bosom of the Church, journeying through his earthly life toward a destination fulfilled in union with Christ. But his pilgrimage is also one as a leader of others who shares in the earthly journey towards an eternal home. This thought struck a chord in my heart, to know that as he is making his act of pilgrimage, he is carrying his flock and their needs with him. It also makes clear how his travels around the world are different than any other world leader. A dialog from one of my favorite stories that express this so well.

Here we have the first speaker, a steward, ‘holding down the fort’ until the true ruler returns. The second speaker, claims no authority, but sees himself too as a caretaker – a steward:

Steward: “…the Lord of the City (Nation) is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of the City; and the rule of it, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.”

Second person: “…I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of this city nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care….” (emphasis mine)

The dialog comes, of course, from the Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter 1, between the Lord Denethor and the wizard Gandalf. The interesting note for me is, Gandalf has before this point in the story shown his growing power in fighting the feared Balrog, but admits that his power is not of his own making, but that it is of another. Facing the Balrog, he says, “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass.” Christian interpretation of this passage, speaks of this fire as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Why I chose to raise this in reflecting on the Pilgrim Pope, is the difference in his journeys around the world compared to other world leaders. Also, just the perspective of the battle portrayed, between Gandalf’s seeming smallness before the Balrog, reminds me of the spiritual battle that is before the Pope when he goes out on Papal visits (this would make a good post in itself at some point).

Wherever he goes, he goes first and foremost to encourage the faithful to remain steadfast in their Christian Faith. He reflects the signs of the times and interprets them for his flock, warning of dangers and gives remedy to avoid falling into error and harm. Like Gandalf, “no realm is mine…But all things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care…” Today, in Santiago, the Pope warned, The Church “stands at the service of both truth and freedom…without this aspiration for truth, justice and freedom, man would lose his very self.” And so he goes from Papal visit to Papal visit, calling the flock and all people of God to a true freedom that comes from relationship with God.

There is a power at work in and through the Church’s steward, the successor of Peter, that is masked and hidden by his gentle nature. Yet, during his visit to Great Britain – and now to Spain – people are confronted with  a power that makes them ask, ‘where did he get this?’

The power that this small Papal figure has, is not monetary, nor military strength, nor in trade deals and alliances, which are often the talks between nations during visits. Yet, he captivates because he is a man of the Spirit, giving what gold and human resources cannot give; he gives life and direction to those who are weary of heart. And the power is recognizable mostly because he doesn’t choose to wield it. It is a part of him that has come to him through his constancy in prayer, reflection on the Word of God, his Sacramental life and his dedication to study, and overall, because of God’s grace. All of these things through the years of his priestly ministry have prepared him to be a witness of God’s power.

It is as Saint Paul described in this second letter to the Corinthians, “For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, andourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Christ. But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.”

It is in this non-presumptive stance, the Pilgrim Pope journeys from city to city, country to country, leaving behind not his own mark on the people, but a call to all to the Power and love of God himself.


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