The rich rewards of pilgrimage

The rich rewards of pilgrimage

By Sister Rosemary Fry C.S.J.

Two participants on a pilgrimage sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada converse.

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has put travel of all types on hold, but knowing that religious communities usually plan large-scale events far in advance, we present this outline of a pilgrimage program to inspire and aid readers to consider this possibility. The author’s community began working with young people to organize the first pilgrimage two years in advance.

A pilgrimage is a time of inner and outer exploring, learning, renewal, and recommitment. For young people who are exploring their gifts and talents and their place in the world, a pilgrimage can be a sacred time of spiritual growth and even vocational discernment. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada and their lay ministries have found that sponsoring pilgrimages has been a beautiful way to forge relationships with young adults and introduce them to our rich spiritual traditions.

Over the last several years, young men and women in a group called Faith Connections—a lay run ministry sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto—have asked for and collaborated in organizing three pilgrimages with the sisters. The experience has been life-giving for all.

Idea sparked by “Francis Fest”

Our pilgrimage concept began in 2012 when Faith Connections collaborated with St. Bonaventure Parish, in Toronto, and the Conventual Franciscans to take 10 young adults to a “Francis Fest.” This was a gathering of 45 young adults (from Toronto, Ontario; Raleigh, North Carolina, and Syracuse, New York) who met at the Franciscan Church of the Assumption in Syracuse, New York. Father Eric de la Pena, O.F.M. Conv. led the pilgrims in a weekend program that sought to give them a “glimpse of the great spiritual wealth of the Franciscan Order, so that these values can be transmitted into the future.”

During the weekend the young people learned the pillars of Franciscan spirituality, prayed the Divine Office with the friars, visited the shrine of Sister Marianne Cope, a recently canonized Franciscan sister, and participated in the ministries of the friars to the poor in the neighborhood.

Afterward the Faith Connections ministry team, inspired by the experience in Syracuse, began to dream and ask whether they could organize something similar—perhaps a “Joseph Jam”—in collaboration with various communities of Sisters of St. Joseph. The team considered inviting young people on a weekend journey to visit a CSJ community, learn about the charism, participate in ministry, enter into prayer, eat together, and laugh together? Could young adults be gathered from diverse geographical regions to participate?

The idea was presented to the leadership of the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada by the Faith Connections team. Possible ways to be involved were participating on a visioning team, being part of the event planning team, being a host congregation, bringing a group of young adults, or simply sharing pilgrimage information with one’s congregation. The Federation leaders were interested, and planning began.

Pilgrimage itineraries

During the next two years the Faith Connections ministry team and members of the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada met with several young adults to determine the schedule, format and content of a pilgrimage based on the spirituality and ministries of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

This process resulted in three pilgrimages over the next six years, with a fourth for 2020 that was held, in part, by Zoom, with the full pilgrimage to take place later. Each pilgrimage was evaluated and the next one adjusted accordingly.

Faith Connections publicized the pilgrimages, and the sisters hosted the pilgrims. For each pilgrimage, a booklet was prepared for every pilgrim containing the prayers, music, presentations, reflection questions, and prayer methods for the pilgrimage. The booklets left space for pilgrims to write notes and observations.

The theme for each pilgrimage was based on a recent writing of Pope Francis. We chose a destination from among the cities with CSJ foundations established by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto. Following is a description of what happened on the pilgrimages.

The pilgrims who were able to met at a retirement home of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, where the sisters gathered to greet them and give a blessing as they set out on the first part of their journey in car pools. Individual sisters also “adopted” one of the pilgrims and wrote him or her a personal note and promised to pray for their pilgrim during the weekend. Pilgrims identified this as one of the important moments of the event.

Leaving Toronto, the young people followed a prepared guide that pointed out the early foundations and present ministries of the Sisters of St. Joseph that they passed on their route.

Pilgrimages have been held to London, Ontario; Hamilton, Ontario, and North Bay, Ontario. Each pilgrimage imparted information about the foundation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in that particular city and region, their ministries, and how the sisters lived their spirituality as CSJs according to the particular theme of the pilgrimage.

