On Pilgrimage

“Saint Peter’s Basilica, Sant’Angelo bridge, by night, Rome, Italy” by Jebulon [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons


This time last week, I was on pilgrimage in Italy. One of my favorite parts of my job is leading trips to places in important to our Catholic faith. While you might assume it’s my favorite because it means traveling to Europe, seeing the Pope, and eating good food, it’s actually my favorite for a different reason.

I get to experience people experiencing. I get to pray with people as they climb the Holy Stairs on their knees for the first time. I get to see people reach out to touch the Pope as he drives by. I get to witness the joy of people praying in front of the Crib of Our Lord and weep as they see the relics of the Passion.

Each time I take a group over to Rome, I’m shaken out of my own jadedness towards the Eternal City. Anyone who knows me knows I can’t express my love for Rome enough. But familiarity breeds complacency. As the trip approaches, I calm the jitters and answer the questions from people who have never traveled abroad. Both their excitement and concern reminds me of the importance of pilgrimage – something that I fear I take for granted.  Packing for Rome is little different than packing for the East Coast for me, and I can almost do it in my sleep.  I need the reminders of the pilgrims in my charge to awaken me.

That is why I love to experience people experiencing Rome. It was my tenth time hopping on an airplane to Rome (and two of those trips were extended stays for studies), and although each trip has always involves seeing something new, I mainly revisit places I have been dozens and dozens of times. Last week, as a few of us were overlooking Assisi from the overlook above the city, awaiting the sunset, someone asked, me, “Does it ever get old?”  I could happily sigh: No. Each time, I go there anew—because I go there with people seeing it for the first time.  I was at Mass with permanent deacons who had never set foot in Europe—and now were assisting at Mass in the great basilicas of Rome.  I witnessed people praying at the tombs of their baptismal saints. I saw people gaze at the Sistine Chapel for the first time.

These experiences are an important part of one’s faith formation. As director of adult formation, I offer speaker series, write bible studies, and film catechetical videos for social media. But these pilgrimages provide formation in a way sitting in a classroom or listening to a podcast never can.  Touching the Catholic faith as one does on pilgrimage is life-changing.  I was abundantly blessed to have parents who realized importance of this, even to the point of taking me out of school for two weeks so that I could travel to France and Italy.  At only fifteen years old, I stepped into St. Peter’s Square for the first time. And although I didn’t know it then, my life would never be the same, thanks to that Piazza.

Not everyone has the chance to travel to Europe, and I know that for many, something like seeing the Pope or praying at these sites might always remain on the bucket list. That is why I must never, ever take it for granted. I must never become jaded at the sight of Michelangelo’s dome, rising over the rooftops of Rome.  I must never tire of walking through the Forum on Via Sacra, my steps tracing the steps of our first Pope and St. Paul.  I must never lose the joy I had that very first time I walked into the loving embrace of Bernini’s colonnade.

That is why I’ll do anything to help people go on pilgrimage. That is why I bring others. Because I have to experience it for the first time—again.


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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