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The Pilgrim Family

Devout Jews would go up to Jerusalem three times each year, for the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Today’s Gospel (Lk 2:41-52) tells us about one such trip of the Holy Family and the subsequent loss of the child Jesus. “Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.”

Pope Benedict XVI observes that the word here for “caravan” is a technical word meaning “pilgrim community.” It highlights that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were not just visitors to Jerusalem and certainly not just wandering up there. They were pilgrims. The thrice-yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem shaped them as a family, as it was intended to do. The Holy Family was in effect on constant pilgrimage. They had a goal and were purposeful in pursuing it.

At today’s Mass we repeatedly pray for the grace to imitate the Holy Family. That’s a tall order. We can’t hope to imitate them in every regard. But we can and should imitate them in being families on pilgrimage. Just as the Holy Family was formed by their pilgrimages to Jerusalem, so every Catholic family is to be a pilgrim community – one that has a clear destination, a journey to make, and companions on the way.

Consider first the importance of a destination. It’s the difference between a pilgrim and a wanderer. It provides focus and purpose. Few things are more miserable than being in an organization that has no purpose. So also, those families that have a sense of their purpose and goal are happier, and more fun to be with. They know that they exist for a reason. They’re not just a random group of related individuals rattling around in the same building. They are brought together for a purpose. The family comes from God and is meant to lead to Him.

For the Holy Family, this clarity of purpose was unique. It was always before them in the child Jesus. They existed for him. But the same is true for every family and every family member. Perhaps we can understand it in terms of the Gospel’s last line: “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” The goal is that Jesus grow within each member of the family. The family’s destination is Heaven itself. For each member to say, “I love you” to the other means to say, “I desire your sanctification and salvation.”

It is increasingly necessary for us, in our culture, to recall this supernatural purpose of the family. The necessities and benefits the family once provided an individual (financial security, physical security, education, etc.) the state now provides (or promises, anyway). Rightly or wrongly, we don’t rely on the family for those things anymore. It’s now clearer that the family provides what no one else can: a place where Christ is learned, worshipped, and lived. In short, the domestic church.


Purpose also establishes the terms of discernment. The pilgrim makes choices based on what will help him to his goal. He discerns according to his destination. So also, dad and mom must judge according to what will help the family in its pursuit of holiness and heaven. Consideration of schools, technology, entertainment, sports, etc. will be made in light of the family’s purpose. Whatever helps build up a community of faith, hope, and love should be embraced. Whatever interferes should be rejected.

Purpose also brings perseverance. If you’re uncertain about your destination, you’re not likely to continue striving for it. A pilgrim without a destination is no longer a pilgrim. Which explains about 50 percent of marriages in our country. Once spouses or family members lose sight of their goal, their life together becomes unintelligible. It’s no longer worth the effort.

Family life is difficult. The uniting of two lives as one, the welcoming of children (yet more lives to weave into the fabric), the work, the crises and losses, the daily grind, and so on. Without a purpose, the difficulties of family life cannot be understood, nor easily endured. If we don’t have the final goal in mind, these challenges wear us down. But if we do have that purpose in mind – that Christ increase in each of us – then the challenges, while not ceasing to be challenges, are opportunities to for us to become more Christ-like by responding to them as He would.

The Holy Family was not alone in its pilgrimage. They were in a caravan, a group of families. Which is a reminder that families provide strength to one another. “It takes a village” makes sense when understood in this way, as families assisting one another in striving for their shared goal (and not as the government doing it all for them). Families are not meant to stand alone. They are meant to lean on one another. And this is what the Church should be fostering. “It takes a parish” is the better slogan. Families should find strength most of all in God’s family, in the pilgrim Church.

When Joseph and Mary find the Christ child in the Temple, they learn more about Him. They learn more deeply about His purpose, to be about His Father’s work. Pray that families experience a similar rediscovery of our Lord and of their call to pilgrimage.


*Image: The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple [1] by William Holman Hunt, 1854-55 [Birmingham Museums, Birmingham, England]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Bevil Bramwell’s A Catholic Family Is Different [2]

+Karen Walter Goodwin’s Eucharisteo [3]

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Pastor of Saint James in Falls Church. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and the editor of Sermons in Times of Crisis: Twelve Homilies to Stir Your Soul.