It was around 6 p.m. on a Monday night, and as we walked the final stretch of our nine-mile hike to St. James Catholic Church, we prayed for welcome. As we approached, we noted pilgrim shells decorating the church doors –- a good sign.
To our delight, the church was open. We entered and made our way to the altar to offer a quick prayer — in thanksgiving for a safe journey and in hope of hospitality for the night.
We were on the second day of a 114-mile walking pilgrimage from Mount Saviour Monastery in Elmira, New York, to the St. Marianne Cope Shrine in Syracuse.
James has lived at two different Catholic Worker houses in New York for the past eight years. Renée is the newest member of St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Chicago. Community, hospitality and voluntary poverty have shaped our lives and our relationship.
So, in July we embarked on a begging pilgrimage, during which we depended upon the Catholic Church — our community — for each leg of the eight-day journey.
Instead of bringing camping supplies or booking hotels, we marked out Catholic churches on our route for food water and shelter. The goal was to totally trust in God, in divine providence.
The first night of our pilgrimage had a rocky start. The priest seemed shaken by our request for hospitality. Liability concerns prevented him from offering us shelter. We asked for a blanket, and he had none to give. At James’ request, he gave us a blessing.
We spent our first night as pilgrims on the concrete floor of a gazebo in the town center.
Compline, we discovered, is an excellent prayer for those who are not certain they will pass a night in peace. “Guard us, O Lord, as the apple of your eye,” we prayed. “Hide us in the shadow of your wings.”
When strong winds, lightning and rain arrived after sunset, the sting of being turned away by our Church turned into gratitude for the roof over our heads and for the rain that kept people out of the park all night.
God kept us safe, just not in the way we had envisioned it.
The priest had told us, “You’re strangers.” Yet the next morning, at Mass, we received Communion from his hands. After being turned away the night before, it was strange to then be welcomed into the eucharistic banquet.
Our rejection prompted penitential reflection on how many times we ourselves have turned away the stranger.
How many times had we not listened or asked questions of someone seeking aid? How often do we turn away from someone in need, embarrassed by our unwillingness to help them? How many times had we failed to be the good Samaritan and left our neighbor in the ditch?
Our trust in God to provide was briefly shaken. After our night without sleep, we began to doubt that showing up without notice or recommendation was going to work. Instead of begging for our needs, we purchased sleeping bags in case of another outdoor evening — a form of insurance against future liabilities.
We called upon friends to help us find a place to stay, came up short, set off on our hike and that’s how we found ourselves at St. James Church. We rang the doorbell at the rectory. We waited. Then rang a second time.
The door opened, and two women, resembling the fairy godmothers from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, stared out at us. We introduced ourselves and explained we were on a begging pilgrimage to the St. Marianne Cope Shrine.
“Well,” they said, “we only have a single bed in the guest bedroom. But why don’t you come in and see what we have?”
We talked on their front porch a while longer and learned the two women — Sister Anne and Sister Marciana — were Sisters of St. Joseph, the order that educated James through elementary school.
James and the sisters learned they had mutual friends, but even more than that, Sister Anne was pleased to hear James’ last name — no better recommendation for a pilgrim than sterling Irish Catholic credentials.
They invited us into the sitting room and we shared a bit more about who we are and what we do. After getting James settled in the basement, and Renée in the guest bedroom, we shared dinner. Our conversation energized us more than the food. To be welcomed to someone’s table was both dignifying and humbling.
“Eucharist” is a fitting name for the banquet that is the source and summit of our faith — their hospitality and fellowship gave our pilgrimage new life.
When most Americans think of pilgrimages, Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the Holy Land or Lourdes, France, come to mind. But our simple walk through the Finger Lakes region of New York treated us to beautiful landscapes of rolling hills, fields of crops as far as the eye could see and dozens of waterfalls that took our breath away.
Beautiful vineyards provided us with water and rest. Amish families waved to us as they drove by in horse and buggy. Hawks soared over us. We saw deer jumping in fields and fox trotting through farmyards.
Even in our lowest moments, we were constantly reminded of the beauty of God’s creation.
The pilgrimage began as a desire to make an exercise in trust. We chose the St. Marianne Cope Shrine. After our night as the sisters’ honored guests, we were galvanized in our mission as pilgrims by promising to pray for them at the shrine.
As we hiked, we compiled our own litany of saints-in-the-making to pray for at the shrine, and began to learn more about the saint we prayed to.
The Franciscan nun ministered throughout central New York before moving to Hawaii in 1883 to care for patients with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. She died in 1918 and was canonized in 2012. Her shrine was established in Syracuse at St. Joseph Hospital, which she helped found.
Hiking through rural areas during a heatwave, we went long stretches between towns and knocked on front doors when we ran low on water. Our backpacks and gear prompted many conversations about where we were heading and why.
We met a woman mourning the recent death of her mother who offered us her garden hose to fill our water bottles and fruit cups to eat. When we told her we were on a Catholic pilgrimage, she exclaimed, “I’m Catholic!”
We promised to pray for her mother, whose funeral was the day we arrived at St. Marianne’s shrine. She was close to tears when we said our goodbyes.
In just five minutes, we had built a small community, based on vulnerability and mutual need. As Sister Anne had told us over dinner, “Community is built out of our shared neediness.”
While taking shelter in a dive bar during a cloudburst, we met an elderly couple who said they were Catholic but no longer practiced. They gave us advice on where to sleep, and, thanks to them, we spent another rainy night in a secluded pavilion in a state park.
On our longest day, without enough food or water and our spirits flagging, a man stopped mowing his lawn and approached us. “Do you folks know where you’re going?” he asked.
When we told him we were on a pilgrimage, he mentioned he grew up Catholic, and sent his son to a Franciscan high school. He drove us five miles down the road. Had he not, we would have arrived at our destination well after dark.
As we parted ways, he said he looked forward to telling his Franciscan friend in Buffalo, New York, about his encounter with two Catholic pilgrims.
Just as these strangers found our pilgrimage strengthened their identities as Catholics, we found our identities as pilgrims bolstered by each encounter. When we were received with welcome, we were reminded of our membership in the mystical body of Christ.
When we finally arrived at the St. Marianne Cope Shrine, we prayed for the dozens of people we had encountered: Catholic Workers, an Episcopal congregation, passersby and generous parishioners.
Time and time again, we were cared for and supported by women. It made us wonder how the Church could be revitalized if the leadership of women like St. Marianne Cope and the communal action of women we saw each day on the road was lifted up as a model of eucharistic action?
Perhaps a key part of the eucharistic revival so needed in the Church includes prioritizing hospitality over liability, embracing God rather than mammon, and relearning the art of welcoming the stranger and sharing a meal together.