The experience of going on pilgrimage has long shaped the Catholic imagination. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council speaks of the Church as the Pilgrim People of God (cf. Lumen Gentium, 48-51), establishing an analogy with ancient Israel journeying through the wilderness of the desert before entering into the Promised Land. From the earliest days of the infant Church, Christians have made it a habit of visiting local shrines and holy places, particularly the tombs of martyrs. In the Middle Ages, more elaborate pilgrimages routes developed to different shrines throughout Europe and to the Holy Land.
Throughout the generations, countless souls have chosen to follow Christ in many and varied ways to become saints. They discerned God’s call to become priests and religious or to sanctify themselves in the family life. Among the most unique ways of following the Shepherd’s voice (Jn 10:27), are those few souls who have chosen the life of a perpetual pilgrim. These “fools for Christ” spend their lives in continual prayer and sacrifice as wayfarers from one shrine to the next living off alms.
I first learned of this vocation when I read the life of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, whose feast the Church celebrates on April 16th.
Benedict did not discover his unique vocation all at once. He only found it after making many different attempts and meeting with many failures to become a monk. He was the eldest of 15 children born in 1748 in Amettes, France, near to the city of Boulogne. As a boy he was sent to pursue his studies with his uncle who was a parish priest. When he reached the age of 18 he decided to enter the famous monastery at La Trappe. There, the first of many disappointments awaited him. After it didn’t work out with the Trappists he tried to join the Carthusians, and then the Cistercians.
These three trials of his vocation revealed that he was not suited to community life. Perhaps he was too eccentric in his piety. Whatever it was, Benedict had no ill will and resolved to make a pilgrimage to Rome by walking the whole way and living off of alms. Afterward, he planned to see if any Italian monasteries would take him.
After arriving in Rome, however, Benedict made no further attempts at the monastic life. During the journey his true vocation had dawned on him. He would not shut himself away in a cloister but would make the whole world his monastery, embarking on a life of pilgrimages which would lead him to the principle shrines of Europe. He was 22 years old and for the next three years he walked from shrine to shrine in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain–to Loreto, Assisi, Bari, Einsiedeln, Aix and Compostela.
He wore his old novice’s tunic with a rosary around his neck with its brass crucifix showing on his breast. An old sack hung over his back holding the simple luggage of a breviary, a copy of Imitation of Christ, and a book of the Gospels. He would accept hospitality when offered for a place to spend the night but more often than not he slept under the stars. He only begged when absolutely necessary and often would find food in refuse heaps. Much of the little he was given in alms he would give away to the poor. There are reports that during these years of wandering that he miraculously multiplied bread for some poor people and cured an invalid.
In 1774 he ceased his pilgrimages and decided to remain in Rome. By night he slept amid the ruins of the Colosseum and by day he would pray in the various churches of the city, especially those where the Forty Hours Devotion was being held. During the final nine years of his life he made only one annual pilgrimage to his favorite shrine, the Holy House of Loreto.
Benedict Joseph Labre died on April 16, 1783, the Wednesday of Holy Week, at the young age of 35, weighed down by his constant works of penance. Word spread quickly throughout Rome with people relaying to one another that “the saint is dead.” By July of the same year, 136 miraculous cures were certified and credited to his intercession. He was canonized a century after his death in 1883.
In reflecting on this remarkable story after first discovering it, I relegated Benedict’s life to that of a singular medieval eccentric, even though he was surely a saint. This was, I finally learned, a mistaken presumption. As a priest I love spending my “vacation” time away from the parish by leading pilgrimages. In the many shrines I have been privileged to visit throughout the world, every so often I come across a perpetual pilgrim who is like Benedict Joseph Labre. This is a phenomenon that does indeed exist in the Christian world, perhaps more commonly in the east. The 19th-century spiritual Orthodox classic titled The Way of the Pilgrim details a Russian monk’s wandering across the to various shrines while praying the Jesus Prayer. Though rare, there are even in our own day a few chosen souls who are drawn to this life.
I was recently able to spend time with one such soul. His name is George Walter, but is called “Pilgrim George” by all who know him. Since 1970 he has walked over 40,000 miles across the globe, visiting all the principal Christian shrines in a spirit of prayer and sacrifice. Now 80, Pilgrim George lives the life of a hermit in a small poustinia on the grounds of a Byzantine-Catholic monastery in western Pennsylvania. There I celebrated Mass for him and was able to ask him all about his extraordinary life, which is detailed at length in a 2019 memoir he published entitled The 40 Thousand Mile Man
When I left him, I kept thinking that I had met the “Benedict Joseph Labre of our times.”
Pilgrim George comes from a devout family who supported his desire to become a priest when he entered the seminary of the Diocese of Pittsburgh at a young age. After his ordination to the diaconate he discerned that it wasn’t God’s will for him to complete his formation and serve the Church as a priest. His spiritual life was dry at the time and he felt drawn to come to know Jesus in a more personal way apart from his studies at the seminary. He was granted a leave of absence and soon decided to apply for a dispensation to be returned to the lay state so he could be free to seek God’s will on his own.
To help with this discernment he resolved to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As a young man he wanted to challenge himself and “earn” the right to pray at the holy places of our salvation, so he resolved to walk. He set off on foot from Pennsylvania to New Orleans, and then after a boat ride across the Atlantic he walked across Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece and Turkey visiting all the great shrines of these nations before finally arriving in the Holy Land. Over the course of this 4,000-mile journey, he discovered his vocation. Like St. Benedict Joseph Labre before him, Pilgrim George was to be a living embodiment of the Church as the Pilgrim People of God.
No doubt, over the course of his 36,000 more miles since, countless souls have beheld the curious sight of this man walking along the road with a long beard, a robe made of jean patches, an icon around his neck and a staff in his hand mounted by a crucifix. What did the elite of Silicon Valley think when they saw him journeying along the Pacific coast visiting the Spanish missions of California? What did those simple Russian laborers think as they saw him crossing the frozen fields of Siberia? How about the high-ranking clergymen in Rome when Pilgrim George was granted an audience with Pope St. John Paul II? Even the Muslims could not have been indifferent to the site. The men in Turkey who threw him to the ground, broke his staff in two and beat him while screaming “this land belongs to Muhammad!” certainly weren’t.
To all of these, Pilgrim George has given a stark but necessary reminder by his radical way of life that on this earth “we have no lasting city” (Heb 13:14). Just as the Israelites journeyed through the desert to the Promised Land, we members of the New Israel, the Pilgrim People of God in the Church, must journey through the desert of this world to reach the eternal Promised Land won for us by Christ’s Easter Victory.
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