I am sunburnt. My feet hurt. The last 900 meters of this two days of pilgrimage is straight up the side of a volcanic crater. One step at a time, I remind myself. Which is, of course, how all pilgrimages begin and end. With one step.
I am in Rome, where pilgrims have come for centuries, and with the Jubilee of Mercy, I am one of many pilgrims making their way to the city today. Wherever I was, signs pointed the way to the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica, and groups of pilgrims swept past.
My pilgrimage began yesterday, with a visit to the church of St. Augustine, where I lit candles in front of the tomb of Augustine’s mother St. Monica and prayed for my parish, long staffed by the Augustinian order. Today I made my way to St. Peter’s to visit the tomb of St. Peter and to walk through the Holy Door — and, I confess, to hear my youngest son’s choir sing at the Mass for the Vigil of Corpus Christi being offered at the main altar in the basilica.
The line to get into St. Peter’s was long, the temperature approaching 90, and there was not a dot of shade to be had, but no one was complaining. When a stray cool breeze would waft past, people would sigh in relief. There was much gratitude for small mercies, long before we walked through the door.
I walked with a long stream of faithful through the door on the far right of the great basilica’s steps, our hands reaching out to brush the images inscribed on it. After walking almost 20 miles over two days, it was a joy to walk through the Holy Door into the vast cool of St. Peter’s, the joyful gentle hum of pilgrim’s voices speeding their steps up the ramp and through.
Afterwards, I stood on the top of the basilica steps and watched the groups of pilgrims come through the square, many of them carrying crosses in procession, stopping to pray three times as they approached the Holy Door.
In announcing this extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis encouraged us to “constantly contemplate the mystery of mercy.” As one way of doing this, we are encouraged to make brief pilgrimages to walk through the Holy Doors that are open in cathedrals and shrines throughout the world. As I made my way through Rome, I was reminded at every turn of the ways in which mercy always surrounds us. The cool water pouring forth from street corner fountains, the gift of a good map. People willing to point out the way.
“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy,” opens the papal declaration of the Year of Mercy, so it seems apt for me to make this walk on the vigil of the Feast of Corpus Christi. As the choir sang the communion hymn, “Ave verum corpus,” I looked up at the face of Christ. “Miserere mei,” have mercy on me, came the music billowing out of the choir box, layer upon layer, echoing the depth and richness of God’s mercy.
Mercy swirls around us always, on pilgrimage or not, in ordinary years as well as extraordinary ones. It is held up before us on the altar, received into our hands and hearts, and made present in the People of God, who, too, are the very Body of Christ. I look now into the faces of those around me, and see Christ, the face of God’s mercy.
To listen: William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, from 1605, performed here by the Tallis Scholars.
To pray: Pope Francis’ Prayer for the Jubilee of Mercy
Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father, and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him. Show us your face and we will be saved.
Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money; the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things; made Peter weep after his betrayal, and assured paradise to the repentant thief.
Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us, the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman: “If you knew the gift of God!”
You are the visible face of the invisible Father, of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy: let the Church be your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified.
You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error: let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.
Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing, so that the Jubilee of Mercy may be a year of grace from the Lord, and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm, may bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed, and restore sight to the blind.
We ask this through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Mercy, you who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.