When a priest takes a pilgrimage with his parish something special happens – answered prayers, surprising graces, and spiritual bonds that last a lifetime.
Father Jonathan Meyer, the pastor of All Saints Parish in Guilford, Ind., is well aware of the blessings of pilgrimages. He leads an annual Holy Land pilgrimage to convert and connect his parishioners.
“Taking a pilgrimage with your parish priest helps unite the parish,” he said.
“When I look out at my congregation on a given Sunday, I see the faces of individuals who prayed with me in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Galilee,” Father Meyer continued. “When people have walked, prayed, and entered into the sacred sites of the Holy Land it deeply affects their spiritual life and engagement here at the parish.”
Over the past few years, more than 200 parishioners have traveled with Fr. Meyer to the Holy Land. He finds that parishioners on pilgrimage “expand their horizons and understanding of our Catholic faith.” After all, it’s hard to walk in the footsteps of Jesus without growing closer to Him and his Word.
“My hope, and my prayer first and foremost is their conversion, a deeper intimate relationship with Christ,” said Father Meyer. “I also desire that they will gain a stronger understanding of theology, architecture, the Bible, and our faith traditions.”
Jennifer Diekhoff of North Vernon, Ind., went on one of Father Meyer’s parish pilgrimages to the Holy Land. She said traveling with a parish is different than taking an individual pilgrimage.
“The parish pilgrimage gave us the opportunity to be truly available and ‘all in’ for each other during this life-changing experience,” said Diekhoff. “The people you are surrounded by during a pilgrimage are facilitators of change that allow you to externally express what is internally occurring to you, but at the same time allows you to witness their transformation during this journey.”
Diekhoff enjoyed sharing a common bond with her fellow parish pilgrims.
“A pilgrimage is meant to be shared,” she continued. “The more you share on a pilgrimage, the greater the internal transformation, the greater the interior growth, the greater the graces and rewards received.”
She also found that the pilgrimage helped her grow in the love and knowledge of her Catholic faith.
“The pilgrimage to the Holy Land reset my moral compass with truth, which is a hard walk in today's society,” said Diekhoff. “But once the truth is discovered, there is no denying it.”
Realizing that not everyone can go on a pilgrimage, Father Meyer makes sure his entire parish is involved in the pilgrimage experience. Prior to leaving, parishioners are encouraged to write prayer petitions they want Father Meyer to take with him to the Holy Land.
“Every day in the Holy Land, we include these intentions in the petitions at Holy Mass,” Father Meyer said.
The petitions travel with the group until they reach their last destination, which is usually at Bethany where Lazarus was raised from the dead. At this final Mass in the Holy Land, Father Meyer places all the petitions on an outside altar, entrusting them to the Virgin Mary, he said. The petitions wrote by his parishioner’s own hands have traveled with him and their fellow parishioners to all the sacred sites important in the life of Christ.
“I’ve seen again and again that these prayer petitions are answered,” he said. “Lives are changed through petitionary prayer.”
Father Meyer lists his pilgrimage itinerary in the church bulletin prior to departure so people can follow along with him on the journey. He also posts pictures to social media giving the folks back home a “virtual pilgrimage,” he said. Often, he brings back rosaries dipped in the Jordan River for parishioners who did not get to go on the trip. They receive a special keepsake of the Holy Land even if they weren’t able to travel.
“I have found again and again that the relationships that are forged on a pilgrimage are life-long,” said Father Meyer.
It also enhances his own faith life as a priest, he said. He has made a Holy Land pilgrimage a priority in his life. By pilgrimaging so often, Father Meyer said he is able to enter into deeper prayer with each visit.
“Once the newness of the Holy Land wears off, one can enter deeply into the spiritual mysteries that are there,” Father Meyer said. “I often find myself getting lost in prayer sitting in churches as my pilgrims scurry around taking pictures.”
Those same pilgrims come back with renewed faith and desire for parish life, he said.
“Pilgrimages, and I believe, pilgrimages to the same location on a regular basis, bring a common experience and a zeal to parish life.”