A colleague who recently returned from World Youth Day commented that the words ‘pilgrim’ and ‘pilgrimage’ gradually entered the vocabulary of many Sydney-siders during the event. He found it interesting that the media too began referring to the WYD participants as pilgrims rather than visitors or tourists.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, a pilgrim is a person who undertakes a journey to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion. A pilgrimage is a journey to a shrine or other sacred place. Christians are pilgrims who follow in the footsteps of Jesus on the journey through life to their eternal home.

The idea of pilgrimage is central to most major world religions. A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to places which remind us of our origins, our sacred stories and beliefs. Australia's indigenous people have a tradition of pilgrimage or "walkabout" around their tribal lands, visiting sacred sites and retelling their dreaming stories in song and ritual.

Pilgrimage is a key element of the Hebrew tradition as described in the book of Leviticus: "It shall be a jubilee for you when every one of you shall return to your own property, every one of you to your family estate" (Lev 25:10). The jubilee was a time when the Hebrews would return home and renew relationships with family, tribe, land and God.

The purpose of a pilgrimage is to reclaim one’s spiritual heritage, to journey deep within one’s heart, to restore relationships, and to experience the welcome and forgiveness of God. For this to happen, pilgrims need to be open to new experiences and encounters that can renew and inspire them.

While pilgrimage can be a deeply personal experience, pilgrims are rarely alone, for they journey, share and pray with others along the way. Many of the returning WYD pilgrims testify to the fact that the companionship and support of their fellow travellers was what sustained them on the journey when things went wrong and the going got tough.

Pilgrim staffs were presented to groups from Brisbane attending WYD. Pilgrims have always carried a staff – a strong, straight stick which is a silent companion, something to lean on when weary, prodding the ground ahead to alert of danger, keeping the bearer upright and steady.

The staff is a symbol of a journey together in faith and reminds the pilgrims that they are people who walk in faith and hope and love towards their heavenly home. It is a reminder also that Jesus accompanies pilgrims on the journey, keeping them upright and steady on the path of justice and peace.

I was struck by these profound words about pilgrimage from Irfan Yusuf, a Muslim writer based in Sydney, in a recent edition of ‘Eureka Street’:

“Pilgrims travel in God's path. They know that in the very act of travelling, they will learn things about themselves that they could never learn in books or in attending sermons at their local church or mosque. The inconveniences pilgrims face — delays and queues and expense and unfamiliar surrounds — are all part of the pilgrimage experience.

Pilgrims overcome these obstacles by relying on each other. They learn that they cannot undertake this journey on their own. The process of pilgrimage helps foster a greater feeling of community among both pilgrims and their hosts.”

Elizabeth Harrington