The theme for our first pilgrimage to London, “Living Joy,” was based on Pope Francis’ encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). In Hamilton, during the Year of Mercy, the theme was “Living Mercy,” and in North Bay the theme was “Living Faith”—based on Gaudete et Exsultate (On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World).

Sisters of St. Joseph throughout the world live an Ignatian spirituality. This was reflected in the prayer experiences. During the “Living Mercy” pilgrimage, participants were led in a guided meditation on “Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy,” using the scripture passage, Luke 14:1-14. To gather up the graces of the weekend on Sunday morning, in both London and Hamilton, the pilgrims were led through another Ignatian spiritual custom, the Examen prayer or awareness Examen, based on the theme of the pilgrimage.

Each city required some logistical adaptations. In London, the team and pilgrims slept in a local university residence hall and had their meals and activities at a nearby house of sisters where there was also a residence for senior sisters and a palliative care service for the city. In Hamilton there was enough space in the sisters’ main house for the team and pilgrims to stay there. And in North Bay some of the team and pilgrims stayed in the motherhouse while others commuted to a camp on another lake about 15 minutes away.

On Fridays we arrived at our destination in time for supper with the sisters. During all the pilgrimages our meals were eaten with the sisters of the hosting community. This provided a rich and relaxed venue for new learnings on the part of both the pilgrims and the sisters. In London we were able to have a barbeque with the sisters on Saturday evening. In the lineup for the hamburgers, one elderly sister was invited to go to the front of the line to which she retorted “No, I am waiting for the new friends I made today.” Earlier in the day she had taken a group of the pilgrims to her room and shown them prized pictures of her family and crafts she had made.

Supper on Friday nights was followed by a lively ice breaker, an introduction to the theme of the pilgrimage as lived by sisters, and the Divine Office. We topped off Friday evenings with a social. A special event in North Bay on Friday night was the re-enactment of Woman at the Well by John Shea, by the young adults. This was the cause of much hilarity but also deep reflection as we shared our inner reactions to the story.

Saturday’s activities, during the day, were adapted to the particular location of the pilgrimage. In London, the pilgrims learned about the environmentally friendly house of the Sisters, helped to clean up the garden, and entertained some dementia patients with a sing along.

In both London and Hamilton we spent the afternoon on a “Hike and Prayer” throughout the city to various locations where the sisters had established ministries.

In the rain in North Bay we had a pilgrimage throughout the large motherhouse where modern Stations of the Cross were set up and different sisters spoke of their ministry, relating stories of those they served to Jesus’ suffering on the way to Calvary.

Saturday night on each pilgrimage included Adoration and Taize prayer with the sisters. Pilgrims had opportunities for sacramental reconciliation and spiritual direction. In London one of the priests who had come to help with confession was heard saying he “loved to be around when the Holy Spirit was creating a buzz.”

On Sunday morning in London and Hamilton we had time to gather up the graces of the pilgrimage and celebrate the Sunday liturgy with the sisters before the return home after lunch.

In North Bay, the Sunday liturgy was celebrated late on Saturday afternoon with all the Sisters at the motherhouse. On Sunday, three of the pilgrims shared their own “Living Faith” journey with the group. This was a very moving experience for everyone.

Another highlight of the North Bay pilgrimage was that the bishop for that diocese, Bishop Marcel Damphouse, participated in all the activities with the young adults throughout the weekend. His humble, friendly demeanor and participation as one of the pilgrims gave young people an opportunity to meet and speak with him apart from his more formal ministry. The bishop remarked on how much he had learned about the ministries of the sisters in his diocese.

Blessings of the pilgrimages

These pilgrimages were filled with gifts and graces for both the pilgrims and the sisters. One way we know the young adults enjoyed them is that several pilgrims have attended all three pilgrimages and have invited their friends to come as well. According to the evaluations, a consistently popular aspect of the pilgrimages was spending time with the sisters, particularly the elderly ones. The pilgrims were impressed at their years of commitment and loved to listen to their stories. For some young adults this contact totally changed their idea of a sister from stereotypes to women who are serious, joyful, committed, and engaged. They see sisters aware of changing needs and willing to adapt to meet them.

