The first pilgrimage that I ever did was exactly 60 years ago when I climbed Croagh Patrick. My sister and her family had gone to live in Westport and taken some of us younger ones down for a couple of weeks’ holiday. I turned 11 in the middle of July so my sister and her husband decided I could accompany them on the ascent on ‘reek Sunday’ which takes place in the last Sunday in July, although in those days it was a nighttime ascent, starting at midnight. At that age, I was more caught up in the adventure of the pilgrimage rather than any spiritual aspect but now, 60 years later, I see a lot of commonality between that pilgrimage and what we are currently undertaking in the Synodal Pathway process.
Firstly, there was an element of preparation. In the case of Croagh Patrick, it was a matter of going off to the nearest words to cut a couple of stout sticks to assist in the climb and sorting out what footwear we would need. In the case of the Synodal Pathway, there was advance reading to be done and the gathering of a small parish team to work out how to best take part in the process locally.
Then there was the journey itself. In the case of Croagh Patrick, it involved quite an arduous climb made more difficult by the fact that it was carried out in total darkness. The Synodal Pathway has not been quite so arduous in physical terms but it has certainly been demanding both in time and in mental energy, thinking about and discussing the various issues. Just like the night climb of Croagh Patrick, it can be difficult at times to see exactly where we are going and where to take the next step but there is an underlying confidence that we will complete the journey.
Prayer is a very big element of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage with three stations on the way, involving the recitation of seven Our Fathers, seven Hail Marys and a Creed at each one and the recitation of fifteen Our Fathers, fifteen Hail Marys and a Creed whilst walking around the outside of the oratory on the summit. Finally, there is Holy Mass in the oratory. Prayer must equally be a substantial element of our Synodal Pathway. It is only too easy to get caught up with the workshops and discussions and other activities and forget about prayer but prayer must lie at the heart of everything we do as Catholics and Christians. We should take our example from Jesus on his journey and how often he paused for prayer.
One difference between the two journeys is that we did reach the summit of our Croagh Patrick journey with a truly wonderful feeling of achievement and inspiration from the wonderful views over Clew Bay from the top of the mountain. We have not yet reached our destination on the Synodal Pathway but we can be confident that we will get there and that we will eventually experience similar wonderful feelings of achievement and inspiration.
The final part of the Croagh Patrick is the descent, which presents its own physical challenges. We are some way yet from completing our Synodal Pathway journey but when we do reach our destination we will have a return journey to complete; it won’t be enough just to identify the things we need to do to achieve the church that God wants for Ireland, we will have to get on with implementing those changes and that will surely involve its own challenges. Just like any pilgrimage, however, we have to believe and trust that the Holy Spirit will be with us every step of the way.