A pilgrimage is defined as a journey to a sacred spot for religious reasons.  Figuratively speaking, pilgrimages have been in existence “since Adam was a boy.”  Muslims travel to Mecca.  Buddhists go to Lumbini, where Buddha was born, Sikhs visit various “gurdward” or temples and Christians visit shrines in many places and countries.  I have been on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Lourdes and Knock.  I have always traveled

By land, air or sea – with feet well off the ground.  But the pilgrimage to Midland was different.  As the African tribe with which I worked translated our expression, “on foot,” we would go “with feet.”  Sounds more accurate to me!

How it all came about

As far as I was personally concerned, this is what happened.  One morning I got a phone call from a man named Bob Brookes from Kitchener.  He said he would like to come to see me about “something.”  I often get calls like that and I usually try to find out, by judicious questioning, what the “something” might be.  Bob said it was to discuss the forthcoming Pro-Life Pilgrimage to Midland.  He suggested that it would be a good idea if I became a pilgrim.  I expressed interests and enthusiasm until he divulged the fact that we would walk to Midland and it would take five days.  I suddenly remembered that I had a lot of engagements during those five days.  I couldn’t name any of them but I was sure that I was fully committed.  After a stony silence on the other end of the line, Bob said that he would come to see me all the same.

No escape

Bob Brookes is one of those people who not only “enthuse” you but “infuse” you.  I admitted that whatever vague engagements I had could be changed.  By the time he had expostulated on the benefits to me personally – both spiritual and physical – and to the whole Pro-Life Movement I felt like a horse champing the bit and pawing the ground.  But when he got down to specifics my ardour began to cool.  “Do you have a sleeping bag, Father?” “No, Bob.  I always sleep either in bed or at my office desk.  It’s at least thirty years since I slept in a bag.” “Well, its high time you started again.” “Do you have walking shoes, Father?” “No, Bob, I don’t walk.  I always drive.” “That’s why you look the way you do.  You need a lot of exercise.” “Are you a good cook, Father?” “No, Bob.  I can just about make a cup of tea if somebody boils the water and hands me a tea bag.”  “That’s all right.  We’ll see that you don’t starve.  Just keep your collar on and look hungry and somebody will feed you.  We’ll need you for saying Mass so we’ll keep you half alive!” There was no escaping.  Every time I tried to make an excuse he eyed me with the gaze of a predatory hawk about to swoop on a helpless sparrow.  His glance seemed to say, “You’re not the man we thought you were.” And so I was committed – at least to some extent!

The sleeping bag

The first thing I had to do was get a sleeping bag.  Dan McCash said he had a lovely one.  I called round and Dan produced the bag from the basement.  It was bright red.  Dan remarked that sleeping in this bag would be the nearest I would ever get to being a Monsignor.  He then went into a scientific explanation of how the bag worked.  You didn’t need to wear anything when you slept in the McCash bag.  The combination of your “natural body heat” and the stuffing which lined the bag made the climate just perfect.  In fact Dan suggested that I would be so comfortable that I might even lose some marks “Up Above.”  But of that later!

The pilgrimage in action

The Pilgrimage started from different points on Sunday, August 10th.  I was doing ministry at Streetsville on that day.  On Monday I drove from Streetsville to meet the pilgrims at Orangeville.  They had slept in a garden behind a restaurant.  I celebrated Mass for them and after breakfast they began walking to the Cistercian Monastery miles from there.  I drove as I couldn’t carry the car.  Needless to say I got there hours before they did so I decided to do some praying, eating and sleeping.  The hardships of the pilgrimage were  beginning to tell on me!  That night the pilgrims slept in the open – not in a monastery garden but in a monastery field.  I slept very comfortably in the barn – the horse was on holidays!  We arose early in the morning and attended the Office and Mass in the Monastery Chapel. It was really beautiful to hear the Divine Office recited with such reverence – with “unhurried pace,” followed by concelebrated Mass of equal devotion.  It set the mood for the day.  I sneaked into the visitors’ dining room and had eggs for breakfast, while the “common folk” lit their camp fires and boiled their pots of all kinds of beverages and messes of various varieties of curds and whey and porridges.

Bob always had a solution

But what was I to do with the car?  Bob had the answer.  His very attractive daughter Tracey with friend of similar ilk named Shirley, was to drive a van with all the luggage – tents, sleeping bags, food boxes etc., to the next stopping place where we were to spend the night.  It was a park somewhere near Barrie.  I would follow them in my car, leave it there, drive back with them in the van and then proceed to “hoof it” with the pilgrims.  The nearest I have come to being a marathon runner in the past twenty years might be summed up as follows: Walk from home to car, enter car, drive to office, alight from car, climb five steps, enter office and sit down at desk.  This procedure is reversed at 5 p.m. sharp each afternoon.  This will give the reader some idea of how “fit” I am for a 20 mile or so hike per day on a dusty road in the August heat.  But it is amazing how the human frame can adapt to varying circumstances.  With the singing of rather jaunty hymns, the reciting of rosaries and the telling of jokes, I was soon into the swing of things and was tempted at times to break into, “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”  Looking at some of the pilgrims who were even older than I am I felt ashamed.  They had walked for two days and refused to ride in the vans which kept along with us in case of accidents or illness.  Now and then, when the going got tough and the tough got going I bent down to tie my lace and slipped into the rear van and snoozed for an hour or so.

The camp

I don’t know how many miles I walked – but it was less than everybody else.  By now I had no doubt about the fact that we were doing the Pilgrimage “with feet.”  I have never before been so conscious of the fact that my body ends “with feet.”  They were sore, a little swollen and very tired.  When we eventually arrived at the Park, everything was there because the girls had unloaded the van in the morning.  Tents were erected and fires lighted and tea and coffee were brewed in a very short time.  There were more types and sizes of stoves than I had ever seen.  It all looked “like an army set in battle array.”  Everybody had food except me.  So, following Bob’s instructions, I donned my collar and began walking around the park greeting everyone and being fed like a stray dog.  By the time I had visited four or five tents I was fully “fed and watered.”  I made a mental note of the people who had staved off my hunger so that I would not visit them for breakfast!  Then news came that there was a lake and a swimming pool and showers about a mile away.  The crowd took off like a bunch of bats out of Hell.  I followed, not “with feet” but “with wheels” and after a shower I began to feel human again.  

The camp fire

By the time I got back to our base, a camp fire was blazing and people were sitting around it singing.  We spent an hour or so, chanting, telling jokes and laughing.  Then at about 10 p.m. Father Bill Truze, a wonderful young priest who is the chief inspiration of the Pilgrimage, clapped his hands for silence.  We said evening prayer together, sang a hymn and went in the direction of our tents.

If you have tears – prepare to shed them next month when I continue this epic.  Under the heading, “A Night to Remember” I shall relate the story of my first experience in 30 years, “Awake in a sleeping bag.”