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June 23, 2010

I was at St. Peter’s Basilica yesterday afternoon – together with the participants of the summer course on Ecumenical and Interreligious Movements. I’ve been here so many times before and it’s good to be back – after 15 years. There were a lot of people – but it was difficult to distinguish the tourists from the pilgrims. Well, one can be both.

The most moving experience for me was going below the basilica and visiting the tomb of St. Peter and the other popes, especially John Paul II and John XXIII – my favorite popes. I said prayer before their tombs. Unfortunately, taking pictures of the tombs was prohibited.

I believe that what matters most is visiting the tomb of St. Peter and the popes after a long journey, and not just seeing the beautiful basilica and the works of art of Michaelangelo and Bernini.

In the middle ages, there were three major centers of pilgrimage – Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela (Spain). Pilgrims would often go on a long journey – usually on foot – to reach these places. Now, it is easier and faster to get to these places. And it is difficult to distinguish the tourists and the pilgrims. At least at the Santiago de Compostela only those who have journeyed on foot (at least 100 km) or by bicycle (at least 200 km) can get the pilgrim’s certificate. This is what I will be doing next month – journeying barefoot along the 800 km trail of the Camino Frances starting at the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains and ending at the cathedral where St. James is believed to be entombed.

In a pilgrimage, what matters is not just the destination but the journey. The journey is both inner/spiritual and physical/geographical. The long physical/geographical journey moves the pilgrim to an inner/spiritual journey. This means moving at a slow, relax pace. There is no need to rush.