On Saturday 26 January, a mini-pilgrimage to Morpeth in Northumberland had been planned to honour the local saint, Robert of Newminster. As many people know most of England has been covered with snow – and more was forecast on the Friday. Right up until the last minute, it was touch-and-go but, in the end, it was decided to take the risk and run the event for those who managed to come. And around 150 people turned out – one from Edinburgh!
So what drew them – and what does it have to do with RCIA?
Many parishes refer to their RCIA process as a Journey in Faith – which does speak of something that is about movement – a quest, if you like. But the reality is that the meetings generally take place indoors – usually in parish halls. And yet, from the experience of the people who came to Morpeth, there is something about a real journey – a pilgrimage – that is deeply attractive – even to turning out in temperatures barely above freezing and thick snow!
The mini-pilgrimages are designed to offer an alternative to the major trips planned for the Year of Faith to places like the Holy Land and Rome . They are a way of ensuring that people who would not be able to afford either the time or the money to make an overseas pilgrimage are able to go to local places of religious significance. They are also a more active way of telling the Christian story of these islands to those who want to know more about the community they are preparing to join – or even just thinking about it as a possibility for the future. Robert of Newminster, for example, was a Cistercian of the twelfth century who was abbot of a daughter community of Fountains Abbey established at Newminster, now on the outskirts of the town of Morpeth. The pilgrimage gave people a chance to learn more about the role of the monastic communities whose lives of asceticism, prayer and hospitality gave so much to the people of the Middle Ages – and to realise that this ministry continues to the present day. It also encouraged them to reflect on the fact that they were called to continue that work – not, perhaps, as deeply as Robert and his fellow-monks, but in ways appropriate to their own lives.
For those who were not physically able to walk the route, a “virtual” version was on offer (thanks to PowerPoint!) – with “stopping points” for personal reflection and a short response chosen from the psalms… drawing people into the prayer book of the Church used by monastic communities and others for generations. Many people were surprised and gently amused to see just how apt some of the psalms were – praising God for frost and snow – and praying to be freed from miry bogs and set on firm ground!
The other pilgrimages are to places associated with some of the local northern saints – Bede, Cuthbert, Aidan and Hilda and the next one honours St John Boste, one of the forty Catholic martyrs which will be an occasion to reflect on the traumas on all sides during the Reformation and the sacrifices many people made – and still make – for their faith.
The pilgrimages also give those journeying towards full communion with the Church an opportunity to meet the wider parish community – and others from across the diocese – to hear their stories of faith and to pray with them. On this occasion, pilgrims came back from their walk to very welcome home-made soup and rolls – a reminder of the hospitality the monks just up the road would have offered and a practical way for local parishioners to offer a similar welcome.
Information about the mini-pilgrimages is on the Hexham and Newcastle diocese website: www.rcdhn.org.uk. You can also follow links to Prayer Walks which might offer ideas for similar ventures in your locality. For us, the prayer is that next time, we are not contending with snow and ice – but just maybe that bit of adversity added something to the joy and enthusiasm of those who made that particular journey of faith!