In casual conversation while traveling to the pilgrimage sites or taking part in the ministry activities, the young people were able to experience the sisters as human beings like themselves. At the barbecue in London one pilgrim was amazed that a sister might drink a beer at a party on a hot summer night.

While learning about the varied ministries in each location, the young people became aware of how much the sisters had contributed to the social fabric throughout the province of Ontario since their arrival in 1851. The sisters, too, enjoyed having young people at meals, Eucharist, and prayer. In the times they visited and chatted together, they formed new relationships, some of which have continued over the years.

New relationships among the pilgrims have also been formed, and a private Facebook group has grown among the pilgrims. For the most recent pilgrimage to North Bay some of the pilgrims met for supper before the pilgrimage to get to know one another. In addition, one of the groups has held a reunion. A reunion is now one of the new initiatives we hope to carry forward with future pilgrimages.

Several pilgrims identified the spiritual aspects of the pilgrimage as meaningful. They learned new ways of praying both from the booklets prepared for each pilgrimage and the methods incorporated into the weekend. They appreciated the opportunities for confession and spiritual direction and identified these as occasions for new beginnings.

Evaluations of all the three pilgrimages asked that the time be longer and that there be more time for reflection, contemplation, and private prayer. Clearly, each of these pilgrimage experiences has been a time for connection to God and one another, a time for learning and inspiration. We hope our next pilgrimage—in the planning process right now—will result in similar blessings.

Sister Rosemary Fry, C.S.J. has been a Sister of St. Joseph of Toronto for 58 years. As a trained nurse she spent many years ministering in Haiti. Now, as Vocation Director for her congregation, she shares the joy in her life with young adults. Contact Sister Rosemary at

by Juan Antonio Lopéz

My experience on the retreat was, in a word, amazing. It taught me a big lesson, and that is that happiness does not lie in achieving what society calls “success”.

As a young adult, it is so hard not to get bogged down by thoughts of, “I haven’t achieved this,” “I could have been more successful by now,” “Work, work, work.” I believe everyone has experienced these types of thoughts at one point or another. We aspire, we long for, and we see “the goal,” the car, the title, and so on with yearning eyes.

A weekend spent away with the Sisters of St. Joseph was like a bucket of cold water (in a good way!). It made me say to myself, “Dude, what you keep yearning for is not something you will find on the outside!”

Seeing the simplicity of the sisters, their humanness and joy of just simply “being,” left me with my eyes wide open. I couldn’t help but say to them, that they are like children who just have fun, who truly embrace the phrase “enjoy yourself.” They live authentically, enjoying who they are and their relationships with others. They live with true joy, compassion, and happiness, and for me that was like hitting the wall (again, in a good way).

True joy lies in cultivating the internal virtues, connecting with yourself and others, living in the presence of God throughout your day, and that’s exactly what I saw in them. Even though this idea already kind of made sense to me, actually witnessing that during the retreat made it come more alive within me.

While getting to know some of the sisters, one shared her story of flying to Africa to build a school for children in need. Another sister is currently coordinating a construction project to build apartments for people in need. I also heard many other stories. Listening to them left me astonished. They not only live simply and joyfully, but they also live with purpose, and that, I believe, is part of why I saw such joy and life within them.

Many of these women are in their 60s, 70s, or older, but nonetheless they all have a youthful joy and life within them that is filled with motivation and compassion. That sounds like something I want to have. I don’t believe we should ever trade that kind of joy for anything, especially if it is to replace it with the fulfillment of our external desires. If we do that, we will never be truly joyful.

A weekend with the Sisters of St. Joseph gave me an opportunity to witness them embracing true happiness and bringing  that sensibility into daily life. And that, to me, is “Living Faith.”

Published on: 2020-07-31

Edition: 2020 HORIZON No. 3 Summer

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