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The EditorsJanuary 24, 2011

Unsuspecting Pilgrims

By Francis X. Hezel

Manila in 1975, at the height of the Marcos era, was the capital of a troubled country. The super-rich ruled; the business establishment made the deals necessary to keep its stores open; and the average Filipino struggled to get by. Every other day, it seemed, the newspapers would carry a story of another violent confrontation between government troops and the National People’s Army, the guerilla insurgents who presented themselves as revolutionaries, agents of change and champions of the poor. As the Philippines became increasingly polarized, college students often took to the hills to join the N.P.A. One week it was a college basketball star another week it was a beauty pageant queen who donned fatigues and picked up an automatic weapon to join the liberationist movements.

I had come to the Philippines for the final year of religious formation (Jesuits call it tertianship), which included a 30-day retreat at the novitiate in Novaliches, north of Manila. For me, the retreat was an attempt at emotional engagement with the Lord, picking up conversation with an old friend but with long pauses when neither one spoke. We Jesuits prayed over the purpose of life, our own infidelities and the invitation of Christ to seek him wherever he was to be found. We looked for him in the solitude of contemplation, often on quiet walks through the wooded novitiate property, and in the song and prayer of the daily liturgies. It was a retreat in more than one sense of the word: a step back from the squalor and desperation of a land with too many people and too few decent-paying jobs.

The day the retreat ended, Felix Yaoch, a Micronesian priest and fellow tertian, and I hailed a jeepney to Manila to attend a meeting. As we jumped out of the vehicle on one of the most crowded streets in Manila, I turned toward the intersection and caught sight of people rushing this way and that, dodging traffic and one another as they poured into the street. I was dazzled, as if hundreds of Manileños were caught in slow motion, their faces frozen. I thought I saw them with their eyes upturned in a kind of pantomime. Here they were: those people described by St. Ignatius in the meditation on the Incarnation in the Spiritual Exercises—“some at peace, some at war; some weeping, some laughing; some well, some sick.” These were the people from whom we had been carefully shielded during our retreat in the wilderness. Here they were again—street beggars, field workers, army troops, young N.P.A. recruits and businessmen among them—a cross section of humanity seeking salvation from poverty, from futility, from meaninglessness.

Perhaps the God who showed a bit of his face to us in the quiet of Novaliches was serving notice that here is where we could find him: in the bustle of the streets and on the faces of unsuspecting pilgrims.

Joan of Milwaukee

By James Martin

The last place you might expect to find a 15th-century French chapel is Milwaukee. But plunked down in the middle of Marquette University is the Chapel of St. Joan of Arc. A speaking engagement last fall brought me to Wisconsin, and I was determined to see the inside of the chapel. The last time I was at the university, a friend pointed it out during a whirlwind tour and mistakenly said that the Maid of Orléans prayed here. Not exactly, said a guidebook that awaits visitors today. The compact white building was transported brick-by-brick to the United States from France in 1926 and then to Marquette in 1964. Though Joan probably did not visit the chapel, it contains a single stone on which she is supposed to have prayed. Inside are a rough-hewn altar and simple wooden seats.

Also inside is silence. In the middle of the fall semester, in the middle of a busy campus, I could hear no noise. Finally, I thought, some quiet after seemingly endless days of cars and trucks honking in New York. When I sat on the creaking chair, I felt a deep stillness. And I wondered whether it was quiet in the fields of Domrémy before Joan heard her famous voices. Much of her life was noisy: her family lived in crowded quarters; later, during battles, she was surrounded by shouts and cries; upon entering a town she was often greeted with deafening cheers. Perhaps she knew silence only in the fields—and in her jail cell awaiting her trial, when her voices temporarily deserted her. Silence can be a double-edged sword: for the lonely a torment, for the overworked a balm.

The red leaves blew about on the plaza outside, but I could not hear them.

Walk Into Repentance

By Drew Christiansen

Said to be the site of Caiaphas’s palace, Jesus’ trial and Peter’s denial, there has been a church at the site of Saint Peter in Gallicantu—Saint Peter Where the Cock Crowed—since Byzantine times. The current church was built by the French Assumptionist étienne Boubet in 1931. In the 1990s it was beautifully renewed by Robert Fortin, an American Assumptionist who was rector, and the Palestinian Christian architect Samir Kandah. In keeping with the commemoration of St. Peter’s denial, a constant theme in the church’s art is repentance. A walk within the church takes one deeper and deeper into the spirit of contrition. There is no place quite like it.

