Pope Francis’ well-known proclivity for blessing small children means that standing near little ones gives audience attendees a better chance of seeing the pope up close. (Courtesy Msgr. Tim Murphy)
Pope Francis’ well-known proclivity for blessing small children means that standing near little ones gives audience attendees a better chance of seeing the pope up close. (Courtesy Msgr. Tim Murphy)
Msgr. Patrick Brennan, pastor of St. Mary Cathedral in downtown Portland, first visited the Holy Land in 1977. “When the smell of orange blossoms hit me, I have an overwhelming experience of the presence of God,” he says.

Although he was a student on an archeology tour, that remembered moment is the essence of pilgrimage for him. “If you leave yourself open, God will take hold.”

And yet pilgrimage, despite its age-old roots, had slowed in the modern world to a mere trickle when Msgr. Brennan was smelling those blossoms. 

No longer. 

In 1986, 2,491 pilgrims received Compostela certificates, attesting that they had walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the reputed burial place of St. James.

In 2017, that number was more than 100-fold higher: 301,036 pilgrims walked that “pathway of old.”

Msgr. Rick Paperini, pastor of St. Philip Neri in Southeast Portland, is part of the resurgence. In 1987 he traveled to Tepeyac, where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego. He remembered the experience as being touching, and yet he didn’t go on pilgrimage again until 2013, when a parishioner at Christ the King Parish in Milwaukie organized a pilgrimage to Rome, Fatima and Spain, and asked him to come. “It was a magnificent pilgrimage,” he said. “I’m sure it has affected my faith life.”

Before that, pilgrimage hadn’t been a priority for Msgr. Paperini. Now he sees pilgrimage as an intellectual and emotional way to connect with faith. “There’s nothing like seeing something as it really is,” he says. 

Since then, Msgr. Paperini has traveled to the house chapel in Spain where St. Ignatius of Loyola lived and to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte in Rome, where St. Maximillian Kolbe celebrated his first Mass after his ordination. “Not only did I pray in those churches, I also wanted to spend time there just being present,” Msgr. Paperini says. “Those things touch you and give you a deeper faith.”

Msgr. Tim Murphy, president emeritus of Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland, notes that every religion has pilgrims — Muslims travel to Mecca and Hindus to the Ganges River. For most Christians, and for him in particular, the geographic sites that have the most significance are Jerusalem and Rome — places that are now in his heart. 

“Distant places have the potential to be near spiritually by going,” Msgr. Murphy says. “You replay the memories.”

He journals as a pilgrim to help him remember. “Writing helps me stay focused, and later I review.”

Like Msgr. Paperini, Msgr. Murphy’s travel to religiously meaningful places has given him “a richer sense of the church.”

In Malta, he could imagine St. Paul’s shipwreck, and in Sicily, St. Agatha’s martyrdom. “I’ve seen it and been in it,” he says. “They mean more to me now.”

All three Archdiocese of Portland priests have advice for pilgrims. 

Msgr. Murphy says it may be necessary to filter out modern, jarring, sometimes even ugly intrusions. “Filter,” he says. “You’ve got to filter.”

Msgr. Paperini thinks it’s helpful to pay attention to the architecture. “When you’re in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, you’re in a space created in the fourth century. Think about that. Also, architecture says something about theology. Romanesque architecture is incarnational, God surrounding us with his love, the Word becoming flesh.” 

Msgr. Brennan urges people to prepare through study and prayer, and to get out of the tourist mindset in order to know they are going to a sacred place. “That’s the substratum of all pilgrimage — to find a personal sense of the sacred, or to transcend the everyday. To look through a portal to the world beyond us.”

Msgr. Brennan says it isn’t necessary to go to Rome for this. As pastor of St. Mary Cathedral in Portland, he sees it happen with visitors stepping in the door, taking in the beauty of the church. He saw it happen with visitors on the hill at Mount Angel, a place that had been holy to the Native American tribes of the area before the Benedictines built a monastery there. 

He personally finds that sense of the holy in Harney County, where there’s a unique round barn in the midst of a field. “It’s just this perfect shape,” Msgr. Brennan says. “I feel a special sense of transcendence there.”

Msgr. Brennan also finds that transcendence in the Grand Tetons. “Mountains in Scripture are places where humans encounter the sacred,” he says. 

Those are private pilgrimages, but Msgr. Brennan believes that groups have much to offer as well. He has led Oregon Catholic Press pilgrimages and says the groups visited sacred sites, drew closer to God, closer to each other and they learned about other cultures. “They were expansive experiences,” he says. “It’s not just the arriving. It’s the getting there.”

Msgr. Murphy speaks of the joys of traveling with people who are drawn by similar interests, who are on a similar quest. 

For Msgr. Paperini, pilgrimage is journeying with people to see places that have religious meaning. “The opportunity to travel together is wonderful,” he says.

“We’re in this together,” says Msgr. Brennan. “When we believe something is sacred, that other world can break through to us.”