Anyone paying attention to American society today can’t help but notice that the public space afforded to religion has shrunk – and is continuing to shrink, day by day. The Supreme Court may issue decisions protecting the rights of churches and church schools to hire and fire whomever they want. And it may even, as in the most recent session, level the playing field a bit so that religious schools can receive the same state support as other non-public schools. But these are victories at the margins.
The main culture-forming institutions – colleges and universities, media, Hollywood, the arts, even corporations – sharply limit open expressions of religion, which is to say primarily traditional Christianity, anywhere they can. We can still worship privately, but we can do less publicly than ever before in our history.
And, sadly, many of our religious institutions have just passively gone along with it all.
So I want to make a possibly immodest proposal, partly inspired by the good summer weather: Let’s take it outside.
Today is the feast of St. James the Apostle, little-known even to most Catholics these days, but once – and in many places, still – a central figure in religious pilgrimages. Santiago de Compostela, the famous endpoint of the Camino, literally means Saint James of Compostela. And there are legends – both highly disputed – that either:
1) He preached at the site of the modern city before returning to Jerusalem to be beheaded, the first of the apostles to be martyred; or
2) He died in Jerusalem, but his remains were taken to Compostela (and maybe also Toulouse) after his death, which became the most celebrated Christian pilgrimage site because of the spiritual and physical benefits that followed.
Or perhaps both.
In any event, public pilgrimages and processions – and not only at Compostela – have been one of the ways that the Church has maintained a conspicuous public presence throughout the centuries.
They’re everywhere in Europe. I participated in one just a few weeks ago in the Slovak city of Levoča that, every year, draws 100,000 to 200,000 people to a hilltop shrine. Who in America has even heard of it?
And in the town below, there’s a sign that indicates it’s on one of the many official routes to Compostela. You can see the stylized clamshell of St. James on the left in this photo, along with the many routes in Europe to Compostela, which is only 2961 kilometers (about 1800 miles!) distant from the Slovak pilgrimage site.
And this has gotten me thinking. What if twenty, or thirty, or fifty cities in America each had some sort of religious procession or pilgrimage yearly? And could draw thousands – or more?
I don’t mean a march. There’s still a place for a March for Life, since the fight to protect the unborn is far from over. And there’s certainly plenty of reason to hold marches for other issues as well. But these are directed to political goals. I’d like to see the Church in America develop public events that have a solely religious or spiritual character. Other effects, I’m convinced, would follow.
They would not be easy to organize. And need not be overly ambitious. At first. It’s hard enough to get people outside for emotional issues like protecting innocent human life. But even if they started small, the eventual results might just surprise us.
The great poet and great soul Charles Péguy, as I’ve previously written on this page , went by himself just over a century ago from Notre Dame in Paris to the Cathedral in Chartres on foot, in gratitude to the Virgin for the recovery of one of his children from what seemed a mortal illness. Today, even in secularized France, over 20,000 people – many young men and women – walk that same route over three days around Pentecost on their own spiritual paths.
I’d like to see us set up something similar in multiple places in America – part hike, part pilgrimage, wholly devoted to spiritual, not temporal things. We still need to fight the world’s fights with some of the world’s weapons. But we also need something more, something that seems desperately missing in our Church just now.
And even in terms of worldly things, pilgrimages can have massive public effects. Everyone is aware of the role that they played in the Polish resistance to Communism. Outside of Poland, one of the most noteworthy events was the 1985 pilgrimage to Velehrad (traditionally, the burial place of St. Methodius) in Czechoslovakia. Communist authorities blocked Pope John Paul II, British Cardinal Hume, and Paris’ Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger from attending, and tried to portray it as a “peace festival.”
The crowd – about 200,000 people – wasn’t buying it. They chanted, “This is a pilgrimage!” And when authorities persisted, they booed and shouted: “We want the pope. Faith, Faith! We want the Mass!” Cardinal František Tomášek read a message from JPII encouraging the people: “in the spirit of Saint Methodius to continue intrepidly on the path of evangelization and testimony, even if the present situation makes it arduous, difficult, and even bitter.”
The rest is history. Shortly after, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia along with Solidarity in Poland began unraveling the Communist stranglehold over Russia and half of Europe.
If ordinary people could do that against a vicious and violently repressive regime in the last century, we have no excuse if we don’t find the will to resist the creeping, soft totalitarianism now at work in all Western countries, which are even seeking to spread their own decadence to the whole world.
I myself will be taking the Camino’s Via Portuguesa in a few weeks, same destination – Compostela – but walking up the Atlantic coast of Portugal and Spain. I’ll think more about this whole prospect during those days. And in the meantime, I’d like to hear from anyone with ideas about just how we might bring about something similar in various places in America or anywhere. The alternative is to abandon our public spaces to barbarism – and tyranny.
You may also enjoy:
Bob Royal’s St. Cuthbert’s Way 
Matthew Hanley’s On Foot to Compostela