On the upper level, Father Boubet designed the church in shades of violet and green, colors of repentance, and with little natural light. The altar is flanked by images of penitent saints, including the “good thief,” Dismas, and St. Mary of Egypt. On the second level, an extraordinary, blue-tinted bronze of the Suffering Servant invites visitors to contemplate the prophecies of Isaiah fulfilled in Jesus. Committed pilgrims should avoid the impulse to move ahead with the crowd and instead take time to meditate there on Isaiah’s Servant Songs, whose enactment began in this place.

Opposite the statue, a stairwell leads to a crypt chapel, where living stone flows into a white marble sanctuary. Three paintings in modern iconic style adorn the space. To the left, with a cock looking down from a pillar, a handcuffed Jesus gazes on Peter after his denial; in the center Peter weeps over his denial; and to the right one sees reconciliation as Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me?” In the lower chapel, pilgrims cannot but reflect on their own failures to be true to Christ.

The walk then takes pilgrims into the rock below the church, to a cistern that was deepened into a holding cell. Its walls have been inscribed with crosses by centuries of pilgrims who have descended to the place where Jesus is said to have been held prisoner the night before his death. In this bleak setting, the custom is to recite Psalm 88, from which I have excerpted here verses 4 and 6:

For my soul is full of troubles,

and my life draws near to Sheol,

I am reckoned among those who go down to the Pit….


Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit,

in the regions dark and deep.

A psaltery presents the prayer in more than 80 languages. When the recitation is complete, guides sometimes plunge the cell into a chilling darkness.

In “the Pit,” as pilgrims experience the depths of Christ’s abandonment, their walk of repentance runs its course. St. Peter Gallicantu is special among holy places because step by step it offers so many opportunities to enter into Christ’s passion and to stir up repentance in the heart.

God in the City

By Karen Sue Smith

On my first visit to the cathedral in Milan, Italy, the Duomo di Milano, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, I did as many tourists do on the recommendation of their guidebook: I went up onto the roof to view from there the magnificent piazza over which the church presides. It had rained that morning, which made the white marble facade slippery and, with no guardrails, a bit dangerous. Yet the payoff included much more than the view. Up there one can walk through the forest of saints’ statues and spires that give this building its distinctive appearance.

No guidebook, however, describes what I found inside the cathedral, which has proved most memorable. The place was bustling. The enormous structure begun in the 14th-century was full of modern people engaged in the very act of being the church. This parish was alive, even though no Mass was conducted there during the hour or more that I lingered. Although many churches in Europe seem to be shells, stuffed with the ghosts of congregations past, more than houses for contemporary worshipers, this duomo was different. Some tourists did look up at the windows, point and consult their maps, yet most of the people I saw were locals. They spoke Italian. Lots of Milanese, it seemed, were praying, lighting candles, making confession, gathering with friends, checking the bulletin boards, talking with the priests, coming and going routinely—giving the place a throbbing heartbeat of its own. The massive marble seemed to breathe.

The large tapestry banners hanging in the nave gave the interior a festive feel. What might otherwise have been a vast, cold cavern was instead inviting overall and cozy and intimate in places. The little rooms for the sacrament of reconciliation seemed to wait expectantly. A small alcove bedecked with a Bible and flowers, like a hospitable reception area of a fine restaurant, set the tone as one approached the quiet, inner sanctum for the reception of grace.

In the nave stood a very public glass chamber, and within it a priest sat behind a desk. A person entered and the two began to talk. This was no confessional, but rather a place to speak with a priest. The people in the church could readily see when a priest was present and available—transparency through architecture.

When I looked closely at one of the side altars, I saw on the wall handwritten scrawlings (purposely never removed): prayers, petitions and testimony of answered prayers. I could make out some of the Italian. The fingers of those who scribbled their gratitude to God in sacred graffiti on those walls reached out and touched me. Such good company! The faith of many generations of Catholics was palpable that day in a house of God for the people of the city.

I pray that it may still be so.

Additional travel reflections from the editors.

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11 years 5 months ago

Your "Accidental Pilgrims" article reminded me of another by Dennis Linehan S.J. that appeared in America two or three years ago.  He wrote of his time in Paris working on his dissertation when each day after the noon meal he'd walk the short distance from his Jesuit residence to the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity where he prayed at the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal.  It was for him a haven from the pressure of study and the dim of Paris' traffic.  I meant to comment on that article then but never got to it; now I can affirm all these pilgrimage experiences while searching for those that may come my way unexpectedly.

11 years 5 months ago
Thank you so much for the Accidental  Pilgrims.  I thoroughly enjoyed all three pieces.  It is amazing to notice and realize the surprising places we can encounter God! 

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